Florida State's international stars take stage in Cary

Florida State had a unique obstacle to overcome: merging a number of international players. The result? A trip to the College Cup, writes Graham Hays.

Updated: December 1, 2006, 1:46 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

CARY, N.C. -- While the United Nations sometimes operates as if it's nothing more than a global oxymoron, Florida State's women's soccer team enters Friday's College Cup semifinal against undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame as a model of international cooperation.

Sel Kuralay
Paul Zoeller/AP PhotoSel Kuralay is one of Florida State's international stars.
Six of coach Mark Krikorian's players hail from outside the confines of North America. In contrast, the sum total of foreign players on the rosters of the other three teams in Cary, N.C., is two, and both of those, Robyn Gayle of North Carolina and Kara Lang of UCLA (who is out for the year with an ACL injury) are from Canada, which has long been a pipeline of talent for U.S. colleges.

International stars aren't a new phenomenon at top college programs. Even the programs in Cary this weekend have their own history of foreign relations. Mexico's Iris Mora finished her career at UCLA in last season's College Cup, her third consecutive trip to the season's final weekend. Iceland's Gudrun Gunnarsdottir played a key role for Notre Dame when Randy Waldrum's team won the title two years ago, and Finnish star Anne Makinen played in three College Cups during four years at Notre Dame.

But few teams have managed to cover the globe quite like Florida State.

Mami Yamaguchi (Japan) and Selin Kuralay (Australia) have Asia and Oceania covered, while Katrin Schmidt and Maike Seuren (Germany), Kirsten van de Ven (Holland) and Iraia Iturregi (Spain) represent a large swath of Europe. And it's not about sightseeing; all but Seuren, a freshman defender, are starters for the Seminoles.

In just his second season as coach, Krikorian arrived at the same time as Schmidt, Kuralay, Yamaguchi and van de Ven (who transferred from Quinnipiac after the 2004 season). All except Yamaguchi, who had some contact with the school before Krikorian took the job, came as a direct result of the new coach. The team already had an international presence with star midfielder Viola Odebrecht and goalie Minna Pyykko, but there was still some culture shock last year.

"A year ago, I think that there was an awful lot of change in bringing that first class that contained some domestic kids but a handful of international kids," Krikorian said. "And I've said it many times, that the key to our success a year ago, which has continued on this year, was how open-minded our returning players were to change and to difference. And those kids came in and made a huge impact in our program on the field and in the culture as well. And our American kids embraced them, which made the transition easier."

Easier, but not necessarily easy. Sarah Wagenfuhr, a holdover recruit of coach Patrick Bakers who decided to honor her commitment after coming away impressed with Krikorian, remembered some unique hurdles that had to be scaled early last season.

"At first it was pretty hard to get used to, just because the language barrier," Wagenfuhr said. "They didn't know what 'man on' meant and things like that, which is key to know in soccer. But after a while of being together, we all learned what each other knows."

From the other side, it wasn't just terms that were new, but an entire style of play.

"Soccer style is so much different from Japanese soccer style," Yamaguchi said in slightly halting English that hasn't stopped her from compiling the third-highest GPA on the team. "Americans are more individual, because they are athletic, they have speed, physical. And I was struggling in American soccer style."

Wagenfuhr ended up diving in the deep end during the transition, living as the only American with four of the international players in a dorm and sharing a room with Yamaguchi. In addition to building chemistry on the field, the intermingling of cultures led to some memorable moments off the field.

"I learned a ton about Japanese culture. Her mom would send me candies and stuff like that, and their candy is not our candy. I'm not going to say if it's good or bad," Wagenfuhr laughed.

Yamaguchi is living with Kuralay this year, and the two have enjoyed the culinary exchange between Japanese cuisine and Kuralay's Turkish roots.

"I cook for her some Turkish food, and she cooks for me some Japanese food, and then if we feel like some German food, we can always just go across, 100 meters away, and there we are, we have some German food as well," Kuralay said, giving herself away with metric measurements. "It's really great that we can actually get together on a personal basis and share our culture a bit, whether it is making food or just hanging out."

Cautious and reserved during an interview outside her native language, Yamaguchi broke into a broad smile and laughed at the mention of the dueling cooks.

"Sel and me, our taste is kind of similar," Yamaguchi said. "She love the food I made, and I love the meal she made. It's good, because last year, we had to eat at dorm, and I didn't like it. This year, we can make whatever we want. If we have time, we always cook. We share food. I just love it."

More than their on-field accomplishments, and Kuralay, Wagenfuhr and Yamaguchi are three of Florida State's most accomplished and essential players, all three players seemed to relish the experience they've had sharing life off the field for the last two seasons.

"I think it's been an incredible experience, because you don't get to experience that many cultural -- no other college team gets to experience that many cultures at one time," Wagenfuhr said. "And the cool thing is they're so willing to learn about our culture, and we're all willing to learn about theirs. So we all just share in each others, like Christmas traditions, and we've all learned a little bit of Dutch, Japanese and Germans, so that's cool."

All of which didn't change the fact that coming from countries where women's soccer is still in its infancy, the chance to train at a place like Florida State was an eye-opening on-field experience for many of the newcomers.

Despite playing on one of the nation's top club teams in Japan, Yamaguchi and other women's players in the country don't have the same level of support that women's players find at top American college programs.

"We couldn't use whole ground," Yamaguchi said. "We shared with men's team. Also, the field wasn't real grass, it was like turf. … Also, we couldn't use the training room, because it was the training room for the men's professional team. So we were sharing, but if the professional player is there, we couldn't use, we couldn't get in."

"Compared to Florida State," she continued with a shake of her head, "I can't compare it."

Part pragmatism in finding the best available talent to compete in the rugged ACC and part social experiment, Krikorian's willingness to open up his roster to the world paid on the field with a trip to the College Cup and off the field with unlikely friendships.

"We're very open-minded," Krikorian said. "We think that soccer is the world game, and that there are kids all over the world that are outstanding students, outstanding athletes and outstanding human beings. And if they're interested in coming in and learning about our culture and adapting to our society and what we have to offer, then they are very welcome here. What I know is our kids, our domestic kids, have learned a lot about life from those kids as well. So I think it's a win-win situation; they bring an awful lot of positive things to the field, but also to the team outside of the field."

Of course, Krikorian had plenty of reason to believe in the potential of international markets to be fertile recruiting territory. In addition to coaching on the international level for U.S. youth teams, one of his stops before reaching Tallahassee was with the Philadelphia Charge of the WUSA, where he coached French superstar Marinette Pinchon, the league's MVP in 2002, and English star Kelly Smith.

"Like every coach that's out here, the collection of experiences that you have during your time will guide you," Krikorian said.

The international players have all played for their home nations at various levels of international play. For Kuralay, that experience included the 2004 Olympics, where she played in three matches and helped the Australian team advance to the quarterfinals by winning its first-ever match in a senior women's event (1-0 against Greece), and the 2002 U-19 World Championships in Canada, where Australia lost to Brazil on a golden goal after Kuralay's goal late in regulation tied the game at 3-3.

The coach feels comfortable that the extra dose of experience beyond even last year's College Cup appearance will help his players steer clear of the jitters on Friday.

"It will help a lot," Krikorian said. "The College Cup is different than different qualifications throughout the world. But for Sel, having played in the Olympics and van de Ven having played in World Cup qualifiers and Katrin Schmidt playing for the youth national team in Germany, all those kids, those experiences are significant experiences that do help them when it comes to playing on the big stage."

Kuralay led Florida State with 13 goals this season, pairing with India Trotter to give the Seminoles on the nation's most dangerous one-two punches, and can't afford any moments of hesitation against a stingy Notre Dame defense in Friday's semifinal match (ESPNU, 6 p.m.).

"Sel has a very good mentality," Krikorian said. "She's a fighter, and she's a winner. She has some of those qualities around the goal that are hard to identify, but she puts herself into good positions to create and score goals. And when you find someone that has that, you just appreciate it because there aren't that many kids around that can do that."

It's something of an irony that the success this group of international students has had at Florida State might make it difficult for such a caravan of nations to be repeated in Tallahassee. While Krikorian isn't likely to shut the doors anytime soon, he also talked about how the program's success in recent years has generated newfound interest among top American players, who now see a team with a national profile to match the weather, athletic facilities and top-tier conference. There might soon be many more prospects like Trotter, who saw time with the senior national team this year, and Wagenfuhr, who played for the U-20 national team at the World Championships, signing up for duty.

But for at least the next couple of years, and certainly for this weekend, a group of players who traveled a long way to be a part of Florida State soccer, and a group of players who welcomed them in, will come together to play the world's game.

"It's one of those things where we feel very good that that part of our team is a positive," Krikorian said. "You know, our domestic kids have embraced these kids, they look after them, they've developed great relationships on and off the field, and it's making the world a whole lot smaller and a whole lot friendlier place."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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