A game with no borders

MUNCIE, IND. — Different flags representing different countries stand next to one another to represent home. On the outside fence surrounding the Ball State women’s soccer field, the flags symbolize differences among the team, but they unite similarly to how the players do.

Seven players from the 2018 Ball State women’s soccer team weren’t born in the United States, but they now call the place their soccer home. The representing flags display the countries of Trinidad and Tobago, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, Sweden and England.

In 2009, the Cardinals didn’t have the flags to represent any international players on the team. A season that resulted in a losing record (4-13-1) created a change for the following seasons. Head coach, Craig Roberts, took over the women’s team, and he made certain that changes were to be made.

Roberts is originally from England, and he now is the most winningest coach in Ball State soccer history. In 2010, Roberts brought in three international players to play for the Cardinals, and the changes started to turn to positive ones. Although they suffered a losing record (7-10-2), the Cardinals improved from the season before.

“I felt that we needed more diversity. Whether it was from different countries, whether it was going to be race, we just needed to mix things up,” Roberts said. Going internationally to recruit some of his players seemed like a smart move for the head coach, considering soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and it is more popular in countries outside of the United States.

During the 2011 season, Roberts and the Cardinals went on to finish the year without a losing record (9-9-3) for the first time since the 2007 season (13-5-2). Although the team was earning more wins, Roberts was more focused on creating a better team chemistry for the Cardinals. “The closer the team is, the better the performance they’re going to have,” Roberts said.

Before every season, Roberts brings the players together for team-bonding experiences. For example, the players will unite and display middle school pictures of one another without telling each other who is who. The players then try and guess to see if their answers were correct.

Another team-bonding exercise the Cardinals perform is a Christmas gathering before winter break. “We will bring players together before Christmas. We have kind of a team Christmas dinner, we share customs. It’s an option for them to grow,” Roberts said. Some international players celebrate the holiday a different way than some of the players who were born in the United States.

“It’s always good to experience new things,” Sophomore midfielder, Chelsi Ralph, said. Ralph joined six other international players for the 2018 season, and she represents Trinidad and Tobago.

The team’s resurgence isn’t solely because of the addition of more international players, but Roberts believes they bring a different style to the game. Different styles of play “allows the players to learn from each other,” Roberts said.

Before an addition of international players joined the team, Ball State played with a physical style, an American style. Nicky Potts, Junior midfielder from England, explains that she didn’t know exactly what to do when she first joined the team. “The people are more physical here, whereas when I’m back home, I played technical, like pass and move,” Potts said. Now, the players blend their style of play with both the technical and physical approaches.

After a couple of years practicing and playing in a more international way, the Cardinals took the next step in 2012 and earned their first winning season (8-7-5) under Roberts’ coaching duties. The season featured six international players.

Roberts used an online site that featured international soccer players’ highlights to recruit internationally. Before committing to Ball State, Ralph was informed by a recruiter about the website. Three days after posting her highlights, Ralph received a call and offer to play for Roberts at Ball State.

Online isn’t the only way Roberts finds the international players. “I’ve got a lot of contacts around the world,” Roberts said. Even though he coaches for Ball State, Roberts also coaches the national level Puerto Rico team. The international background drives more opportunity for international recruitment.

The recruitment process led to six players rostered on the 2013 team, and the Cardinals finished towards the top of the MAC conference with another improving record (11-7-4). Winning records weren’t the goal anymore. Roberts and the Cardinals were chasing after a new goal, a MAC championship.

The 2014 season was the first year the MAC conference broke the soccer teams into two divisions, the MAC West and the MAC East. The Cardinals joined the MAC West division with Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Toledo.

Although Ball State dropped down to five international rostered players in 2014, the Cardinals improved (11-7-2) for the fifth consecutive season. In result, Roberts and the Cardinals finished second in the MAC West behind Eastern Michigan by a half game.

The flags representing different countries surrounded the Cardinals’ field, but a recent MAC championship flag remained unseen. After a (10-1) conference record in 2015, Roberts brought the Cardinals their first MAC regular season championship in eight years. Once again, the Cardinals improved their overall record (14-3-3) from the year before.

Consistency became the backbone behind the team’s play on the field, and Roberts made sure to keep a consistent amount of international players rostered on the team year after year.

In 2016, the Cardinals ended the season with the same record (14-3-3) and another MAC regular season championship, but Roberts and the Cardinals aimed towards a new goal, a MAC tournament championship.

After an (11-7-3) record in 2017, the Cardinals bounced back to make it to the MAC tournament championship last season. The 2018 season featured seven international players on the roster, but the Cardinals suffered a defeat in the end after penalty kicks decided the championship game against Bowling Green University.

To push for a MAC tournament championship, Roberts hints that he is bringing in more international players to join the team. If the team holds more than seven international players on their roster for this season, it will be the most Ball State has had rostered on their team in Ball State soccer history.

Everything goes back to the team-bonding experiences Roberts has the women perform. Not only are the Cardinals working on their team chemistry, they are gradually taking steps to higher success under the coaching duties of coach Roberts. The country flags have been joined by two recent MAC regular-season championship flags, but will 2019 be the year the MAC tournament flag joins the group? Together the players join as one, U.S. born or not, as do the different uniting flags.

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