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The proud Bostonian tells us what life is like behind-the-scenes in England’s top-flight with Q&A’s, first-person pieces and more. This week Joe Prince-Wright traveled to Geoff’s house in Manchester and watched Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League last 16 clash with AS Monaco.
Manchester, England — On a cold, rainy evening in northern England, U.S. national team defender Geoff Cameron settles down with a bowl of chicken and noodles and prepares to watch Arsenal play AS Monaco in the UEFA Champions League on his 70-inch TV. Dressed in shorts, sandals and an NCAA Championship t-shirt from 2006 when the University of Rhode Island made it to the nationals, Cameron is chilled but watches on intently. He’s a student of the beautiful game.
We (Geoff, his girlfriend Lindsay and I) are all tucking into our dinner which Geoff had prepared when suddenly… “Foul!” yells Cameron as Alexis Sanchez is taken out by a Monaco player in the first half. Fixated by the match, Cameron is sat closer to the TV than any of us.
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Spending the day with Geoff, it’s clear he lives and breathes soccer. We watched a documentary on Real Madrid in the afternoon, then discussed his idols growing up which include Edgar Davids, Claude Makelele and Zinedine Zidane (who is “the best player ever” in Geoff’s opinion) you can see how he has developed his composure on the ball over the years in his preferred central midfield role.
Cameron, 29, is in his third season in the Premier League and since Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey went back to MLS, he is the last man standing in terms of USMNT outfield stars playing in England’s top-flight. The versatile Stoke City player has played 100 games for the Potters since arriving from Houston in August 2012, but as he and his girlfriend Lindsay soon found out, northern England is vastly different than south Texas. The blankets piled up on the sofa for cold February night’s like this say as much.
We are sat on the sofa of Geoff’s large modern house watching Arsenal against Monaco. His residence is nestled just a stone’s throw away from Manchester International Airport as the dull drone of planes taking off catches your ear every now and then. This area south of Manchester is home to many Premier League stars who play for Stoke, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton. Tim Howard’s house is just down the street. It is clear that Geoff is at home after two-and-a-half-years in England.
[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]
As for the game we sit down to watch, Geoff has a good record against Arsenal for Stoke since he arrived in England. His first-ever PL goal came against the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium in 2013 and he has beaten Arsene Wenger’s side twice and drawn once in six attempts. Not bad. So perhaps there’s no better man to analyze a pivotal game for the Gunners with, as the north London side aim to make it to the Champions League last eight by beating AS Monaco over two legs. In the first match, at home, the Gunners are heavy favorites to dispatch the French outfit and Cameron is a big fan.
“For me Arsenal is one of the best places to play at. I always enjoy playing there,” Cameron says, leaning back and squeezing a bottle of water in his hands. “The field is perfect and everything is top notch. It feels like you are going into a coliseum because it is right in the heart of London and you have all of these little streets around it. Then it’s just there. Boom. I’ve always enjoyed the way Arsenal has played, even when I was in MLS, I might have been a fan of other teams but they are like the Barcelona of the Premier League, just without as many trophies as Barca. They play the attractive football that I enjoy playing and watching.”
After predicting a 2-0 win for Monaco, Geoff watches on as the Gunners start sluggishly. Soon they are 1-0 down and a raised eyebrow from the former Houston Dynamo star says it all. This is far from a vintage display in a game which they should win at a canter, if you believe the bookies and pundits in the UK.
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The half time analysis on Sky Sports sees Arsenal legend and former New York Red Bulls star Thierry Henry pick apart the performance in his new role as a pundit. “Played with him at the All-Star Game,” Geoff says when I prompt him about Henry. “Really nice guy, very chilled. He knows his stuff and this kind of TV work just seems to come so easy for him.”
During the first half Geoff gave some great insight into how you can try to stop Alexis Sanchez, as he’s played twice against the Chilean superstar this season.
“Even when you give him the outside, you know, he always finds a way to cut back in and go towards goal,” Cameron says of Sanchez, as Monaco lose the ball on the edge of Arsenal’s box and launch an attack which sees Danny Welbeck taken out of the game.
“That’s not what Monaco wants there,” said Cameron. “Went they have possession in Arsenal’s final third, Monaco do not want to lose it there because, boom, Arsenal will counterattack and all of a sudden you have Cazorla, Welbeck, Giroud and Sanchez running at you. That’s bad news.”
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Cameron then reveals that former Manchester United striker Welbeck “is a nice guy and a really good player, you can just tell he loves playing the game.” He’s high on Cazorla since his switch from the wing to playing in the center of the pitch. Geoff thinks he’s more dangerous there.
“When you look at Cazorla, he is just pulling the strings right now,” Geoff says, smiling. “He is better in the center than he is out wide, because when he is playing out wide you know he is going to come inside anyways. He does that all the time and you can predict it. He is not going to beat you for pace out wide but on the ball and his tricks, that’s dangerous in front of the back four.”
[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]
Despite their silky players, the Gunners are struggling. Geoff has been part of performances like this before against them — in fact earlier this season in a 3-2 win for Stoke at the Britannia Stadium — as Arsenal continue to succumb to counter attacks. Dimitar Berbatov makes the most of the latest counter and the former Tottenham Hotspur striker slams home to put Monaco 2-0 up in the second half.
“I said 2-0 to Monaco, right?!” Geoff laughs, before shaking his head and getting up to make some tea. Mine comes in a mug he got while playing for the USMNT in Russia back in 2012.
So, with Stoke’s exemplary record against the Gunners over the past few years, what is the key to beating them?
“You just have to keep tight defensively. Frustrate them. And then as soon as they lose possession in midfield the first pass is two skip one or two lines and release,” Cameron reveals. “Because their full backs are up, everybody is up, and they are a good attacking team. But if you leave them behind, Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Cazorla and all of them they are going to be high up. If you by-pass them, you are just going against the back four, you know.”
“The key is to get them on the back foot,” Geoff continues, pointing at the screen. “Put the ball in behind them and get their defenders facing and running towards their own goal.”
“Ohhh cheeky!” says Geoff. An Arsenal player goes down easy and wins a free kick. It looked like a foul to me, but Geoff explains exactly how the guy just flopped in an aerial challenge.
Popcorn break. Lindsay gets up and gets a bag of popcorn going as Cameron discusses the substitutes Arsenal can make and calls it before the commentators. “Welbeck to go up top, Giroud is coming off. So Walcott will go out wide.” That’s exactly what happens.
In the 61st minute, a beautiful back heel from Joao Moutinho sets up Anthony Martial to make it 3-0 to Monaco, but his shot is saved. Geoff gives his approval to the play, all around. “That was sexy… Look at that move from Moutinho. Great save though.”
Despite the Gunners being up against it, Cameron has seen and been involved in this script before. Stoke led Arsenal 3-0 at half time earlier this season but let two goals slip in the second half and almost gave up a late equalizer as the Gunners rallied late on. He called a late goal for Arsenal.
“If you are an Arsenal fan, you got to have faith. It’s hard to see it now because they aren’t playing well. But you have to have faith in it because they have proven that they can come back and fight, so many times. Arsenal need to score by the 65th minute to make this realistic… If they can snatch a 2-2 draw out of this, all they have to do is win 1-0 away,” adds Geoff.
Cameron isn’t one of these soccer players who doesn’t follow the media. He absorbs it. Given his work with NBC Sports, that’s to be expected. When he picked me up in his car earlier that day, he had a newspaper on the back seat and during the dying stages of Arsenal’s humbling at the hands of Monaco, he is already thinking about the backpages as he flicks through instant reaction from fans and the media on Twitter.
“I wonder what the papers are going to say tomorrow…”
The 6 foot 3 inch defender then talks about how impressed he has been with Monaco’s defensive display, before revealing his dream is to play in European competitions. One day.
“In America, we all grow up watching these big games in the Champions League and Europa League. It would be a dream come true to play in these competitions, that’s the goal. Sure, I could have gone to a club in a smaller soccer nation and played a few games for a team in European competitions but then I think about it. How would that benefit me, long-term? I am playing in the Premier League against the best teams and the opponents week in, week out. I am improving as a player and testing myself all the time. People don’t realize how ridiculously difficult it is to qualify for Europe in the Premier League. “
Cameron is adamant plenty of PL teams could do well in the Champions League in comparison to other teams from across Europe. “I think the teams from 7-12 in the Premier League, they might not win the Champions League but they would hold their own and make it difficult for teams in the group stages. No doubt.”
With so many giants for Geoff and Stoke to overcome in the PL, winning a cup or making a late charge for the top six is their only hope of Europe. But as he explains, the steely resolve of those top teams is what helps see them through at the business end of games, and the business end of the season which is fast approaching.
“With Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal… usually when they are down they will come back and pull something out. That’s the difference between the top and the middle teams in the Premier League,” Geoff says.
As Walcott is played in late in the game, he pulls out of a challenge with Monaco’s goalkeeper. Geoff points to the TV and explains that he could have easily won a penalty kick. Not that he condones diving, but he points out winning a PK was a real possibility.
“He should have actually stuck his leg out as he was running in and it would have been a penalty. No doubt,” Cameron said. “Look, right there. But instead he pulled out of the challenge. The goalie was not going to go in for a full challenge so Walcott could have got there just before him. I guess Walcott has just come back from a long-term injury, I don’t know if that played a part. You can understand why. But still…”
An opportunity missed for the Gunners, as Lindsay and I munch on popcorn while Geoff remains transfixed to the TV and occasionally checks his phone for incoming texts from the U.S. Lindsay then speaks of Geoff’s fixation with being neat and tidy and later that night you can see it as he wipes down the surfaces on the kitchen worktops before going to bed and reveals that he used to color co-ordinate his clothes, but has got a lot more laid back about that stuff.
College sweethearts at URI, Lindsay laughs as she tells me about how she used to mess up Geoff’s clothes intentionally. He laughs, and shakes his head before telling another story. Cameron is adamant he could have gone to the Rhode Island School of Design if he wanted to and was quite the artist back in the day. True story. The laid back atmosphere in the suburbs of Manchester in Geoff’s dimly lit living room is in stark contrast to the shocking display Arsenal are putting in during their UCL knockout game.
“Arsenal are a lot different to most English teams and that’s perhaps why the odd time they get shocked because they are not quite as physical or as rough,” Cameron quips. “But then again, people will think Stoke is physical and a rough rugby team… but maybe we were a few years ago. But now we are a team that plays football and we showed that when we played against Arsenal. We made it physical and we made it hard for them, but we weren’t dirty. We just kept the pace high and pressed hard. In the Premier League they are very unique. Swansea plays a similar brand of football to Arsenal, but they don’t have the same level of players. They are not Arsenal. Now you can see Man City try to play like Arsenal, but City has that physical and ruthless streak. They are more solid and won’t collapse.”
Cazorla picks up the ball and makes a driving run forward. In the far right corner there is acres of space and out of the picture stands Walcott. Geoff knows he is out there. “Look at Walcott, play it out wide,” he yells at the TV. Cazorla cuts inside and Monaco get men back behind the ball to thwart another Arsenal attack.
Monaco then break away with Martial who is brought down cynically by right back Hector Bellerin. A versatile player who has been deployed at center back, center mid and right back for Stoke this season, Cameron has sympathy with the Arsenal defender.
“He had to do that,” proclaims Geoff. “In that situation, it was the only option. That’s the best way to do it when you are running like that. The guy with the ball just dribbles right in front of him.”
Throughout the second half, despite Arsenal being down 2-0, Geoff is adamant the Gunners will at least score one and make a late charge.
“You can’t count out Arsenal no matter what. We have seen them do it so many times. If they get a goal here, they will be alright.”
In the 75th minute Sky Sports color analyst Gary Neville is raving about Monaco’s Tunisian center defender Aymen Abdennour. Geoff has been raving about him since the first half and Abdennour was linked with a move to the Premier League and Tottenham Hotspur after this display. As you’d expect, Cameron knows a good defender when he sees one.
Then, the Arsenal goal Geoff has prophesied finally arrived in stoppage time as substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up the ball on the edge of the box and bent home a beauty into the top corner. 2-1, and Arsenal were right back in it.
“Did I call it, did I call it!” Geoff says as he points his finger in my direction. The guy is good.
However, moments later, Chamberlain gave the ball away and Monaco broke away and broke the hearts of Gunners fans, with substitute Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco drilling home his first-ever Champions League goal for Monaco.
“That’s over now,” Geoff says as the killer third goal goes in. His phone then pings. “What is Mertesacker doing though?” continues Geoff.
The commentators did not pick up on the fact that the German center back is labored to get across to Ferreira-Carrasco. Geoff then points out to me that Mertesacker gave the Monaco forward way too much time to get a shot off, as Ferreira-Carrasco hammers a low drive into the far bottom corner to all but end Arsenal’s Champions League hopes for yet another season.
Geoff gets a text from his Dad about the game (as he often does) who was watching the match back in Attleboro, MA among the piles of snow. He laughs, and then as the full time whistle goes he still hasn’t had enough of his soccer fix. “When will the highlights of Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid match be on?” he asks. “Pretty soon,” I respond. “Good,” says Geoff.
A student of the game who is clearly embracing life in a soccer mad country, Cameron can’t get enough of the non-stop soccer madness which is a part of the daily fabric of life in England.