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German girls soccer team in Pinellas to experience Florida

ST. PETERSBURG — They've seen a few big ones on Alligator Alley and witnessed Winter the Dolphin whip her bionic tail. They've ransacked Hollister, wandered wide-eyed through Publix and declared their love for America.

But this afternoon, when Germany plays the United States at the World Cup, it will be all about their homeland.

A long way from their boarding school in Germany, 21 members of the Turbine Potsdam girls club soccer team are staying with 10 Pinellas families this week as part of an unofficial exchange program that happened to coincide with the World Cup.

Tuesday night, the Potsdam team of girls ages 15 to 17 played Pinellas County United Soccer Club's Women's Premier Soccer League team.

They took the field just before sunset, listening to their national anthem play before the Star-Spangled Banner and watching Germany's colors fly beneath the American flag near the goal.

It wasn't the World Cup, but for the girls in uniform, the opportunity still felt special.

Though their American host families rooted for team Germany that night, the Potsdam girls know their World Cup watch party this afternoon at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort will be a bit more contentious. They're prepared.

"I love America," 16-year-old player Victoria Krug said via a translator. "But I'm cheering for Germany."

• • •

Before the Germans came to America, one St. Petersburg girl went to Potsdam.

Paige Liebel, a rising sophomore at Canterbury School of Florida, was 12 when she told her American mother and German father, Laura and Hartmut Liebel, she wanted to play soccer in Germany.

A few years later, Paige left home for six months to attend Sports School Potsdam, where she trained among girls with Olympic aspirations. She was alone, and she didn't speak German. But she and her new teammates shared a common language — soccer.

She practiced twice a day during the week and slowly learned German. It was cold outside before she laughed at her first joke, something about seagulls being from the arctic. It wasn't even funny, she said; she just remembers enjoying the moment she finally understood.

This week, she gets to share American expressions.

"See ya later, alligator," one of her German friends said Tuesday night.

"After a while, crocodile," Paige shouted back.

"I taught them that yesterday," she said.

When the Liebels picked up Paige at the end of her stay in December 2013, the couple invited the team to Florida.

Before Laura Liebel knew it, she said, the Potsdam team had booked their flights.

She found 10 host families and scheduled day-trips to the area's most quintessentially Florida destinations.

Sponsors helped pay for the trip, and only one girl had been to the United States before.

Many of the host families have local soccer ties, but on Tuesday night, they were behind team Potsdam.

"How cool is it that no matter what country you're from, no matter what language you speak, the rules are the same," said host mom Shannon Carmona. "It's an even playing field."

Carmona said she has leaned on Google Translate to help her communicate. When the girls come home from day-trips to the beach, she'll ask how it went.

"Hot," the girls respond.

• • •

At the Walter Fuller Soccer Complex on Tuesday night, the Germans dominated.

Paige Liebel's old Potsdam teammates invited her to play in the second half.

With just a few minutes left in the game, the score 3-0 with Potsdam in the lead, they landed one last goal.

"That was Isa!" said host mom Patty Gaukel, erupting in applause. "That was our girl!"

"And that was Paige that passed it to her!" Laura Liebel gushed.

Both sides shook hands before the Potsdam girls ditched their cleats and ran across the field to greet their host families.

Isa ran straight for her host mom.

"Two goals! Two goals," Gaukel smiled, giving the girl a double high five.

"For you," Isa said. "For you."

German girls soccer team in Pinellas to experience Florida 06/25/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 10:20pm]
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