Some things change, and some stay the same. As usual, the most promising local team is the one affiliated with the professional team. On the other hand, two of their regional adversaries have disappeared, to be replaced by a brand new team.
The promising local team is, of course, the Washington Spirit Reserves. Last year they had a very successful season, winning the Eastern Conference and going to the W-League Final Four, then taking the eventual league champion Pali Blues to overtime before falling,
1-0 3-2. They’d win the consolation game to finish in third place.
There are plenty of quality players from that team returning. If you have to pick one player to keep an eye on, that would be midfielder Andi Sullivan, who despite not starting college until the fall is already a solid contributor to the U-20 national team and has been one of the leaders of the U-17s. Forward Amber Stobbs is another. The London-born Hofstra senior led the W-League in assists last year. The primary beneficiary of those assists was Ashley Herndon, also a forward, who’s coming off her freshman year at James Madison where she scored six goals and seven assists for a total of nineteen points, second-best on the team. Other familiar names include Brittany Basinger (another U-20 NTer), Morgan Reuther, Monica Mendes, Katie Yensen, Meghan Cox, and Jennifer Skogerboe, just to name a few.
Meanwhile, there are some impressive new arrivals as well. Last year’s starting goalkeeper Didi Haracic is now a professional with the Western New York Flash, but the Reserves have come up with a solid replacement in the form of Adelaide Gay. Gay was the starting goalkeeper for the 2012 NCAA champion North Carolina Tarheels. She went on to become a reserve for the NWSL Portland Thorns, then trained with the NWSL Spirit before dropping down to the Reserves. She has no lack of experience with top-level W-League play as she was part of the 2009 W-League champion Pali Blues. “I’m very excited about the season,” she said. “It’ll be fun, come out. It’ll be exciting.”
Defender Satara Murray is another marquee signing. Murray was also part of the 2012 UNC team and was part of the Pali Blues team that last year downed the Spirit Reserves in the W-League semifinals. “I love her to death,” said Gay about her former teammate. “I can’t wait to play some more with her.”
And just recently defender Cecilie Sandvej was waived by the pro Spirit and signed by the Reserves. She played in the preseason for Washington but got no minutes during the regular season. Before then, she’s played for the Danish national team and for the Australian W-League team Perth Glory.
A sleeper name might be that of Ashley Cuba, the all-time goals and points leader from Pitt. She’s recovering from an ACL injury and tried out for the team because “My aunt actually lives in Manassas, so it’s free housing and free food. And this is the best team in the area.”
New head coach German Peri summed up the situation by saying “We’re very pleased with the talent pool that we have,” in possibly something of an understatement.
The team will play most of its home games at the Maryland Soccerplex, with two excursions to northern Virginia. Their opener is this coming Saturday at 3 pm, just a few hours before the NWSL matchup at 6:30 between the Spirit and the Western New York Flash. So if you want to see some future professionals in the making, make your way to Germantown a little early.
Their opponent on the day will be the Braddock Road Stars Elite, a brand-new team, though not a brand-new organization. They fill a gap left by the demise of several Virginia-based teams: the Northern Virginia Majestics dissolved when the Spirit formed, as much of the behind-the-scenes personnel transitioned to the pro team. And this year the remaining two Virginia teams, the Fredericksburg Impact and the Virginia Beach Piranhas – one of the W-League’s founding teams – did not return.
The team is backed by the Braddock Road Youth Club, an organization I’m embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about until doing the research for this article. They have a long and distinguished soccer pedigree, and their alumni list is an abbreviated who’s who of women’s soccer greats: Wendy Gebauer Palladino, the just-announced new WNT coach Jill Ellis, 2013 NCAA champion UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell. Oh, and Mia somebody-or-other.
The establishment of the senior team seems to catch a crest of available players. “We’re really built around the ’95 Elite [the U-18 team],” said head coach Larry Best. “That group of seniors is our first graduating class in six years. So we’ve really built it around that group, and then added in college kids, etc.”
One of the additional players is Wake Forest grad Kristen Meier, who played last year in the NWSL for the Seattle Reign, and who – unusually for a W-League player – has an entry in Wikipedia. She was optimistic about the team. “Looks good, looks promising for our first year.” She admitted that the team was young but noted, “We talk about them being seniors in high school, but they’re some of the best seniors in high school in the country. They’re all going to top Division-I schools. They’re all really talented players.”
It should be added that in 2012 when the ’95ers were a U-16 team they were national champions.
The marquee names in their youth movement are Carlyn Baldwin and Kaleigh Riehl, who are both currently away with the U-20 national team. Riehl in fact is a year younger than most of the core and is just finishing her junior year in high school. Best is enthusiastic about both of them, and has known them for a long time. “Carlyn’s a tremendous talent. But she’s also a kid who deserves everything she’s getting because she’s a kid that’s worked so hard. I’ve coached her since she was a U-11, and I’ve had Kaleigh since she was seven years old and played U-9.”
Top Drawer Soccer just did a feature on “14 W-League Players to Watch in 2014”, and Baldwin led off the list. (The Reserves’ Sullivan and Herndon were also included.)
At the other end of the age range is Sandra Matute, a veteran thirty-something midfielder who played for the Freedom’s W-League team back in 2009 and more recently for Fredericksburg. She’s married, has a two-year-old kid, and is better known these days for coaching than playing. She was calling Best on behalf of one of her players when she got lured back in, mostly in order “to get back in shape. Since two years I haven’t played one minute.”
And though there’s a core of players, there’s still a lot of getting acquainted going on. Said NC State defender from Stafford, VA, Dayna Tomayko, : “It’s definitely hard to play with players you’ve never met before. You don’t even know their names. And we had a really short time to come together. It’s unique since we don’t know half the team.”
They’ve only had three practices together, and one of those was in Thursday night’s thunderstorms. “We were drenched,” said Matute. “My boots are still drying.”
I pointed out to Best that they’re getting something of a baptism of fire, starting out their season against possibly the best women’s amateur club team east of the Mississippi, and asked how they faced that. “We’re excited about the challenge for our players,” he said. “Our players are excited about the challenge. We’re going to allow these kids to go out and just play. We’re going to see what their soccer IQ is. Can they figure things out on the fly? It’s just another challenge as part of their career.”
Meier, though, came up with the best statement about their goals for the season. “We want Braddock Road to be successful for years to come. It’s the first season, so it’s really important that we leave a good impression on the W-League that this team means business.”
As mentioned before, the Braddock Road Stars Elite open on Saturday, May 17, at 3 pm on the road against the Washington Spirit Reserves. Their home opener is at 4 pm on Sunday, June 8, at Robinson High School’s Samuel J. Coffey Stadium in Fairfax, VA, when they take on the New Jersey Wildcats.