Palm Coast’s Brandt Herron relishes role as USA blind soccer goalkeeper

Brandt Herron (far right) has been involved with the USA Blind Soccer Men’s National Team since last fall.

Right after Brandt Herron graduated from Matanzas High School in 2019, he went on a soccer trip to Italy and played for coach Ryan Lazaroe. They kept in touch for a while upon returning to the states, but by the summer of 2022, they hadn’t talked in about a year.

Then, Herron’s phone rang last August. It was Lazaroe, who had an “interesting opportunity” to propose.

Lazaroe was set to serve as an assistant coach with the upstart USA Blind Soccer Men’s National Team. The squad was recruiting players, including sighted goalkeepers.

Lazaroe wanted Herron.

“At first, I was kind of startled,” Herron said. “… I was like, ‘You know, let me think about it. Give me a couple days, and I’ll get back to you.’”

Two days later, Herron gave Lazaroe his answer.

Brandt Herron did not play soccer until he was 14

Brandt Herron started playing soccer as a 14-year-old at Matanzas High School. Now 22, he is a sighted goalkeeper for the USA Blind Soccer Men’s National Team.

Herron didn’t grow up as a soccer kid. He played baseball until he was 14 when a broken elbow essentially ended his career on the diamond.

To stay active, he decided to pick up soccer. He tried out for Matanzas’ team as a goalkeeper only because the Pirates didn’t have one.

“I knew nothing about the position, and I really wanted to be on that soccer team so badly,” Herron said.

He made the team as a freshman and stayed all four years.

“Long story short, I kind of self-taught myself in high school,” Herron said. “During my senior year, toward the end of it, I had this crazy dream of ‘You know what, I want to pursue going pro and see how far I can really take this.’”

First stop: Johnson & Wales University in Miami.

Herron enrolled in culinary school and competed for JWU’s reserve soccer squad, but that ended when COVID-19 arrived in the spring of 2020. He moved back to Palm Coast and transferred to Daytona State, where he finished his collegiate soccer career and his degree.

After two years of junior college, he had not received any offers from four-year schools and unsuccessfully tried out for a few USL League Two semi-pro teams in Florida.

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His one final effort came in a tryout with Virginia Beach United of the same league. Herron was born in Virginia Beach and lived there until his family relocated to Florida when he was 4.

This time, he made the squad.

How does blind soccer work?

Brandt Herron now lives in Virginia Beach, where he was born before moving to Palm Coast as a kid.

Herron had already completed his first season with Virginia Beach when Lazaroe called and asked him about blind soccer. He didn’t know anything about the sport.

It started in the 1920s, with Spain being considered its pioneering country. It closely resembles the fútbol most of the world knows — just with fewer players, a smaller field and a few other changes.

Each team plays with five players — four outfield players and one goalie. Goalkeepers are sighted, but the other four players are visually impaired. To ensure all outfield players have the same level of vision, they must wear eyeshades to cover their eyes.

The field, which has sideboards, is split into three different sections: the defensive zone, the middle zone and the attacking zone. Each one features an off-field guide that relays information to players while the ball is in that area.

The ball also makes a rattling noise due to a beaded sound system inside, helping the players follow it on the ground or in the air. The crowd must remain silent until a goal is scored so the players can track the ball. When making a play on the ball, players have to yell “voy,” which is Spanish for “go.”

Herron discussed the opportunity with his parents and his United goalkeeper coach, Mike Kappas, before agreeing to participate in a four-day USA Blind Soccer Men’s National Team camp in October.

What did he have to lose, he thought.

“It was probably the most humbling and great opportunity to be a part of this group,” he said. “After that trip, I was hooked.”

Brandt Herron: ‘These guys now are just like family to me’

Brandt Herron plays as a goalkeeper for semi-pro Virginia Beach United in USL League Two.

Herron said he felt comfortable almost right away. There was an adjustment period on the field, sure. He has to use his hands more than he does with Virginia Beach United, and he’s still trying to perfect his throws to players who can’t see them. But he loves the experience of the national team.

“These guys now are just like family to me,” Herron said. “It is amazing what they can do. It truly is. Just the fact that these guys are visually impaired and they can still move and just play soccer. They still have that spark and that love for the game.”

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Since last October, the team has hosted quarterly practice camps, including one two weeks ago, at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. They also conduct bi-weekly calls to stay in touch but mostly train on their own.

The long-term goal: be ready for the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles. Blind soccer has been an official Paralympic sport since the 2004 Games, and Brazil has won all five gold medals. The United States will make its first appearance in 2028.

The short-term goal: become an internationally ranked squad by competing in world tournaments.

The team played its first contests in March. It beat Canada’s national squad 1-0 and 3-0 in two friendlies.

Herron’s top priority has been his communication. He is expected to be a leader, so it has to be sharp. Luckily, that benefits him when he returns to Virginia Beach United, where he is in his second season, too.

“Communication is so important with these guys,” Herron said. “I have to say, I’m a pretty good communicator when I’m playing on an 11-v.-11 pitch. But I feel like whenever I come to these camps and I come back home, my communication just is on another level.”

His next camp is scheduled for this fall. Herron, who turned 22 in April, never envisioned getting this opportunity in the first place, but he plans to see where it takes him.

“I think the biggest takeaway from working with these guys is it’s just humbling,” Herron said. “That’s the word that comes to mind. It’s just humbling to work with these guys and knowing the visual impairment they have.

“They’re just normal people. I know society might look at them differently, but they’re no different than (me). They’re kind-hearted people, and they’re filled with joy, and they live life every day like it’s normal. I think that’s kind of brought joy into my life, talking to them all the time and working with them. It’s just kindness.”

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: USA blind soccer led by goalie Brandt Herron, a Matanzas graduate


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