Geoff Cameron could have been a hockey player. He could have suited up as his dad did for Mount St. Charles, the Woonsocket powerhouse that won 26 consecutive Rhode Island state titles, and gone from there. “We had him on the ice,” his father, Scott, says. “But we tied his skates too tight one day and he didn’t want to go anymore.”
So his son went to the soccer field instead, and on Monday evening in Natal, Brazil, he’ll be suiting up for Uncle Sam in the World Cup for a must-win opener against Ghana. “It’s exciting,” says the 28-year-old Cameron, who’ll likely start as a defender for the Americans in his Cup debut. “You dream of this as a kid. You work every single day of your life. It’s a special event.”
Not since Mike Burns, the Marlborough product who started for the 1998 squad and now is the Revolution’s general manager, has a Massachusetts native made the US team for the planetary tournament. Cameron, who grew up playing youth soccer in Attleboro and went to high school there until he transferred to Providence Country Day, is being counted upon to hold the center of the last line of defense for the Americans, who’ve been drawn into the “Group of Death” along with Portugal and Germany.
Not that his Cup assignment is much different from what Cameron handles for Stoke City in the English Premier League, where he deals with global-level strikers from the London, Liverpool, and Manchester clubs every weekend. “If you know where you came from, if you do all the things you were doing for so long and prepare yourself for every single game, it’s just like another game,” says Cameron, who has played 27 matches in a star-spangled jersey. “Maybe because you’re representing the US it’s a little bit more serious.”
His dream to do that began in Foxborough two decades ago when his father took him to a Cup match and to an open practice where Bolivian superstar Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry hung out with Cameron and his pals. “I thought, man, I want to do this for a living,” Cameron says. He was a pint-sized player then, but he was irrepressible.
“He was always hanging around my legs saying, Coach show me this, Coach show me that,” recalls Stacey DeCastro, who coached Cameron both in youth play and in prep school. “He came early and he was the last to leave. It was never enough.”
Cameron, who’s 6 feet 3 inches now, perennially was the smallest kid on his team. When DeCastro jokingly advised him to stock up on bread at a Portuguese bakery, Cameron got himself an armful. When his growth spurt finally arrived, Cameron quickly added 6 inches. “He was like a giraffe who was just born, trying to use his legs,” his father remembers.
But Cameron always was on the gallop, playing “up” against older kids but always playing. When Scott, concerned about burnout, suggested a couple of weeks without a tournament, Geoff got restless after three days. “I had to get in goal at a local field so he could take shots,” his father says. “I stopped worrying about burnout. He would not stop.”
Cameron wanted to play in college so he transferred to PCD and repeated a year to get his grades and scores up. When he didn’t attract the attention that he’d hoped for, he grew frustrated. “My words to him were, the right people will see you at the right time,” Scott says.
West Virginia spotted Cameron at a Pennsylvania camp and he was a Mountaineer for a couple of years, until he concluded for various reasons that the University of Rhode Island was a more comfortable fit. What drove him then is what drives him now — how do I get on a team, get off the bench, and get on the field?
Cameron was a natural central midfielder but he would play any position that would get him into the action. “His answer to me always was, wherever you need me, Coach,” says DeCastro. That was his answer to Dom Kinnear when the Houston Dynamo coach asked him if he’d ever played forward.
“He said, do you want to go in up top?” says Cameron, who ultimately settled in at center back. “I said, yeah, I want to play. That was the attitude he wanted to hear. I just wanted to get on the pitch. I just wanted to play. I got the opportunity and I ran with it.”
As coincidence — or destiny — had it, Cameron made his MLS debut coming off the bench in the 2008 season opener against the Revolution in Foxborough. “For me, it was one of the coolest experiences,” he says. “I remember sitting up in the stands as a kid saying I wanted to play in this stadium and my first professional game was in front of my family.”
Cameron performed five years for Houston and played in the MLS Cup. Along the way Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German captain and coach who took over the US team after the 2010 World Cup, called him into camp for the run-up to 2014 and Cameron soon made himself a fixture, logging the third-most minutes in 2012 and playing in 13 Cup qualifiers, second only to captain Clint Dempsey.
What he wanted to get playing for his club was what he now was getting playing for his country — more of a daily challenge at a more demanding level. Cameron always had wanted to play in the EPL and he concluded that sooner was better than later. “I didn’t want to wait until the end of my career and wonder, was I good enough? Would I ever be able to make it over here?” he says.
So he signed on two years ago with Stoke City, the world’s second-oldest professional club (founded in 1863), which had risen from the Second Division to the Premiership over the past dozen years and was trying to stay there. “The first thing I said when I went over there was, I might not get many minutes but I’m going to work hard, I’m going to learn, I’m going to take everything in as much as possible,” he said.
Cameron started right away against Arsenal, was voted Man of the Match, and became a rugged regular on the back line throughout a down-up-down campaign. Last season was markedly better as the candy-striped Potters, whose roster includes players from 14 countries, went 7-2-2 in their final 11 matches and finished ninth in the 20-club table, their best finish since 1975.
What’s best about life in the EPL, Cameron says, is that it prepares him for life on the national team coached by a man who played at the top level in four countries and who believes that what you did yesterday has no bearing on today.
“Every single day you’re challenging for a spot,” says Cameron, who has the words ‘dedication’, ‘discipline,’ and ‘desire’ tattooed on an arm. “You’ve got a guy to the left of you and a guy to the right of you that wants your position, that wants your minutes. You have guys challenging you every day in practice and you can’t take a day off. Even when you’re struggling with injuries and knocks here and there and dead legs, you’ve got to push through it because there’s a guy fresh and if you’re not training for two or three days you’re not playing on the weekend.”
Cameron likely will play most if not all of the minutes in the Americans’ three group matches in Brazil’s steam heat. And he’s heard all of the dire predictions about what will happen when the Ghanaians, Portuguese, and Germans have at their inexperienced back line.
“People are going to have opinions, people are going to say this or that,” Cameron says. “At the end of the day it comes down to us as a team. We’re all working as one. If one guy gets beat there are 10 guys behind him to back him up. That’s the way we look at it. People might say we’re an inexperienced back four, but we have [goalkeeper] Tim Howard back there. He’s been through three World Cups and he knows what he’s talking about. DaMarcus Beasley, he’s got over 100 caps. If we put it all together we can jell — and I think the sky’s the limit.”