Like most soccer players, Charles Micunek dreamed of representing the United States in international competition when he was growing up.
That's why he jumped at the opportunity to join a group of Division III athletes who gained all-region status during the 2013 collegiate season on a tour of Brazil in early June. In addition to wearing a uniform emblazoned with USA across the chest, the Albion College senior captain from Granger, Ind., was awestruck as he experienced the country in the final days leading up to its role as host of the World Cup.
"My goal growing up as a kid was to play for the (U.S. Men's) National Team, but to fulfill my goal at a scale I could play at – for my talent level – was something I had dreamed about," Micunek said. "It was one of the best feelings of my entire life when I put the jersey on. To represent your country, to be an ambassador, to show we have a love for the sport they love so much is a beautiful thing.
"I don't have words to express how the vibe was," Micunek said. "They shut down streets to let the people flow on Copacabana Beach. It was a massive overload of people. We bumped into people from London and other South American countries and the atmosphere was electric. And the Brazilians were out of control, too. Brazil is a country that cares about one thing – football. They live and breathe it."
Adjusting to the Brazilian climate
The U.S. squad met in Orlando May 27-28 for two days of training before departing for Brazil. The Americans didn't have any time to adjust to the tropical conditions as it squared off against a Paulista youth team that serves as a feeder to the professional roster just hours after getting off the plane.
Micunek said he gained an appreciation for the travel conditions professional athletes experience and for players like Jozy Altidore who suffered a hamstring injury many believe to have been partly caused from running in the heat and humidity.
"I've never had an experience to fly somewhere and then play," Micunek said. "Our flight to Sao Paulo was delayed and we ended up arriving at 6 a.m. on May 29. We took a 2-3 hour bus ride to our hotel, arriving at 10 or 11 and we played later that afternoon. We had guys putting in a 90-minute shift that afternoon.
"Travel takes the life out of you and you have to be prepared for the task at hand," he added. "The fatigue happens so quickly."
The Americans played a scoreless first half with Paulista, but they tired in the second 45 minutes and walked off the pitch with a 2-1 setback. The Americans earned victories in the contests it played against Valinhos, Campinas and the Rio Naval Academy.
The matches attracted great crowds of enthusiastic fans.
"The pitches were gorgeous," Micunek said. "They were park fields with stands for fans with professional benches for the teams. The locals came out and they were hooting and hollering for the entire squad.
"We were up 2-1 against Valinhos at halftime," Micunek recalled. "Our coach told us to make sure we didn't give up another goal because the locals will get them right back in the game and we would be in a position we didn't want to be in. It was difficult to hear cheering in a different language and they were loud – they just cheer."
A launching pad for his senior season at Albion
Micunek said he bonded with his 14 teammates like brothers and he expects to communicate with them throughout the season.
When he returns to Albion in August, Micunek expects to use the international experience as a launching pad for his final season at the collegiate level. He has big goals for the 2014 campaign, the least of which is leading the Britons to a berth in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament.
"Playing against top level talent was a huge draw for me," Micunek said. "My goal for the upcoming season is to be an All-American and that's going to be a long road. That's why I did this experience – to gauge myself."