BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, August 12, 2013
The morning of August 1 started off like any other day for Cody Cropper at Southampton. He went to training as usual, but afterward the club's executive director called him into his office.
At first Cropper did not know what to expect. He assumed, for some reason, he was in trouble and kept thinking about all the events of the preseason and why he was asked into the office by Les Reed, one of the club's most powerful officials.
When he sat down nervously in the office, Reed handed Cropper a sheet of paper and said "congratulations." The young American goalkeeper read the sheet and his jaw dropped.
"Are you yanking my chain?" Cropper asked Reed. "Is this some sort of joke?"
Inside was a sheet of paper from U.S Soccer notifying Southampton that US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had called up Cropper for the friendly against Bosnia on August 14. For Cropper, it was wildly unexpected and it was difficult for him to wrap his mind around it.
Cropper has never played a game of first team soccer at either Southampton or his previous club Ipswich, but he has been a rising youth prospect in the new English U-21 Premier League. This past summer, he was the starting goalkeeper for the US U-20 World Cup team.
"In all honesty, I didn't know what to think," Cropper told YA of his callup. "It really came as such a shock. I didn't really know how to feel. It's something you dream about as a kid when you first get called up to the full national team. Then it happens and for me it was at such a young age. I wasn't expecting it and I didn't know how to feel. There was a lot of happiness but because it was shocking it didn't really feel like that."
Cropper is now in Sarajevo for his first taste of international soccer at the highest level but playing time will be hard to come by as Brad Guzan and Tim Howard are also called up and both are starting Premier League keepers. He admits that he doesn't exactly know what to expect but he anticipates that it will be a very high standard set by the other goalkeepers and team veterans.
Even if he does not earn any minutes in the game against Bosnia, Cropper is adamant that the callup is only going to serve to motivate him even more in his career as he strives to break into the first team at Southampton.
Southampton is a club in England known for its youth development and at 20 years old, Cropper is extremely young for a goalkeeper. He is expected to play with the U-21s this season but training with the first team is likely. Cropper believes that his preseason so far has gone "extremely well" and that he can sense that he is making progress.
"It's starting to happen," Cropper said. "Everything that I've been working for the past four years starting with the U-20s is starting to pay off. I've got my foot in the door but now I have to break the door open. The motivation something like this gives you is so intense. Today in training, I was pushing myself. It gives you that extra boost you need. Something of this magnitude is screaming at you in the face every day. It's going to push me to strive for this every international break. I know it's only my first callup, but nobody is telling me that it is not going to happen again."
Cropper's progress at Southampton has not come as a surprise to followers of U.S youth soccer as Georgia native has been a regular with the US U-18 and U-20 national teams in recent years.
The 2013 U-20 World Cup was a rocky tournament for the U.S team as it was drawn into the group of death with three elite teams in Spain, Ghana, and eventual champions France. The U.S failed to advance out of that group but played well in stretches including in a 1-1 draw with France.
Despite the team failing to live up to expectations, Cropper insists that the tournament was a valuable experience for the players and the coaches.
"The biggest thing I took away from that tournament was experience," Cropper said. "It's something you don't get every day. We played against players from world class teams. We came together and we played our hearts out. You learn a lot about people in situations like that when the opposing team has world class players. You learn about work ethic and attitude. Unfortunately the results didn't go our way. We were confident in the style Tab Ramos wanted us to play but in the end, we just couldn't put the ball away. That happens to every team at such stage."
Cropper is now set for his first ever callup to the full U.S national team but he also has another goal international soccer and that is with the U.S U-23 team at 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That tournament is still three years away and that can be an eternity for youth soccer.
Part of Cropper's motivation is to avenge the poor showing of the 2012 U-23 team which failed to qualify for the Olympics in London. He also, however, wants to lead the progress of the recent U-20 team which will likely make up the core of the team that attempts to qualify for Brazil.
The recent U-20 team struggled against the best youth teams in the world this summer but Cropper believes that over the next few years, the players can improve as they emerge as regular professionals. If that happens, the results in three years could be different but it will all come down to the players seizing the opportunities with their clubs.
"I think that as a team we can do a lot of damage at the Olympics if we develop," Cropper concluded. "We have to continue to develop. Going into this World Cup, a lot of us weren't playing. One thing all of us have to do is embrace the chances we get with our club teams. The players that can get 90 minutes under their belt week in and week out are the ones that are going to be there. The best players will play. Nothing in the past will matter."