Sept. 24, 2010
By Larry Watts
It all boiled down to being too good of an opportunity to pass up. That's the main reason why Andres Casais and Matheus Braga packed their bags, left their respective South American homelands and headed off to play soccer at Penn State.
Like many other foreign students, when faced with making the choice between their sport or academics after high school, Casais and Braga made the sacrifice to leave home and come to an American school where they could still enjoy the best of both worlds.
For Casais, the path to State College, Pa. was a little easier. Born in Miami, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where his mother was from, with his parents when he was 5 years old. Ever since he started playing soccer as a youngster, he dreamed of returning to the United States to extend his career.
"I only played soccer for club teams (in Venezuela) because the school teams weren't very competitive," says Casais, who was named to the U-20 national team but never played a game. "I always wanted to play somewhere where it was competitive both on the field and in academics.
"I had an English teacher who played goalie for Northeastern University who helped me out. I applied for academic admittance to Penn State, Boston University, Northeastern and Bucknell."
Casais says the main reason he applied to Penn State was because of a recommendation from a friend who was in his freshman year at the school. His friend also had an older brother attending Penn State.
"He kept telling me what a great place it is and all about the infrastructure of the school and its athletics," says Casais. "He also told me about how well the athletes were treated here."
As soon as he received his letter of acceptance to Penn State, Casais sent an e-mail to former Nittany Lion head coach Barry Gorman to ask about scholarship opportunities. Upon Gorman's request, he then submitted video and letters of recommendation from his coaches.
"Being on the U-20 team might have raised some eyebrows," Casais says. "I never took a visit or met coach Gorman face to face, but when my plane landed here for preseason (in 2007), I had a scholarship."
As for Braga, the native of soccer-crazy Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had one major hurdle to clear -- he didn't speak English. The 5-foot-8 midfielder had already abandoned his soccer career and was attending college.
"I was born with a soccer ball at my feet," he says with a laugh. "My father immediately put a Vasco soccer jersey on my back. My family is all about soccer and Vasco is our team. You can't enter our house unless you support Vasco. My uncle is a former president of a team in southern Brazil, so we allow him in the house because they aren't rivals with Vasco.
"I played soccer until I was 19, but it was either go to school or play professionally. I was already going to school when one of my friends, who was playing at Virginia Commonwealth, told me about a company holding a soccer showcase in Rio de Janeiro and there would be several American coaches attending. So, I decided to give it a try."
That company was 2SV Sports Management, which promotes cultural and academic exchange between Brazil and the rest of the world through sports. One of the directors for 2SV Sports happens to be Ricardo Villar, a former two-time All-American for Penn State who still plays professionally.
"Villar is a good friend of coach Gorman's and he got me working a camp for a month at Penn State in the summer of 2006," Braga says. "I got a chance to work out with some of the Penn State players and I guess I did pretty well, so coach Gorman offered me the opportunity to come here. But first I had to pass the English (proficiency) test, which is required by American schools.
"I went back to Brazil and I had to study, study, study. On the fourth try, I finally got it right."
When he arrived at Penn State in January, 2008, Braga had three years of eligibility. He impressed the coaching staff enough during the spring to earn a start in 14 games that fall. He wound up leading the Lions in assists with four despite missing five games due to a knee injury and a staph infection in one of his heels.
According to the two seniors, the highlight of their time at Penn State has been a tour of Brazil the team took in May, 2009.
"I had been to Brazil a couple of times, but to share the experience with your teammates is completely different," Casais says. "For many of the guys it was their first trip out of the country and it gave them a chance to experience and appreciate different culture and different views on things."
Casais laughs when he thinks about the one night when the team shared a large room with bunk beds
"It was like a barracks," he says. "It was hot and there were mosquitoes all over the place. We didn't get much sleep, but it was fun because we all shared it together. Then we went out and played one of the better teams in Brazil in the rain the following day. We wound up with a tie and we were slide-tackling all over the place."
The trip was memorable to Braga for another reason. His family hosted the team at their house for a barbecue one afternoon.
"My family is very grateful to Penn State for providing me with the opportunity to study and play soccer at the same time," he says. "It was one of the best times in my whole life to take my team to my house. I think the chemistry of our team went up 100 percent after that trip because everyone became so well-connected. They were able to get to know my family as a whole team and my family loved it."
"Everyone was surprised," Casais says. "We were halfway through the spring. We had changed to a 3-5-2 alignment (from a 4-4-2) and we were playing well. The team had established an identity and, all of a sudden, he (Gorman) turns up at practice one day and tells us he had resigned.
"We are celebrating 100 years of Penn State soccer this fall and suddenly we are on our own. Fortunately, we all rallied behind each other and handled things in a responsible manner. We didn't allow a single goal (five shutouts) all spring and we just knew this was going to be a special team."
Near the end of May, the players were excited to find out Penn State had hired 32-year coaching veteran Bob Warming as the new head coach. While chalking up 383 victories, Warming had built St. Louis and Creighton into national powers. He was named the national coach of the year in 2008.
"We looked at his numbers and realized this guy is a winner; it's pretty incredible what he has done," Casais says. "We want what he created at Creighton to be done here."
According to Casais, on the first day Warming officially reported to duty last summer he called the players who were still attending school together for dinner.
"The best thing he did was go around the table and found out all he could about each player," Casais says. "Then he asked for our input and what needed to be changed about Penn State soccer."
At the top of the players' list was improving connections with Penn State alums, especially since the 100-year celebration is being held this fall, and building a stronger fan base on campus. The players took a major step to building that fan base by turning out on move-in day to help the incoming freshmen unload their belongs in the dorms. Then they passed out posters to help the new arrivals get acquainted with the team.
Other than changing back to a 4-4-2 alignment, nearly all of the other changes Warming has made have been in preparation. There is more lifting and studying of videos during the week and the team now gathers for a pregame meal before all home matches.
"Both coaches (Gordon and Warming) are very personable and kept an open-door policy," Casais says. "Both coaches stress a possession style, which I really like. Coach Warming wants us to always be intense once we get on the field."
But at the same time, Braga wants to make sure his teammates are having fun. "I try to be the guy who brings happiness to every single practice," he says. "I want the guys to have fun while we're working toward out goals. Soccer is a game to have fun and if you don't have fun, you won't get anywhere."
First among the Nittany Lions' goals this season is winning the Big Ten regular season title, which they have only done once (2006) in their history. Then they would like to add the conference tournament title to complete the sweep, a perfect scenario for the 100-year celebration.
"We're hosting the tournament this year, so once the trophy comes here, we don't want it to get away," Braga says.
"Personally, this Penn State experience has been all that I could have asked for, but I still want to win something," Casais says. "We've won games since I've been here, but we still haven't won a championship. I don't know if this will be my last season of soccer or not, but I believe this will be a special season. I want to leave here with a ring or two."
Braga is still entertaining his options for what happens after he receives his degree in economics. "My first option is to stay in the U.S. and play, but my experience in soccer and at Penn State has taught me you have to be prepared for change at any time," he says. "If I'm not playing, I might try to earn a masters degree in sports management, preferably something to do with soccer, and I will head back to Brazil."
For Casais, returning to Venezuela, now torn apart by political unrest, is not an option. His parents moved back to Miami two months ago and he is now hoping to find a way to bring his sister and grandparents to the United States.
"Caracas is ranked third in the world as the most dangerous city to live in," says Casais, who is majoring in energy, business and finance. "There are more deaths in Venezuela than in Iraq each day. The government is very bad and it is slowly turning into another Cuba.
"I am glad I was able to get out when I could. There are many other players who wish they had this opportunity. I have seen a lot of protests and have been a victim of teargas. There have been many deaths and kidnappings. My uncle and some of my friends drive around in bullet-proof cars because of the risk. It's a very sad situation."
For now, Casais and Braga are very much at ease in Happy Valley. And they are hoping to make their final season at Penn State a lasting memory.