Huntington, West Virginia. A yawning void in the city centre, American children and teenagers who do not have to go to school the next day. Only rolling tumbleweed is missing to complete stage of a classic Western. There is a state of emergency in the city of 50,000 in the mid-east of the USA – not because a tornado has put the American population on the other side of the pond on high alert. No, in this case it is down to a round piece of sporting equipment.
On 17 May 2021, the football team of Marshall University (West Virginia) met the favourites from Indiana in the final of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Anyone unable to get one of the 5,000 tickets – before the pandemic it would have been 15,000 – secured a place in front of the big screen in the city centre of Huntington to be able to follow the most important game in the city's history live. In the end, the 'Herd' won the final in Cary, North Carolina, against the Indiana Hoosiers with a 1-0 victory after extra time and thereby won their first title in the national college championship, which over 220 teams take part in, to write a chapter in West Virginian history.
Before, during and after the game there is a state of pure ecstasy – in the thick of it: Max Schneider. The former Bayer 04 youth player, who went through all the Leverkusen youth teams from the U13s, with the exception of the U16s, opted to do the balancing act between studying abroad and professional sport. As a holding midfielder, he is at the heart of a multicultural football team full of international talent.
The 20-year-old cannot really believe he has won the biggest national college title with his university: "The last few days, and even the weeks during the tournament, was like being in a film. The people went completely wild in the run-up to and during the game. I've never played on a stage like that in front of fans," enthused the Cologne-born player and he added: "it was just incredible. You can say we have achieved fame on the college campus with our title."
Max Schneider, son of the former second division player and current Bayer 04 physiotherapist Hansjörg Schneider, and his teammates are now known all over town – as he says, "the football players have the run of the campus," however, the recognition for the biggest sporting achievement in the history of Marshall University goes far beyond the bounds of the university. Now the players of the Marshall Thundering Herd are well known in Huntington itself. "If we go to a restaurant or a bar then we often don't have to pay because somebody picks up the tab for us. A lot of people actually see us as heroes, which actually almost appears to be a little bit absurd from my position," explained the 20-year-old humbly.
But what was the key to success the team including Max Schneider? What adjustments had to be made to turn a team that was not even in the top 80 college football teams in America four years ago into the successful side they are now.
Probably the biggest factor is the squad assembled by head coach Chris Grassie. The Englishman, who took over the team four years ago, has brought together a multinational squad with football influences from across the globe. In the starting line-up for the NCAA final against Indiana, there were three other Germans in addition to Max Schneider, an Englishman, an American, a Canadian as well as three Brazilians. "There is just a good mix in our team between resolution in defence and love of the game up front," said the defensive midfielder in assessing his team's approach.
The three Brazilians in particular give great pleasure to the German who describes his own task as "closing down space and quickly winning possession": "I mostly play behind the two attacking Brazilians. I actually only have to tidy up and see that I provide them with decent passes. Then they do their ‘Joga Bonito’ and more or less deal with the rest (he laughs). The technique the Brazilian lads have is incredible and you don't see that in Germany."
Nevertheless, Schneider, who is also studying psychology in addition to his football ambitions in the USA, would not like to be without the German approach the game he learned in the Bayer 04 youth teams: "Vision, control of the game, technical ability – those are the characteristics that mark me out as a football player."
"Those are all things that are helping me now in the USA and that I wouldn't have if I hadn't come through the ranks at Leverkusen." Particularly against athletic teams, which are no rarity in the USA and who prefer the kick and rush style of play, skilful football helps him and his team – to break down particularly physical opponents. "At the Kurtekotten Performance Centre, I learned to control the game and the opponents with possession," he explained.
The former Bayer 04 talent already has concrete plans for his future: "I'd like to finish my degree. That's important to me and it's why I came here. But from a sporting perspective, I hope I can get the chance here to establish myself in professional football in the USA and thereby realise my dream of becoming a professional football player." Years ago Major League Soccer was the target of European players who wanted to wind up their careers in the USA but now the MLS is attractive to young and talented players from home and abroad. According to Schneider, America has now recognised the potential of football and is now upgrading their development of talented players – particularly with the 2026 World Cup in USA/Mexico being played in the country." The USA definitely wants to produce talents in the coming years. Simply because there’s the money, 330 million people and the desire to establish the MLS alongside other top USA sports," said Schneider in assessing the sporting development of football, which is no longer the "little brother" of sports like American football or basketball. In addition, American idols like Christian Pulisic are making their mark in top European leagues. The American recently won the Champions League alongside his Chelsea teammate and former Bayer 04 player Kai Havertz.
The fact that 'soccer' is developing in the right way in the USA was evident to Schneider when he and his team brought the NCAA trophy to West Virginia. "When I came to West Virginia two years ago there was no fan community interested in football. Since we won the title, there’s talk of setting up a Soccer Academy. I believe the Americans are realising that football is just the best sport in the world. I'm sure there will be one or two more Pulisics in the next few years," said the NCAA champion.
Schneider is also currently working on promoting his football ambitions – in the summer break he went to Atlanta for a trial with a 'senior team'. At some point he would like to return to Germany – ideally as a professional player of course. He still has a piece of Kurtekotten in his heart: "I spent more or less half of my childhood and teenage years at Leverkusen. The lads I gained as friends will remain friends for life. The time together in the dressing room, the numerous tournaments abroad. With the U13s, we went to the Netherlands, Italy and even Qatar. Those are memories no one can take from me. And I like remembering things – that includes the derbies against FC."
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