A game without borders: International talent has played a major role in the rise of Ball State Soccer
Canada's famed maple leaf and the unmistakable Swiss cross join Trinidad and Tobago's vibrant red and black flag outside the fence at Briner Sports Complex. Athletes in the middle of the pitch also catch glimpses of the U.S., Spanish, Swedish and English flags as they chase and make plays up and down the field.
The different colors, different designs, different countries and different origins still come down to meaning the same thing for Ball State Soccer players.
While seven players from the 2018 Ball State Soccer roster weren’t born in the United States, they all call Muncie home. Players come from near and far to play for the Cardinals, including Trinidad and Tobago, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, Sweden and England.
The Cardinals have made it to back-to-back Mid-American Conference Tournament championships, but their success hasn’t always been consistent. After finishing with a record of 4-13-1 in 2009, then-first-year head coach Craig Roberts began to bring in overseas talent to Ball State.
Roberts, originally from England, is currently the winningest coach in Ball State Soccer history. In 2010, Roberts brought in three international players to play for the Cardinals, and the team began to see improvement, finishing with a record of 7-10-2.
“I felt that we needed more diversity,” Roberts said. “Whether it was from different countries, whether it was going to be race, we just needed to mix things up.”
During the 2011 season, Roberts and the Cardinals finished without a losing record for the first time since 2007. Although the team was earning more wins, Roberts was more focused on creating a better team chemistry for Ball State.
“The closer the team is, the better the performance they’re going to have,” Roberts said.
Before every season, Roberts brings the players together for team-bonding experiences. For example, the players will unite and display middle school pictures of one another without telling each other who is who. The players then try to guess which of their teammates each picture belongs to.
Junior Yela Ziswiler, from Switzerland, said coming to Ball State was like having a second family right away.
“You come in your first day and you already have friends,” Ziswiler said. “So you already know like 20 people, which makes it a lot easier than if you come here and have no team around you and you kind of have to find friends.”
The Cardinals also bond over a holiday gathering before winter break.
“We will bring players together before Christmas,” Roberts said. “We have kind of a team Christmas dinner. We share customs. It’s an option for them to grow.”
With a shared experience of playing far from home, the players have bonded over the adjustment to college life in the U.S., along with some homesickness.
“I had people in my grade that were international, so we helped each other to figure stuff out together,” Swedish junior forward Julia Elvbo said. “It made the adjustment a lot easier than if I came here alone as an international [student].”
The team’s resurgence isn’t solely due to the addition of more international players, but Roberts believes they bring a different style to the game, allowing the players to learn from each other.
Before any international players joined the team, Ball State played more physically. English junior midfielder Nicky Potts said she didn’t know exactly what to do when she first joined the team.
“The people are more physical here, whereas when I’m back home, I played technical — like pass and move,” Potts said. “Now, the players blend their style of play with both the technical and physical approaches.”
After a couple of years of practicing and playing in what Roberts considers a more international way, the Cardinals took the next step in 2012 and earned their first winning season under Roberts. The season featured six international players.
Roberts used an website that featured international soccer players’ highlights to recruit internationally. Before committing to Ball State, sophomore midfielder from Trinidad and Tobango Chelsi Ralph was informed by a recruiter about the website. Three days after posting her own highlights, she received a call and offer to play for Roberts at Ball State.
The recruitment process led to six international players rostered on the 2013 team, and the Cardinals finished toward the top of the Mid-American Conference, improving to 11-7-4. In 2015, Roberts brought the Cardinals their first regular season conference championship in eight years.
Consistency became the backbone of the team’s play on the field, and Roberts made sure to keep a consistent amount of international players rostered on the team year after year.
In 2016, the Cardinals ended the season with another MAC regular season championship, but Roberts and the Cardinals aimed for a new goal: a MAC Tournament championship.
The Cardinals made the championship game in 2017 and again the following season. The 2018 campaign featured seven international players on the roster, but the Cardinals suffered a defeat after penalty kicks in the championship game against Bowling Green.
To push for a MAC Tournament championship this upcoming season, Roberts said he is bringing in more international players to join the team. If the team holds more than seven international players on their roster for this season, it will be the most the Cardinals have had in team history.
The country flags have been joined by two recent MAC regular-season championship flags, but the Cardinals are still searching for that MAC Tournament flag to join the group. Together, the players join as one, U.S.-born or not, united as a team.
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