By: timbersfan , 12:10 AM GMT on September 07, 2012
Geoff Cameron is a man who has mastered the art of the steep learning curve.
"Last week, I got absolutely smashed in a tackle playing for Stoke against Swindon," he explained. "I complained to the referee and somehow I was the one who received a yellow card."
Cameron quickly realized the increased level of physicality was not the only thing he would have to adjust to in England. "The lads explained to me after the game that when referees hear my American accent, I should prepare myself for some funny treatment."
Luckily for Stoke, Cameron is a man who has proven he's quick to listen and learn. The Massachusetts-born Premier League player was just 9 years old when the 1994 World Cup arrived in the United States. "We went to watch Marco Etcheverry train with Bolivia," he remembers fondly. "Sitting in the stands, I turned to my dad and told him I wanted to be an international soccer player and have thousands of fans come to watch me play the game I love."
Cameron’s father was a diehard hockey fan, but he did not blink before imparting a lesson that has become the cornerstone of his son’s career: "If you work hard, develop discipline and demonstrate desire, you can achieve anything."
Cameron proceeded to follow this advice with passion, honing his game in Attleboro, Mass. The town is known as "The World’s Jewelry Capital," but it also offered an experience the gifted player identifies as key to his success. "The area is so ethnically diverse, I was able to learn alongside Portuguese and Latin [American] kids," he said, "and so my game was built on exposure to three very different styles of soccer: European, South American, and North American."
The young Cameron also modeled his style on that of his favorite international player, striker Joe-Max Moore. "I was drawn to his work ethic," he said. "Moore was a player who never stopped running, put in a shift, got stuck into tackles and above all, always put the team first."
These traits can be applied to Cameron as he matured into a 6-foot-3 player blessed with technical ability, pace and power who broke through in 2008 as a midfielder converted to center back in MLS by the Houston Dynamo.
Cameron’s talents were quickly recognized. "(Assistant coach) John Spencer pulled me aside in my first year and whispered in my ear he believed I had what it takes to be a U.S. international [player]."
The mere suggestion astonished him. "At the time, I was a rookie on a squad that had just won the MLS Cup twice in a row and my goal was merely to crack the team."
In February 2010, Spencer was among the first to congratulate Cameron, dispatching a succinct yet delighted "I told you so" email after the player made his international debut as a second-half substitute against El Salvador. The experience was emotionally overwhelming for Cameron.
"To pull on a jersey that represents the country in which you grew up, knowing kids are looking to me as a role model like I used to watch Joe-Max Moore was chilling," he said. "Putting my hand over the team patch during the national anthems gave me goose bumps."
With Stoke, Cameron’s Premier League baptism last month against Arsenal was as nerve-wracking as his international debut had been poignant. "I was tossed into the team after flying in and only training twice," he said.
He remains modest when reflecting on the man-of-the-match performance he collected after the 0-0 draw. "I just followed [Stoke manager] Tony Pulis' instructions to keep the ball moving, get stuck into tackles, and keep moving."
GettyImages / Bob Levey
Geoff Cameron's talent was always apparent, though it wasn't until the Houston Dynamo converted him from midfielder to defender that he received national team attention.
Cameron admits that "being tossed in" has become something of a career mantra as of late. He played at the heart of a makeshift backline during the U.S. men's friendly in Mexico in August, a historic 1-0 win. "I prefer being thrown in as I didn’t have time to sit down and think I was about to go and mark Chicharito and worry that he is a hundred times better than me."
National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, while not the Azteca, will provide Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team with a distinct set of challenges in Friday night's World Cup qualifier. "We have never won there and from what I have heard, it is a very hard place to play," Cameron said. "The humidity, the pitch conditions, the crowd and the speed of our opponents will make it difficult."
Cameron knows many of his Jamaican adversaries from past MLS games. "Omar Cummings is very fast and a great finisher up top, while Ryan Johnson is a beast of an opponent who will run and jump at you all game long."
Cameron offers a hint at Klinsmann’s game plan when he said: "You look at [Jamaica] and have to marvel at their athleticism. In fact, they almost appear to rely on that attribute too much, which is a trait we can look to exploit."
Both teams are tied at the top of the four-team Group A with four points, and although the U.S. holds a slender lead on goal difference, it will enter the game without the injured Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley.
When asked if he would enjoy the opportunity to drive the American midfield in a similar role he has played at Stoke, Cameron remains practical. "I have played center midfield a good part of my professional career. I like it because I can open my legs up a little but I prefer center back. I read the game really well and can get stuck in, initiating attacks from the back and spraying balls from deep. That is the position that has gotten me into the national team and Jurgen has made it clear that is the role that offers me the best chance to get to the World Cup, which is my ultimate goal right now."
Cameron said that despite the whirlwind success of the past year, he still has a lot of lessons to learn that can come only with the benefit of experience. "I can be too eager to step forward," he said. "I have to learn to mitigate risk, which is a contrast to playing midfield where you can take all the risks in the world."
Few American players can teach Cameron more than U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, who is expected to play as his defensive partner in Kingston. "At center back you are directing traffic in front of you and you spend most of the game shouting -- either telling your forwards to step back and cut down the angles and your midfielders to cut down the passing lanes -- but Boca has had a wealth of experience in the international game and at World Cups and he is an amazingly positive guy who talks you through the game and aims to fill you with confidence," Cameron said.
Confidence is something that the Stoke City player appears to be developing. When asked if he is aware an English commentator recently referred to his long throws as "quarterback-style," the American laughed out loud. "It’s the first time I have heard that. That is a man [who] obviously knows little to nothing about the NFL."
Cameron admits that it feels good to be in a locker room where he is known simply as "Cam," after being affectionately labeled "The Yank" at Stoke, and he is locked onto the immediate challenge at hand.
"My focus is making sure we take six points from the next two games so we can close out this part of qualifying and set out for the next round," he said.
It is a declaration said with the kind of self-assurance that truly can be described as "quarterback-style."