In October 2017, American soccer hit rock bottom.
A shocking 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago condemned the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team to a long four-year wait at another chance to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. Then-head coach Bruce Arena stepped down after and a cloud—not unlike the rainy skies that night—loomed large over a demoralized group questioning its future.
When asked about the defeat, defender Omar Gonzalez said, “We let down an entire nation today.”
Even if the loss made it blatantly clear, uncertain futures are nothing new for American soccer fans. Despite the country boasting 330 million people and some of the world’s most fervent sports culture, soccer has not largely gripped the U.S. the same way it has hooked so much of the globe.
Across seas and language barriers, from Rio de Janeiro to the cobbled streets of Paris, soccer is ubiquitous and uniting regardless of economic standing and national origin. No matter the name—calcio, fußball, fútbol—the beautiful game is so much more than just a sport to so many.
That’s certainly true with Peter Stroud, a junior midfielder at Duke. For as long as he can remember, soccer and life have been one and the same.
“It was just a way for us all to bond as a family,” Stroud told The Chronicle. “And that's how we really got along, was through soccer.”
His three older brothers, Dylan, Jared and Will, all played in college, as did their father, Stephen. Jared currently plies his trade for Austin FC, the Matthew McConaughey-backed MLS expansion team that debuted in 2021. Evidently, the success and dedication of his siblings inspired Stroud to shoot for the stars and carve his path to the pinnacle of the soccer world.
“It was definitely all because of my brothers,” he said. “They were always playing and I always wanted to be just like them growing up.”
It became immediately clear, however, that Stroud wasn’t just another player; he was an elite one.
The Red Bulls revolution
Stroud’s big break came just 41 miles from his hometown of Chester, N.J., at the academy of MLS club New York Red Bulls. A part of the larger Red Bull group, the owners of the American branch also operate teams in Salzburg, Austria, and Leipzig, Germany, a pair of powerhouse programs that consistently challenge for league titles and in recent years have become a hotbed for American talent. Products of the Red Bull system include Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, two USMNT standouts that start regularly for esteemed English Premier League club Leeds United and their coach, Jesse Marsch, who managed Red Bulls from 2015-2018.
There are few better places in the U.S. to build soccer rapport.
“I think people started to see that I moved the ball a little differently than the other kids,” Stroud said. “We decided it was probably time for me to take soccer a little more seriously and move on from my little club team. So I ended up trying out for Red Bulls.”
NYRB, much like its sister teams in Europe, is notorious for its ruthless press, a tactical instruction Stroud has masterfully integrated into his game and turned into one of his greatest assets in head coach John Kerr’s Duke system.
Equally, his time in Red Bulls’ academy taught the young Stroud the discipline and work ethic required to turn his undisputed talent into a finished product.
“It’s a really tough standard,” Stroud said. “They expect a lot more. It's simply a lot to know. The coaching staff pushes you really, really hard and they have a philosophy there and they want the players to be a part of that philosophy.”
“It wasn't just soccer for fun, it was soccer with a purpose,” he added. “I wanted to take it seriously.”
The American dream
Stroud was so impressive during his time with Red Bulls that he received 15 call-ups each to the USMNT U15 and U17 rosters, where he played regularly with some of the country’s brightest prospects and against some of the world’s most established powerhouses.
One of the main criticisms of the USMNT in its loss to Trinidad and Tobago was the neglect of the deep talent reserves the nation was building in favor of less dynamic, more experienced players. Aside from then-19-year-old captain Christian Pulisic—who scored in that match—the vast majority of the American roster comprised older heads from the MLS and ex-stars past their best, including a 38-year-old Tim Howard and 34-year-old Clint Dempsey. That script has almost entirely flipped in the five years since, however, and the USMNT heads into the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar with the tournament’s youngest roster.
The U.S. will field its most promising and skillful generation in decades, headlined by an extensive list of Stroud’s U15 and U17 national teammates.
Among this list are Timothy Weah, son of Liberian president and former Ballon D’Or winner George Weah, Giovanni Reyna, son of former USMNT star Claudio Reyna and midfielder for German giant Borussia Dortmund, and Gabriel Slonina, a goalkeeper who signed for Premier League monolith Chelsea this summer in a deal worth $15 million.
“Playing with some of the best players and then learning from them, and then also seeing some of them do well now, it's pretty cool to see that,” Stroud said of his best experiences with the national team.
Though Stroud likely won’t make the roster for the World Cup, it bears repeating that many of the names who will were longtime teammates of his. On top of that, it was his excellent performances in the summer of 2018 for the U.S. that caught the eye of West Ham United—an established Premier League club with a famed academy—who signed Stroud up and moved him across the pond for a shot in Europe’s richest and most competitive league. The combination of the relentless press he learned with Red Bulls and his knack for drawing fouls fit well with the Premier League style of the time, which focused heavily on stamina, physicality and a tireless work ethic.
Stroud already had an English passport due to his father’s British citizenship and was quickly roped into the West Ham setup. One of the most surreal experiences, according to Stroud, was the complete cultural shift in what soccer meant to the people of London.
“Just learning how much passion and love for the game, and then also just picking up the skills was just amazing,” he said.
During his time with the club, he got to participate in the Checkatrade Trophy–since renamed the English Football League Trophy—a tournament in which Premier League youth sides face off against lower-league professional teams. It was also the first time Stroud’s name was printed on his jersey.
As college loomed and Duke came calling for one of the country’s top midfield prospects, Stroud moved back stateside and settled into his new home. Despite his raw talent and the careful instruction he received from some of the sport’s brightest minds, his freshman campaign did not go as smoothly as he would have liked, and the team finished 4-10-3.
“Freshman year, I was inexperienced,” Stroud said. “I needed to make sure that I had my stuff in order, the way I was playing. I needed to make sure the way I was playing was good enough.”
Despite the struggles, Stroud was still voted Duke’s Most Valuable Player and featured on the 2020 All-ACC Third Team and ACC All-Freshman Team. As year one faded into year two, however, Stroud’s stock shot up fast.
ACC Midfielder of the Year. All-ACC First Team. ACC All-Tournament Team. Stroud was on fire, and that trajectory has not stopped his pursuit of Duke soccer legend. Beyond that, he wants to follow in the footsteps of his brother and his youth national teammates to the sport’s brightest lights and grandest stages.
“I definitely want to play professional soccer,” Stroud said. “That's my dream and goal. That's why I'm working every day—so I can be ready to make that step.”
Despite the hit its reputation took in 2017, American soccer is on the rise. An unseen golden generation has breathed new life into the discouraged men’s team and ensured that the footballing future of the U.S. is in excellent hands.
Soccer has been an afterthought for years. To bring itself back into the spotlight, it needs passion. It needs love. It needs, in the words of the USMNT’s famous mantra, belief that it will win.
“It's what I put the most time and effort into,” Stroud said. “I love it so much.”
With this new, generation-defining ethos, it feels like that belief is finally back.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.