By Aaron Tomich/NPSL.com
A short year ago, one high school soccer player had not thought twice about the potential to play in an international championship tournament. Now in 2022, he leaves for Europe to start his summer off with competing for a world title.
Med City Football Club’s newest player for the 2022 campaign is a promising young midfielder named Chileshe Chitulangoma. But before he takes any steps on the field in any NPSL matches, he will have already represented his national team at the global level.
The Rochester, Minnesota midfielder, who is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, earned a call-up from the United States Men’s Para National Team and will join the side when they travel to Salou, Barcelona, Spain to compete in the 2022 International Federation of CP (Cerebral Palsy) Football World Cup.
Chitulangoma and the world No. six ranked Stars and Stripes were drawn into Group C alongside Iran and Australia. The opening match in the group stage was on Tuesday, May 3 against Iran, where the U.S. played to a 2-2 draw. The United States then took on Australia in its second group-stage match on Saturday, May 7, where the U.S. finished with a 5-1 win. The U.S. advanced to the semifinals with a 3-0 victory over the Netherlands on Monday, May 9.
Usually playing as a central or holding midfielder, the Minnesotan’s style of play centers around his creative passing – through his vision of the field to send-in dangerous balls to teammates in order to create chances – alongside his strength in disrupting plays and breaking lines of the opposing side. Chitulangoma noted that his style has some inspiration from Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk (positioning and calmness) and Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne (superb passing ability).
The format for CP soccer differs in a few ways compared to the standard version of the sport, including 30-minute halves, a smaller field, smaller goals, no offsides and the seven-a-side competition, among other less-noticeable variations according to the IFCPF. But these changes do not pose any issue according to Chitulagoma. In fact, they benefit him.
“Because the field is smaller, I really think it benefits me because of my passing skills,” said Chitulangoma. “Another thing about seven-side football is that you get more touches, which is another good part of the game for me.”
Touches, and getting much more of them, is one example of how Chitulangoma has seen benefits to his seven-a-side play translating to the standard 11-a-side action. He noted that having more touches teaches him composure on the ball. If he’s comfortable with the ball, his teammates will be too. He also attributes his diversity in the two styles giving him a unique creativity that sets him apart on the pitch.
Upon his return from Spain, the midfielder will join Med City shortly after they begin competition in NPSL regular-season action. Playing for this side is an opportunity that Chitulangoma is looking forward to.
“I’m excited for the seriousness of the game at this level,” said Chitulangoma. “I’m excited to be in that professional environment. My team [Med City] also has a lot of players from all corners of the world, so to be able to learn from those guys and have different perspectives to learn from is really cool.”
Chitulangoma knows that NPSL competition will improve his ability to think faster and with more precision among simply improving his play overall. Being reunited with his high school coaches at Med City brings more chances to grow and improve as a player, which is something the midfielder looks forward to this summer.
But, before he steps foot on any NPSL pitch, Chitulangoma’s current focus is solely on his team’s match against Ukraine, who is regarded as one of the best teams in the competition this year. Following a March camp in England with the U.S. Para squad, the Minnesotan saw his first international caps, learning key lessons ahead of the World Cup.
“Against Scotland, which was a more serious match and where I played all but a few minutes, I was able to get a real taste of the level of the game in CP soccer,” said Chitulangoma. “I learned that I’ll have to be 100 percent locked in from the very first minute to the last if I am able to see my first minutes in true competition in Spain.”
Though starting off his summer playing in a World Cup championship is something he never would have thought twice about just a year ago, Chitulangoma says that he is beyond excited to be able to represent his country while helping bring more attention to the world of para sports.
“It means the world to me,” said Chitulangoma. “I’m very happy to be a part of it.”
Cerebral palsy, as defined by the IFCPF, is “a health condition affecting movement, muscle tone, reflexes and posture, primarily due to a shortage of oxygen in parts of the brain for a certain period of time at birth or very young age. It may be present from birth or acquired up to the age of three.” Notably, athletes competing in the IFCPF World Cup can also be included if they have had an acquired or traumatic brain injury at any point since birth.
Here is more information about the IFCPF, along with the full slate of matches for the 2022 IFCPF World Cup, which began on May 1.
Photos Provided by the Chitulangoma Family