FORT MYER, Va. (Army News Service, Jan. 25, 2008) -- The Army forms a soccer team somewhat similar to other organizations. Prospects are identified and notified to show up for a tryout camp.

Only in the Army, though, would a prospective player go directly from the battlefield to the playing field.

Staff Sgt. Michael Artis, a forward, returned from Afghanistan the day he was supposed to report to tryout camp at Fort Eustis, Va.

''I haven't had a chance to do anything other than play soccer," he said of the two or three times a day workouts. ''It's been relaxing. I got to go home for a few hours. It's been a great experience. I've been learning a lot. I'm glad I have an opportunity to take part."
More than 80 percent of the players are combat veterans.

The coach, Sgt. 1st Class Agustin Mendez, a chaplain assistant at Fort Myer, took his club to the Pentagon Tuesday prior to the Armed Forces soccer tournament which begins Feb. 1.
Team members met with Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston.

Mendez has been the coach of the all Army squad for 12 years. He played soccer professionally in Mexico from the age of 15 to 30.

''I came to play soccer in the U.S.," he said. ''I joined the Army instead."

The coach starts with about 30 players and winnows them down to 18. Army has won the inter-service championship for two consecutive years. They will play the Navy, Air Force and Marines twice each at Cherry Point, N.C. Feb. 1-6.

Old Guard Pfc. Tyler Stratford, 20, a center-midfield is the youngest player on the team.
''I've been playing soccer since I could walk," Stratford said. ''I was surprised I even got invited to the tryouts, having not played junior college or college ball. I feel very fortunate. I didn't think when I joined the Army a year ago I would be playing soccer."

Staff Sgt. Jose Alfaro, a native of El Salvador, was in Iraq six months ago and has played on three all-Army squads.

''When I first enlisted, I asked if there was an Army soccer team," he said. ''I was going to get out but coach talked me back to play."

The fullback reenlisted while serving in Iraq, so he could play for the Army again.

''In Iraq, we played in an open field," he said. ''The engineers cleared a little area for us in the dirt. Some-times we played the local nationals. I like this. No complaints. I'd rather run here two times a day, rather than in 140 degrees over there."

Assistant coach David Jones has a prestigious soccer pedigree. He played from the age of 10 to 16 in Manchester United's youth program. He came to the states to play for the New York-New Jersey Metro Stars in 2000.

Jones coached the Philadelphia Pirates in the now defunct Women's Professional Soccer League. He joined the Army in 2006 at the age of 38 and is now an emergency room medic at Fort Hood.

''I'm very impressed with the standard of players," he said. ''If they could be kept together, they could compete with any MLS (Major League Soccer) team. We've got some good players, a mix of veterans and new guys."

Jones loves his job and would love to reenlist and get in the nursing program.

''It's pretty neat," he said after meeting the brass. ''Not too many people in the service get to meet Gen. Casey, Sgt. Maj. Preston and the Secretary of the Army."

(Dennis Ryan writes for the Pentagram newspaper at Fort Myer, Va.)

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