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Jun 4, 2014

Here, there and everywhere

When Geoff Cameron signed on to play for Premier League club Stoke City two summers ago, his life took an abrupt turn. Gone, suddenly, was his settled existence in Houston, playing for the Dynamo. Gone were his casual Frisbee golf sessions, his afternoons by the pool and his leisurely bicycle rambles around Buffalo Bayou. The day after signing, Cameron was on a plane bound for England and his new home: a hotel room far from his family. His new "family" was composed of unfamiliar teammates and a species of football fans he'd never encountered -- the boisterous Brits, blood-loyal to Stoke City and inclined to bellow with a tribal and almost terrifying passion inside the Britannia Stadium:

I'm City 'til I die.
I'm City 'til I die.
I know I am, I'm sure I am.
I'm City 'til I die.
Geoff Cameron! Geoff Cameron! Geoff Cameron!

"It was all so mentally exhausting, so physically draining," Cameron says of his first few months in Stoke-on-Trent.

Cameron is not in a unique position. Of the 23 players named to coach Jurgen Klinsmann's World Cup roster, 13 make their living on foreign soil, including Liga MX, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. Four play in the Prem, including goalie Tim Howard (Everton), striker Jozy Altidore (Sunderland) and backup goalie Brad Guzan (Aston Villa). This raises the question: Can such a far-flung contingent muster the esprit de corps it will need to fight its way out of arguably the toughest group in Brazil? Can the scattered Yanks attain a shadow of the solidarity that Spain rode to glory in 2010, relying on a starting lineup largely drawn from two Spanish teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid?

Geoff Cameron's Premier League experience will be vital in organizing a green back line.
Geoff Cameron has been holding down a starting job for Stoke City in the Premier League. Now he's back with his U.S. teammates getting ready for the World Cup in Brazil.

Perhaps, if the Americans can build on what appears to be a growing tradition of fraternal, foreign aid among U.S. players. The latest in line is Cameron, who has been learning the ropes in England from Howard, the 35-year-old keeper who is set to make his third World Cup appearance. Howard has been playing in the U.K. since 2003 and by now is keenly attuned to the differences between haggis (a savory pudding made of sheep's innards) and spotted dick (a dessert pudding rich in dried fruit). He let Cameron, then 27, crash at his house when the rising defender grew weary of hotel living. Howard eventually took Cameron furniture shopping.

Howard was shepherded into British life by former U.S. keeper Kasey Keller, who played for five English teams from 1992 to 2008; Keller, in turn, was tutored by former U.S. midfielder John Harkes, who was the first Yank to land in the EPL. When he signed with Sheffield Wednesday in 1990, The New York Times was so befuddled by English football that it reported that Harkes was playing for Sheffield on Wednesday.

"When you're a pro, you're constantly making adjustments," says Harkes, who was on the 1990 and '94 Cup teams and is now an MLS announcer for SiriusXM. "That's what they pay you for."

Harkes points out that Brazil, arguably the favorite to win the World Cup, is made up almost entirely of players from disparate European squads. "And that won't stop them," he says.

Scattered about an area smaller than Iowa, Howard, Guzan and Cameron are doing their best to weave the sort of kinship that keeps opponents' shots out of the net. They meet often for meals and the occasional pint; Howard and Cameron even caught Drake's recent concert in Manchester. Last fall, Howard and Cameron cooked up a Thanksgiving dinner that featured Howard's cinnamon-infused sweet potatoes, his grandmother's secret recipe.

"In an ideal world, you'd have players getting together all the time," says Stewart Cotterill, author of "Team Psychology in Sports" and a British psychologist who advises pro soccer and cricket teams. "They would be learning about one another: how they pass the ball, how they respond to different situations on the pitch. But that's not easily done in football today."

So the Prem trio is doing what Cotterill sees as the next best thing: spending blocks of time together. "Enough that they can relax and be honest with each other," he says.

Tim Howard had one of the best seasons of his career for Everton in 2013-14. His play will be crucial for the United States if it hopes to make it out of the group of death.

On a recent May evening, that honesty and ease are on full display when Guzan arrives at Howard's lavish suburban home to carpool to Manchester for dinner. "Brad is the worst-dressed guy on the whole team," says Howard, clapping his reserve on the back. "But for a guy who's 6-7 and looks like a polar bear, he dresses pretty well." (He is actually 6-foot-4, and Howard is 6-3.)

"Dude, why do you dress and act like you're 22?" Guzan counters, referring to the blue leather chaps Howard has recently purchased.

"You're just jealous," Howard says, smirking.

Cameron arrives late, with the enthusiasm of a freshman on frat row during rush. At first, Howard doesn't even look up from texting, but once he hits send, the vet stares down Cameron. "You're the youngest," he says. "You're driving."

At the restaurant, Howard, Cameron and Guzan bond, as Americans abroad often do, over the strangeness of their adopted land: the agonies of British food, driving on the wrong side of the road, the Cockney slur "geez" (short for geezer), which is applied to unruly football fans. "In the U.S., there's more of a corporate feel at games," Howard says. "But Everton fans work five days out of the week just to earn enough to go to the game. Team allegiances are handed down, father to son. You'll have 5-year-olds screaming at you, cursing. You see the desperation on their faces when you don't score a goal -- and the joy when you stop one."

Guzan nods. After six years in the Prem -- long enough to adopt Brummie, the dialect of his part-time home in Birmingham, so that the word "cup" sounds like "coop" -- he's seen it all. "It's more than a game here," he says. "I had a steward at the stadium tell me: 'If we're relegated, I'm out of a job. And I'll be coming to you for my wages.'"

There are benefits, though. Howard acknowledges that the high stakes deepen the connection between players who have experienced the pressure. "As I get older, I feel like I'm part of Everton," he says. "There's just so much passion. I know I'll miss Everton. I'll want to come back and visit."

Just two seasons in, Cameron isn't ready to call Stoke-on-Trent his second home. He still misses stateside comforts, which is why, after dinner, he'll pick up a friend, an even newer member of the expat frat, winger Brek Shea, who left FC Dallas for Stoke City last year. "Brek doesn't like to be alone," Cameron says, "and I've got a couple of extra bedrooms. So he sleeps over two or three times a week."

Tonight they plan to play "Call of Duty." "We watch movies sometimes," Cameron says. "I cook dinner, and he's my sous-chef. Sometimes we shoot at plywood targets in the backyard."

Team building for the 2018 World Cup, it seems, is already in full swing.

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