By Andrew Wood, USA Field Hockey Contributing Writer
While the U.S. Men’s National Team prepares to go against the best teams in North and South America at the 2019 Pan American Games next week, the stars and stripes bring a band of brothers who have been teammates long before they played on the international level.
While Aki and Kei Kaeppeler (Stuttgart, Germany) spend most of their time playing across the Atlantic Ocean, both enjoy their time together as representatives of the United States. Along with that honor, their time at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru will be an opportunity for exposure around the Americas.
"The name on the back is just me, but the name on the front is our pack," said younger brother Kei. "As a team, we thrive to perform on the highest level to put the U.S. Men's National Team on the map of international field hockey."
The camaraderie of 'joining a pack' was echoed by the older brother.
"At first, I was just glad to play more top-level hockey and nationality was secondary," said elder brother Aki. "But with every tour, the team grew on me and I felt more pride representing the USA and being part of the wolfpack. Now every game is like going on a hunt for the best teams with the pack."
Kei earned his first international cap last July against Spain before formally joining the USMNT in September. Being members of the USMNT is not the first time the two have come together as teammates. As both got their start with the HTC Stuttgarter Kickers club in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, they also came together once more in 2016 to play for TSV Mannheim, a team Aki describes as a "young and hungry team.” Aki says the on-field connection with Kei, which they experienced for three years, pays off on the global stage.
"Being familiar with a teammate is always really helpful," added Aki. "I think the more you play and train with a person the better you read them on the field...It just means that we have that split-second advantage because we have a better understanding than others would on the field."
While many may expect the brotherhood to be an asset for the rest of the ‘pack, Kei joked their intensity may actually work against them.
"Occasionally, he passes me the ball when I call for it,” said the younger brother. “Some may even say it is bad for the team chemistry since we both are too competitive.”
Their field hockey experience began as kids when they spent their childhood on the pitch.
"When we were younger we would go to the hockey field every day in the summer holidays to hit around balls and mess around," commented Aki. "I think I taught Kei a lot of small things including technique in the summer breaks."
As the siblings grew into full-time professionals, they both developed their own style of play at the opposite sides of the field while also developing different philosophies when it comes to their favorite sport.
"I think I am always a bit more cautious on the field than my brother who goes for it more," continued Aki. "Kei’s approach is more aggressive, a kind of 'you'll never beat me attitude,’ that I learned from him."
Younger brother Kei agreed wholeheartedly.
“I guess I am quicker, Aki is stronger,” noted Kei. “He has a very good drag flick and I run a good penalty corner defense. In terms of position and style of play we are very different, almost opposite."
Aki's style of play comes with more patience and maturity. While he is trying to sweep away goals from opposing attackers, he is also one of the first to distribute the ball every time they try to score.
“I think my approach to the game is more patient," said the defender. "I like to play in a position where I can control the pace of the game and have an overview of the whole field."
Every ounce of the Kaeppeler brothers’ natural chemistry could play a key role when the best of the two continents compete in Peru. The biggest fish in the pond is FIH World Ranked No. 4 Argentina, who claimed the gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and most recently finished fifth in the inaugural FIH Pro League. Before focusing on Los Leones, USA has neighbor No. 10 Canada on their immediate radar, a team Aki faced with the red, white and blue in the 2017 men’s Pan American Cup and who placed 11th in Rio.
Both are highly anticipated matchups heading in to Peru, especially with the Olympic Games and direct qualification looming on the horizon.
"Of course, Argentina is a world class team and Canada played in Rio and at the World Cup," said Kei. "These teams set a certain standard but we know that we can keep up."
In Lima, only the gold medalists will earn a guaranteed trip to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Aki added this year will be tougher than the 2015 Toronto edition, where he and his teammates placed fifth.
"We’ve always said that we want to measure ourselves with the best in the world and playing Argentina in Peru will be another chance to see if we can keep up with one of the top teams," commented Aki. "All in all, I think the competition all over the Americas has grown since I first started playing for the team."
While this will be Kei's first trip to the Pan American Games, Aki has fond memories of his time representing USA north of the border in 2015. His experience walking into the Rogers Centre for the opening ceremonies was very similar to the very Olympic Games they will be fighting to compete in.
"What an experience to walk in a stadium filled with people cheering for you and to live with some of the best athletes in the world representing all kinds of different sports,” recalled Aki. “The whole setup was incredible and something I've never experienced before or since."
The two are no longer teammates on the club level. In the last year, Kei moved to Great Britain, where he currently studies at University College London. In the meantime he keeps his skills fresh on the pitch playing for Hampstead and Westminster in London.
The USMNT will begin their Pan American Games campaign Tuesday, July 30 at Villa María del Triunfo when they take on host nation Peru in the final match of the men’s first day.
Team USA has their eyes set on Lima with a gold medal and automatic qualification to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on the line. With that, fans and followers can join the conversation and follow along with additional story lines with the hashtag #AllEyesOnLima on social media and usafieldhockey.com. Check back weekly for more stories around USMNT and USWNT athletes, umpires, venue, history and more as the Pan American Games excitement heats up.
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