Dr. Eric Lamberg, a physical therapist and professor who teaches prosthetics and orthotics in the physical therapy department at Stony Brook University in New York, was on a medical mission trip in Haiti when he spotted a group of amputees playing soccer. Little did he know that just four years later he’d be coaching the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team all the way to the World Cup of Amputee Soccer. The 2014 tournament took place this month in Mexico and featured amputee teams from around the world competing for the coveted top prize.

“As a coach and someone who played sports – I thought that ship had sailed but to represent the USA is a humbling experience,” Coach Lamberg said in the run-up to the tournament. “I can’t put it into words.”

The U.S. team is made up of different types of amputees – those who survived childhood illness, those born without a limb and others who survived traumatic injury.

“Their back stories demonstrate their ability to come through adversity – doing it for more than soccer, proving what they can accomplish,” said Lamberg.

At 15, Noah Grove is one of the youngest players on the team. He was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of four. He went through seven months of chemotherapy and his parents made the life-saving decision to have his leg amputated. In October, Grove celebrated 10 years of being cancer-free.

“I love Eric,” said Grove. “He’s one of my favorite coaches… he has great energy and is always looking to win.”

When it comes to motivating the team, Lamberg considers them elite players whose biggest challenge is not their difference in ability, but the fact that they train at a distance. The players come from all over the country and have only trained together a few times this year.

Grove admits it takes a healthy amount of self-motivation to train independently and then come together to play as a cohesive team.

Amputee World Cup 2014

Coach Lamberg says it’s not for lack of willingness. The team is also fully self-funded with players paying their way across the country for practices as well as their trip to Mexico for Amputee World Cup.

Another challenge is finding players. As a physical therapist Lamberg tries to use his professional networks to attract players, tapping former players of the sport looking to get back into the game after suffering traumatic amputations or illness. But the team is still in need of players who have the time and funds to play.

Nico Calabria, who was featured in Powerade’s 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign and is co-captain of the U.S. team, notes the clear advantage of the other countries’ teams.

“The other teams train year-round and are paid as professionals,” Calabria, 21, says.

Players for those national teams are then chosen through intense competition. “We came in at a distinct disadvantage, and we performed incredibly despite the odds,” he adds.

Calabria placed third in the world for power shot with a kick of 57 mph. He also led the team with six goals, including a hat trick in one game. Grove, one of the youngest players to ever score in international competition for amputee soccer, ended with three goals.  

Fresh off the tournament, Coach Lamberg praised the success of the US team which is now ranked 12th in the world.

“We ended up with two wins and four losses,” he says. “All the games were very close and we had a chance to win every single one! When it is all said and done we scored 11 goals and gave up 10.” 

The final match saw the U.S. team put up a valiant fight against Poland in the elimination round of 16. But Poland pulled ahead winning 3-1. In the end, Russia took home the top prize.

“Despite all that, we showed more heart than any team out there.” Calabria says. “We played our hardest despite the overall difference in skill, and stayed in every game.”

Grove adds, “When I first started I didn’t even know [amputee soccer] existed. I want people to know this is still soccer and we’re here giving it our all and having fun every minute.”

To learn more about the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team and how you can support their efforts at www.ampsoccerusa.org