The U.S. already won a World Cup in 2022: Inside the brilliant world of CP soccer

SALOU, Spain -- With the 2022 World Cup final heading to extra time, coach Tricia Taliaferro put Annie Wickett in goal.

Wickett, an outfield player, had scored one of the goals against Australia when, with the game tied at 2-2, Taliaferro took a decision that may have brought a #TaliaferroOut hashtag from supporters unfamiliar with the intricacies of CP soccer. Taliaferro would not have considered such a move eight months ago, when she was approached to coach the newly formed U.S. women's para national team. Since then, she's had a fast learning curve in the sport, which is played by players with cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions such as stroke and traumatic brain injury.

She has learned how the men's game is seven-a-side and the women's five-a-side; how no offside and underarm throw-ins speed up play; how players receive classifications based on their physical limitations; and how that feeds into the tactics, which led to her putting one of her best players in goal at the crucial moment of the tournament.

Taliaferro took a 10-strong squad to the inaugural Women's World Cup in Salou in May, which ran alongside the men's event. The players were recruited in a variety of ways, mainly by men's coach Stuart Sharp and Jim Moorhouse, the director of extended sports at U.S. Soccer, but Taliaferro chipped in at the end -- and they had some help from U.S. international Becky Sauerbrunn.

It was a tweet from Sauerbrunn in January that caught the attention of Emily Lauritsen's wife. "Get the word out!" the Portland Thorns centre-back wrote in promotion of the team. Lauritsen, a goalkeeper, had suffered a stroke in 2020 and her partner, Britt, convinced her to check if she was eligible. Four months later, she was playing in a World Cup.

Things happened quicker for Jesslyn Kuhnel. On April 4, her mother, Wendy, found out about a national team training camp; on April 10, after sending some video footage across, Kuhnel was on a plane to San Diego from Florida to take part in an identification camp. Kuhnel, who at 16 was the youngest player to make the team, woke up one day in 2015 and could not walk. Over the past six years, as she relearned how to run, she never imagined playing at a World Cup.

For captain Catherine Renick, the opportunity to represent her country had been both a painfully slow process and a whirlwind at the same time. After suffering a series of strokes, she first contacted former classmate Kevin Hensley in 2015. He was the captain of the men's team for several years and now serves as the assistant coach for the women. Finally, at the end of 2021, just one month after giving birth to her first child, she received an unexpected email: The World Cup was happening -- was she in?

Those stories are mirrored up and down the roster. Wickett was pursuing a professional career in Romania, with the Champions League on the horizon, when she had a stroke in 2018. Emma "Joey" Martin, meanwhile, has a brain tumour and was even receiving chemotherapy treatments during the World Cup.

After just two camps, they all came together in Salou, a seaside resort 90 minutes south of Barcelona, stepping into the unknown. They had never played a competitive game together. They had no idea about their opponents -- Spain, the Netherlands, Japan and Australia -- but they had a common goal: to win the World Cup.

The men's version of the game, governed by the International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football [IFCPF], has been alive under various guises since the 1980s. Russia and Ukraine have dominated since 2000, with Iran and Brazil their closest competitors and the U.S. among the teams in the chasing pack.

Players receive classifications: FT1, FT2 or FT3. "Think about it as a sliding scale, with FT3 being the least physically impaired and FT1 being the most," Sharp, the coach of the men's team, explains to ESPN. "That is not a measure of skill. FT2s can be more skillful and dominant than FT3s.

"It's not technical ability. Think distance covered, sprinting speed, accelerations and decelerations."

This classification process happens on-site. A doctor checks the players pre-tournament, unless they have a classification from a previous competition, putting them through a series of drills and then monitoring them during 30 minutes of action. If players are not classified, they are not allowed to take part.

"It is cut-throat," Joshua Brunais, the current captain of the men's team, told ESPN.

The level of play is good. Tackles fly in. So do crosses, with Argentina scoring a brilliant header in a placing game against England. Teams include players that played at college or in academies. England captain Matt Crossen plays non-league and is represented by Nike, which is another sign of the game's growth.

The format allows teams to leave a player high without the risk of offside, providing opportunities for quick counters or more direct play. It is end-to-end in speed, and the fact it is small-sided adds a "total football" element, too. Rotations, as they're called, become important, and no one rotates better than Ukraine. Several opposition sides told ESPN it's impossible to play against them because they rotate positions so well, making it difficult to know who to pick up and whether to stay or go with a runner.

Teams can have a maximum of one FT3 on the pitch at any time and must always have a minimum of one FT1. "In a match against England, I once took off Sean Boyle, who is probably the No. 1 goalkeeper in the world, for a FT1 to get another FT2 outfield who could press the game," Sharp adds. "An example in the mainstream game would be if you are behind with 10 minutes to go, you take a defender off for a midfielder. We do the same, but we also say 'we're going to increase the speed on the field by putting a FT1 in goal and increasing our positional and physical advantage on the pitch.'"

After early teething problems -- complaints from U.S. defender Drew Bremer on crowded cafes at the resort hosting the teams and poor facilities were addressed by the IFCPF -- the tournament comes to life. Favourites Ukraine (with Russia omitted) set the pace in the men's World Cup, while the U.S. sprang a surprise by topping a group including much-fancied Iran. There was, however, a suggestion Iran threw the group to avoid meeting Ukraine until the final.

The U.S. team's progress over the last decade is thanks to the dedication of Sharp and Moorhouse. The players want for nothing; U.S. Soccer are all-in. The same medical teams, analysts, equipment staff and coaches work across various national sides. Some of the medical staff in Salou, for example, had been with the USWNT previously.

Despite that, player identification and recruitment remain difficult.

"It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack when you don't know what a haystack looks like," Sharp says. "It involves luck, but we have methods to help us be luckier than we were through social media, presentations, webinars, working with physiotherapy units and hospitals or neurological specialists, to ask if they are coming across athletes from this background.

"Now we are seeing clubs specifically for para soccer. For the men's national team, we have a pool of 25-30 players, but there are 300-400 players on our database. They could be currently playing adult soccer or aged 12 and we know in four years' time, they will be knocking on the door."

On the eve of their opening match, the women's team are summoned to the dressing room. After a sweat-inducing walk up 50 steps in the searing Salou heat, they see their coaches standing outside the door with grins on their faces. Tears follow as they find match-issued shirts hung up with names on the back. It is a lot to take for Renick, who seeks out former classmate Hensley for a hug. Her teammates reach for their phones for an impromptu photo shoot to mark the pinch-me moment of representing the United States on the world stage.

"When I saw my jersey, it was just, like, 31 years of work and investment and loving the sport and eight years of trials and tribulations living and adapting my life around deficits I adopted through a brain injury," Renick said. "I just needed to step aside and be present. The moment was so significant and one I dreamed of when I was younger. Suddenly, it's here.

"I get a chance to serve my country with my passion -- who gets to say that?"

Renick was a Division I college player. Her career came to a premature end when she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular autoimmune disease, following a series of strokes. She spent the last seven years pushing for the creation of this team, first contacting Sharp in 2015.

"I sent an email pretending to be a guy," she laughs. "Actually, I didn't lie. I didn't use gender identifiers, just my résumé. Stuart gave me an opportunity to send in a video and he was like '... but you're a woman.' Well, yes."

When COVID-19 closed another door on Renick in 2020, she began to give up on her dream. She had a baby during the pandemic and then, weeks after giving birth last year, an email arrived. "The first thing I did was call my husband," she remembers. "I was prepared for him to say it was not realistic for us at the time. But he said: 'How can you say no?'

"He hasn't seen a lot of my disability when playing. I warned him before the tournament. I was like, I just want to prepare you, I am very fatigued, this is what you are going to see if you come to the opening ceremony, I am having difficulty standing, I am having difficulty with my cognitive processing. I think it's a big thing for him to adapt to because he's like, am I encouraging my wife to put herself in harm's way? But he gets why I need to do this."

Renick had the additional stress of being away from her 8-month-old daughter. She admits it is "hard not to feel selfish" at times, but adds that being a mother has given her more purpose. "A big part is legacy-building," she says.

Taliaferro's side opened with a 16-0 win over Spain and then beat Netherlands 14-0. "I asked someone if the level of this tournament is similar to the men when they started, and he said it is absolutely the same and the level is going to get better," Taliaferro says. "We have maybe tapped into 2% of athletes that can participate on this team. I can't wait to see how it evolves."

Renick didn't feature in the first game, but came into the side to score six times against Netherlands, pushing herself to the point of exhaustion that she required medical treatment at full time. She remains highly competitive.

"When I learned [my career] was done, I went into a grieving period where I almost resented the sport," she explains. "I was like: 'I gave everything to you and you left me.' It was like a death and I had to grieve.

"What is cool is I kind of feel I have done that. I have found myself in my career, as a mother, as a wife, and I am so confident in who that person is. Then soccer showed back up again. It was like now you have all of that and feel genuinely comfortable, go run with a ball again. It was pure gratitude, the most humble and awe-inspiring appreciation for an opportunity."

Jonah Meyer-Crothers, 18, is the only FT3 on the men's team, and you can tell his teammates are aware of his talent. They constantly look to give him the ball. As a relative newcomer to the side, he hasn't yet taken on the status his ability demands, but regardless, he delivered a match-winning performance against Netherlands, scoring a stunning hat trick as the U.S. set up a semifinal with Ukraine.

His story is remarkable. He suffered a stroke at birth and was airlifted to an area hospital. His birth mother was addicted to drugs, so for the first few months of his life, he went through drug withdrawals and seizures. Later, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and his adopted parents were told he would struggle to walk. "Give him a soccer ball," they were advised, "and see what happens."

By the age of 6, as he remembers it, he was "dribbling around kids in a rec league and scoring a bunch of goals," but his progress was halted in 2016 when he had open heart surgery after being diagnosed with coronary sinus stenosis. The midfielder, who plays club football for Michigan Wolves, still feels the effects of everything he has been through.

"It's hard with my right side," he says steadily. "At times I can use my right if I think really hard about it, but with the left, it's all natural. Also, with the whole stroke at birth, my thought process has been jumbled. It takes a while for me to think of what to say and what not. A lot of people don't know it's something I struggle with."

As the U.S. men waited for their first semifinal at this level, Iran reached the final with a bad-tempered 4-1 win against Brazil. The contest was more memorable for gamesmanship than goals. Iran's feigning of injuries, time-wasting and complaining clouded what was, at times, an impressive performance and clearly irked and unsettled their opponents. There is no major secret to Ukraine, Iran and, before their exclusion, Russia's success.

"Around 10 years ago, they all set up a system to pay players as full-time pros," Sharp explains. "I visited Russia last year and the coach told me how much they were paying. We can't match that. Brazil also went professional in the buildup to Rio 2016, but that funding was withdrawn in 2018."

There is also a very loose suggestion among the community at the tournament that certain countries have freer access to medical records that can help facilitate player identification. That level of competition is not always mirrored at the resort, where teams hang out around the pool, although Ukraine and Iran are noticeable by their absence as you walk around.

U.S. goalkeeper Boyle, who is on U.S. Soccer's board, took on a Thailand player at chess one day, though the players don't mix much. "We say hello and some of the guys played chess which was cool, but screw those guys man, I am here to win," Brunais half-jokes. "We can be homies later, but whether you're in my group or not, you're my enemy because who knows when we could cross paths."

Brunais was brought up between Germany and the United States. He steered away from soccer to follow his brother into the military.

"Just briefly," he begins when asked how he ended up on the team, "I was in a couple of accidents. I was in a helicopter crash in 2007, which was my first brain injury, and a couple of years later, somebody stepped on an IED when I was within range. Once you have a [traumatic brain injury], you're more susceptible. And then throughout my career handling demolition, it just rings your bell a lot, so between two or three major incidents and then always being around explosions, altogether it just jacked me up."

Sharp expands: "Josh has got a soldier's medal, which is the highest medal you can get without a shot being fired. He saved multiple lives.

"When he came on to the team, he was in a dark place. I had doubts whether he would make the squad. But with his background, being an elite performer in the military, the best within the best, he set himself the challenge to make the team. All he did was work his arse off. He is a leader."

Brunais also leads the "player-led" camaraderie off the pitch, dishing out responsibilities to newcomers. Chileshe Chitulangoma is named the "germ worm" and distributes hand sanitiser before meals. Kevin McCandlish is dubbed the "sauce boss" and ensures a constant supply of dressings to jazz up the local cuisine. Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue Sauce -- there was a collective sigh of relief when it was found at the local supermarket -- Cholula Hot Sauce and Chick-Fil-A Sauce were in demand.

Harder tests followed for the women. They drew 1-1 with Japan. Catarina Guimaraes got the goal, one of the 10 she scored at the finals. Born with cerebral palsy, Guimaraes also competes in track and field for Team USA, as does teammate Michelle Cross, who was also born with cerebral palsy and has limited balance and no mobility in her right arm.

A 4-0 win against Australia followed, with Wickett netting a hat-trick as the families of the players, who had all flown in from the States, celebrating loudly in the stands after days spent enjoying the beaches of the Catalan coast.

"All the girls have their own stories and you could dig in on any of them," Taliaferro says. "What some of them went through at 14, 15... just thinking of being a parent and having to go through that. But then being able to say your daughter is playing in a World Cup, that has to be amazing. I can't even imagine how they feel, it makes me emotional thinking about it."

Taliaferro, who previously coached U.S youth teams, was appointed at the end of 2021. As part of the job, she felt impelled to sit through difficult moments listening to the back stories of her players.

"When our doctors were classifying the girls, I asked if I could sit in," she adds. "Listening I was like 'Oh my god, are you kidding me?' Jesslyn perhaps hit me the most, just waking up one morning and not being able to walk the same. That to me is amazing. Her spirit, her attitude is just phenomenal.

"They have all been through something, meaning like near-death experiences, and to be able to persevere, come back and excel on a world stage, it's amazing. Jesslyn gets me. In fact, she only came to the last camp. With her and our goalkeeper Emily, it was last minute. I was begging: 'Please get them in!'

"Then Joey [Martin]'s brain tumour, going through chemo and the importance of being able to balance both things. Wow."

The presence of Martin, aged 18, in Salou can only be described as incredible. "The brain tumour was diagnosed in 2020 and about 85% of it was surgically removed," she explains. "For the remaining piece, I was treated with chemotherapy for 68 consecutive weeks, ending in June 2021. That kept the tumour stable until early 2022.

"I began another round of chemotherapy on May 5, 2022, the day before we left for the World Cup. This time in pill form -- not [a drip] like the last one -- which allowed me to take it twice daily throughout the competition. If it had not been in pill form, I potentially would have not been cleared to travel because the tumour is in a spot where surgery isn't an option anymore, but there are obvious negative effects if the tumour continues to grow.

"The hope with this round of chemo is to stabilise the tumour again and then potentially receive radiation. Depending on how the tumour and my body react to this pill, I could be on it for anywhere from three months to two years. It depends on the response of the tumour."

Like with the men's team, through these shared experiences comes a bond that is not easily replicated. "They all have something that they usually try to hide or suppress, and they come into an environment like this and it's more comfortable," Taliaferro says. "They relate. The sisterhood of that, how they all relate to each other, it's a bond none of us can even come close to."

The men's hopes are dashed in the semifinal as they lose to eventual winners Ukraine, with U.S. Soccer's sporting director Earnie Stewart flying in to see them beaten 5-1. Two late goals distort the scoreline of a game that in reality was much closer, as Stewart tells the players in a huddle after they've showered.

Stewart's presence is another sign of the level of investment in the para teams. Despite the loss, and then a third-place playoff defeat to Brazil, fourth place represents a best-ever finish for the U.S, but the women look destined to go one better. Australia are their opponents in the final and after a group stage of mixed quality and levels, one of the most exciting games of the tournament follows.

The U.S. fight back from a goal down to lead thanks to strikes from Winnick and Kuhnel. Australia level again to take the game to extra time but Taliaferro's stroke of genius follows. She positions Wickett, the team's FT3 player, in what is basically a "sweeper-keeper" role. The former Washington Spirit player runs the game from the back and the U.S. win 4-2. Martin sets up Kuhnel for her second and then adds the fourth herself late on to set up beautiful, celebratory scenes as they lift the trophy.

"Every part of [the final] was a dream come true," Martin wrote on Instagram. "Even the parts I never knew I wanted. Throwing up four times in the game [and] then scoring a minute later to seal the win makes for a great story, and while I never ever wanted to be filmed throwing up where the entire world has access to it, this very embarrassing moment allows a chance to share more of the wonders the Lord has worked."

Taliaferro hopes World Cup success is just the beginning for this group, who can become role models for aspiring players from different backgrounds who may have thought soccer was not an option. "I want this to be long-term," Taliaferro says. "This is a unique opportunity to build a team within the sport. For me, this is a long-term commitment. I want to build out this program and this team and the game because there are not many times you get to do that, especially on the international stage."

The size of the U.S. does pose some difficulties. It's not as easy to get players together as it is in England or Netherlands, but as more players become involved in the game, there is the possibility of more regional camps. It can also be difficult to retain players as they age and dedicate more time to jobs. With the men, Sharp is already working on ways around that with a centralised training program in Atlanta as part of a pathway to keep people playing.

There is a steady stream of around five players involved in the program at any one time, including Brunais. They train in the week and play in local leagues, which also leads to other opportunities. Defender Bremer, for example, has worked as an analyst for the U.S. U20s. Brunais is heading down the coaching path, while Taliaferro says some of the female players have already been spoken to about the possibility of expanding the program.

"It was set up to be a recognised player pathway reflective of the mainstream game," Sharp says. "What we want to provide for families and individuals with a disability is that their impairment will never be a barrier to success. Can't play club? Yes, you can because we have a club system. No professional route for someone with a disability? Well, there is [the centralised training program] and then there is the national team.

"If they show quality, they can follow that same route and achieve dreams like anyone else. And we can create role models. Girls see Alex Morgan, boys Christian Pulisic, now young kids with CP can look at Catarina or Jonah. They can have the same idols and, hopefully, stay in the game.

"In U.S. Soccer, by 2050, we want to be the preeminent sport in the country and we don't achieve that just by [creating] players, but by players becoming administrators, journalists, referees, coaches, fans. If we can do that through all these pathways, and it starts with this kid looking at a role model and staying in the game, then that's huge for me."