Twenty-one members of the Fort Leonard Wood United Soccer Club were either on the road or in the air Thursday, bound for San Antonio, Texas, where they will represent the post in the annual Defender's Cup Soccer Tournament, scheduled for Friday through Monday near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
This will be the third consecutive year the Fort Leonard Wood club has made the journey. But this year, players have put in more practice time, faced more opponents and gained more experience in the run-up to the tournament than ever before. The club's head coach, Jeff Cornuet, said he wanted his players to experience one thing: "More competition."
"More competitions help us work the team in a competitive environment, rather than just scrimmaging against each other all the time," Cornuet said. "Those are opportunities that we take when we can get them."
Practicing together since early spring, FLW United has played in tournaments in Springfield, Fenton and St. Louis in Missouri, as well as traveling to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in mid- July, where they competed against some of the teams they will face this weekend. Their most recent tournament was the Cup of Nations Tournament, held July 28 and 29 at St. Louis University High School in St. Louis, where they took third.
Assistant coach Steve Standifird said the additional playing time has forged a high level of continuity and camaraderie among the players.
"We're coming together as a team now," Standifird said. "They're all willing to sacrifice days, sacrifice evenings and time with their Families because they love this sport, and this is a chance to get out here and play this game."
"This year we have done a lot more as a team, and we have had more success than we did last year," he added.
The Defender's Cup will attract soccer teams from installations across the country, all of which must be made up of a majority of active-duty service members. Teams will play a round-robin-style first round on Friday and Saturday, and will then be placed into either an upper or lower bracket depending on their performance.
"The top 20 teams out of group play will play in the Defender's Cup, while the bottom 20 will go into a separate bracket called the Supporters Cup," Cornuet said. "The top four teams on each side will play on Monday."
Like Fort Leonard Wood itself, the FLW United squad includes players from several different units and services. Still, Cornuet said he would like to see even more representation from across the installation.
"This is the Fort Leonard Wood post soccer team, but it's made up of anyone who is assigned here on post," Cornuet said. "We're trying to get all the services involved. Right now we have players from the Marines and from the Army. In the past we've had Air Force players who have been a part of the team, and we do have a few Family members. Anyone who is assigned here or works here is eligible to play."
One of those Family members is Brandon Reuss, 20, the son of U.S. Marine Corps retirees who first came to Fort Leonard Wood in 2002. A lifelong soccer player, Ruess said playing on the team has been "a phenomenal experience."
"It is an honor just to be around these guys. They do so much for our country -- they're the reason I'm able to get up and go to work, go to school and stuff like that," Reuss said. "The competition, the traveling, the good people involved -- it's always a good time with these guys. They're like Family."
Team captain Andrew Chavez said he simply appreciates the opportunity to play his favorite sport. A corporal with the Missouri National Guard 106th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Chavez played in the tournament for FLW United last year and previously for the Fort Carson, Colorado, team. Today, he alternates between playing forward and midfielder.
"I play wherever they need me the most," he said. "The biggest thing for me is to play soccer. That's my thing -- it's what I like to do."
Lisa Capocci, a drill sergeant with 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment, is a relatively new arrival who has been playing with the club since mid-June.
"I PCS'd here from California, and I played soccer out there," she explained. "I found Fort Leonard Wood United, and they welcomed me with open arms -- they were like 'Come play on our team!'"
Like many of her teammates, Capocci is looking forward to the tournament.
"I'm super excited," she said. "We're working together as a team, working on our formations, and I think we're going to have a good time."
Those interested in following the team's progress can visit the "FLW United Soccer Club" page on Facebook.
"We're going to update our Facebook page as much as we can so people back home can follow us," Cornuet said.
The club is also always on the lookout for potential players.
"We would love to have more folks come out next year and participate," Cornuet said. "Even those who are here temporarily or as students can come out and play, and if we have enough players we can scrimmage. This is really the only opportunity to play soccer in this area after the intramural season is over. So, people are welcome to come out."