TAMPA — Less than 24 hours earlier, FC Tampa Bay rookie goalkeeper Jeff Attinella would have been happy with a ticket to the U.S. men's national team's Gold Cup soccer game against Panama on Saturday.
But the 22-year-old USF and Countryside alum found himself in the net Thursday morning at One Buc Place, defending speeding shots from the likes of national team players Clint Dempsey and Freddy Adu.
As the national team prepares for Saturday's match at Raymond James Stadium, Attinella was invited to participate in the team's practices Thursday and Sunday.
It all happened quickly for Attinella, who has played well in goal with FC Tampa Bay, making two shutouts in six games after starter Daryl Sattler suffered a season-ending injury.
FC Tampa Bay executive vice president Perry Van Der Beck received a call from national team assistant coach Mike Sorber, a longtime friend who went to the same high school as Van Der Beck in St. Louis.
Sorber was looking for an extra keeper to participate in training. FC Tampa Bay happened to be off, and Attinella, who heard about the invite at 2 p.m. Wednesday, was a perfect fit.
"It's an enormous opportunity," Van Der Beck said. "Training with these guys, he's trying to get to this level. It was a tremendous opportunity. I said go for it."
Attinella jumped at the opportunity.
"When I found out I was excited, just the idea that I got to share the field with some of these guys and guys that I've watched," Attinella said.
"I think Clint Dempsey is one of the best players in the world. He hit an upper 90s shot on me. Even though I got scored on, it would have been nicer to say I saved it. But it's still nice to say I experienced that."
The speed of the game was much different, Attinella admitted.
"It doesn't look that hard on TV when they hit the ball," he said. "I've played a lot of places but when you're playing with the national team, these guys can hit a ball. Where I've been you have time to think about it. Here it's got to come naturally."
Attinella, who said it's his goal to one day play for the national team, said he went to star goalkeeper Tim Howard at the end of practice and asked for advice. Howard told him to keep getting games under your belt and make sure you're always getting better.
"He said (former national team keeper) Kasey Keller told him the same thing when he went to England," Attinella said. "Getting advice from someone like that, how many times in my life will I have that? I'd be stupid not to. Even to pick his brain for the two minutes like I did is something that 24 hours ago I would have said, 'Yeah right, maybe I'd be lucky enough to get his autograph after the game.' But I got to be on the same field as him."
Attinella said he will practice with the national team again Sunday — FC Tampa Bay plays later that night -— and said he'd like to get back here again.
"It's a once in a lifetime …," Attinella said, then stopped. "Wait, hopefully it's not a once in a lifetime experience. I hope I get here one day, but for the time being it's definitely a once in a lifetime type of experience."