They've traveled across the Midwest, up and down the east coast and even flown to Texas to compete at the prestigious Dallas Cup. But for the Riverhounds Development Academy's 2007 Boys team, those trips are nothing compared to what lies ahead next week.
The 07 Boys are getting a special opportunity this month to travel to Glasgow, Scotland, where they will get the opportunity to train with the historic Rangers Football Club and compete with youth academy teams from Rangers and other Scottish Premiership clubs.
Not only is the trip a soccer-focused one, it also will be a chance for the young Hounds to experience a soccer culture -- rather, a football culture -- unlike anything they have been a part of before as they attend a Premiership match against Hearts, another of Scotland's oldest clubs, at Rangers' longtime home, Ibrox Stadium.
"I was really excited when I heard we were going to get the opportunity to go overseas and get the opportunity to play at the next level," midfielder Garrett Chandler said.
That excitement was a unanimous feeling among the players, who have experienced their share of success, most recently winning their division at the Nation's Capital Cup, Nov. 16-17, in Northern Virginia. Still, none of that is quite at the level of traveling to one of the world's most soccer-mad nations and diving head-first into their culture.
"They're going to be really tough, physical players, and we need to play really strong," midfielder Brayden Davin said. "I'm kind of nervous, but we know it's going to be a really good experience, and we're going to have fun."
MEET THE HOSTS
Rangers, founded in 1872, holds the distinction of having won more domestic league titles than any club worldwide with 54 titles.
Recognizable for their traditional royal blue uniforms, Rangers also has won the UEFA Cup (now called the Europa League) and the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup in its past. That rich history makes the club one of the two standard-bearers for Scottish football, the other being its cross-town rival Celtic, with the two combining to win 104 of the 122 top-division championships.
The club has reemerged in recent years after financial insolvency led it to drop out of the top tier for the first time in its history. Last season, with Liverpool and England legend Steven Gerrard as manager, the top of the Scottish Premiership standings were a familiar site with Celtic and Rangers -- known collectively as the Old Firm -- finishing first and second as they have so many times before.
Rangers' home at Ibrox, with a capacity of more than 50,000, is one of the largest stadiums in Scotland. Among the team's better-known current players are veteran goalkeeper Allan McGregor, who recently retired from the Scottish National team, and longtime England striker Jermain Defoe.
Rangers also has an American among its current squad, 26-year-old defender Matt Polster, and the club has previously been home for a number of U.S. National Team members, including Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra.
WHAT'S THE CONNECTION?
At first glance, a Riverhounds-to-Rangers pairing might seem a bit unusual. But take a quick look inside the office of Academy Director Scott Gibson, where there are more than a few pieces of Rangers memorabilia, and the picture begins to get a bit clearer.
"I'm a die-hard Rangers fan,” Gibson said. “I was a season ticket holder for 10 years. My brother, my dad and I used to go up to the games. We lived in the northeast of England, and we'd be on the supporters' bus going up there. My grandparents were from there, my dad was born there, so that was the connections. I saw nine titles in a row through the 90s before I moved to the U.S., and still follow them."
Those ties helped set the stage, but there was much more than just being a fan that went into arranging this trip, the first of its kind for an RDA team. In fact, any trip overseas would have seemed far-fetched in the early years of the Riverhounds Academy, to which Gibson would attest.
"When we started the Academy, the thought of taking one of our teams across would've been a dream at the time," Gibson said.
It turned out that a hiring that didn't happen years ago for the Hounds laid the groundwork for this first journey overseas, as the wide world of professional soccer once again showed it can be a small community.
"A guy by the name of Gary Crooks, we actually interviewed Gary back around 2011, he wanted to get a job here but couldn't secure a visa, so he went back to Glasgow," Gibson said. "He worked his way up in Rangers' international community relations, and we kept in touch. So about two years ago, I was in Glasgow. He showed me around the training center, I watched the first team train, and he mentioned if we wanted to bring a team over, we could.
"At the time, we weren't ready, but now, I think we are, and the 07 Boys are a good fit for it. If this goes well this year, we'd love to do this once a year or once every two years, take some more teams over."
A FAMILY TIE
Gibson isn't the only one in the traveling party with roots in Scotland.
Justin Walsh, who captains the 07 Boys, has his own ties to the northern end of the British Isles, which has him particularly excited to make the flight across the Atlantic.
"I think about the rivalry, Rangers and Celtic," Walsh said when asked the first thing that came to mind about Scotland. "My dad grew up in Scotland and Ireland, so I kind of like them both, but more a Celtic fan. But I think of the rivalry first."
Walsh and his teammates, apart from the on-field aspect of the trip, have said they're eager to visit another country, try the food and see the sights. But for Walsh, in particular, seeing for the first time a country that is part of his family's heritage will be a special bonus.
"I'm staying after to visit my uncle,” Walsh said. “He's like, 90 years old, and I've never seen him before, so I'm really excited about that, too.”
WHAT'S ON THE SCHEDULE?
Once the wheels touch down on U.K. soil, it's going to be a busy time for the 07 Boys and coach John Rotz.
In addition to their training, the young Hounds have three matches lined up against academy sides from three Scottish clubs: Dundee United, St. Johnstone and Rangers.
All three of those matches will put the Hounds to the test, as they experience what Gibson described as the "cut-throat" nature of academy soccer overseas.
"They told us it's a lot more physical, a lot more off-the-ball chippiness," Walsh said. "It's more developed over there. They've got a chip on their shoulder to try and make the pro team one day. All those kids want to get contracts with the pro team."
Gibson said he hasn't told the players too much about what to expect in Scotland, while Rotz has kept things business-as-usual on the field, a necessity considering the team was playing competitive matches as recently as last weekend.
But now the players' minds are drifting forward to the unknown journey ahead of them. There is some uncertainty, to be sure, but as one would expect from 12-year-old boys, there is also a great deal of enthusiasm for what is to come.
"I think for a lot of us, it's the first time [leaving the country]," Davin said. "We're going to play and get to watch a game there, and [Gibson] said to just have a good time. I think we're ready. We need to work a little more, but I think we'll be fine."
"I'm excited to be in a part of the world where soccer is really big,” Chandler said. “We're definitely going to try our hardest and play to the best of our ability.”