March in Minnesota does not lend itself to soccer matches. Minnesota United's only home match of the preseaon is Friday, when they play a 10am match over at Augsburg against Bridges FC - a team from Chicago that may well be unique in American soccer.
You won't find Bridges FC in any league directory, and if you're like me, you'd never heard of the club before, but some of the best players in America have played for the team. Midfielder Michael Bradley, perhaps the key cog for the US Men's National Team, is an alumnus. Jay Demerit and Jonathan Spector, both national team defenders, have played for the club, as well. Former Stars midfielders Neil Hlavaty and Gei Moura got a leg up from Bridges FC, as did current United midfielder Kentaro Takada.
"We're called 'Bridges FC,' but another way you could term it is 'Bridge to the Pros,'" says club assistant coach / general manager Jeff Roy. The team's mission is to take players that haven't made it - whether pro, amateur, or college - and try to prepare them for careers in pro soccer. This involves training the players as hard as possible - once or twice a day, five or six days a week - and taking a select group of trainees and playing them against the best competition that can be found, both in the United States and Europe.
200 players may come through the Chicago area to train with the team during the winter, including up to 70 at a time, but by the spring that group will be winnowed down to 22 players. That group plays exibitions against American teams at United's level and below, before embarking on a summer European tour, one that includes games against clubs in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Germany. The tour is both a development tour and a showcase tour - giving players a chance to get better by playing against good competition, but also giving them a chance to be seen by scouts or clubs in Europe, and possibly hook on to a club over there.
The soccer is one thing, but according to Roy, it's the mental side of the game that Bridges is really focusing on. "Our coach, Bret Hall, played professionally for 15 years, so he has a keen understanding of what it takes to be a professional as a career instead of just being on a team for a year or two - and a lot of that has to do with mental toughness," says Roy. "I'd say that's a big piece of it, and why so many of our players have had success. Being able to have that winning mentality is what makes two players separate, two players that have equal talent."
That holistic approach extends off the field as well. "We're trying to teach people what it means to be part of a team, what it means to solve problems instead of creating them," says Roy. Bridges takes in players who are coming from all points of life - some from around the world, some from the Chicago area, many with very different backgrounds, and the club tries to give them life lessons, as well. And while Roy is sure to mention that Bridges is in no way a missionary team, and the spiritual side is not mandatory or a requirement, the team also offers bible studies and church on the weekends. "All of us on staff are Christians," says Roy, "so we take that in to what we do. The bible studies and church are completely optional stuff, but it's a a chance to discuss things of a deeper nature with other guys, of what they're going through."
As for Friday's game, it's preseason for Bridges, too, as they're trying to find their squad for their marquee summer European tour. "It's a good chance to take a look at a few guys this week," says Hall - very much the same thing we hear from Manny Lagos, this time of year.
Preseason friendlies are always a little tough to follow, but we'll keep an eye on anyone from the Bridges squad who looks promising. There's a chance we'll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming years.