Why follow the W-League? “This is where it all starts,” says Kristen Meier, former professional player for the Seattle Reign and currently captain of the Braddock Road Stars Elite. “You’re watching the World Cup, come out here and see the stepping stones to getting there. We have players who hopefully in four, eight, twelve years will be on that team.”
Given the talent on the local teams, it seems like a good bet. Washington has eight players with youth national team experience, most notably Andi Sullivan, who captained the US team in last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup. And Braddock Road already has five – including three of Sullivan’s 2014 teammates – with even more up-and-coming young players on the bubble.
So if you come out to see the Stars Elite play the Spirit Reserves (and you have three matches to choose from), you’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing the next Ali Krieger, Lori Lindsey, or Becky Sauerbrunn – all of whom honed their skills on local W-League teams long before getting called up to the national team.
This isn’t the best year for the W-League. It’s been bleeding marquee teams for several years now: the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2013, the Virginia Beach Piranhas (the last founding team) in 2014, and this year the Ottawa Fury and Pali/LA Blues, plus two other playoff teams and three more of lesser note. The league is down to eighteen teams, the fewest it’s ever had at the start of a season. The teams at least divide neatly into three six-team conferences: Northeastern, Southeastern, and Western. Of these three, only the Southeastern Conference doesn’t have playoffs – the regular season winner will go straight into the W-League Final Four, hosted by the Laval Comets.
The updated alignment for this year moves Braddock Road and Washington from the Northeastern Conference to the Southeastern Conference, which at this point looks like the most competitive division in the league. Three of the five playoff teams remaining from last year are in this conference, including both teams returning from last year’s Final Four. And every team is one to be reckoned with, each having made it to the playoffs at least once in the last four years. A quick overview before we get to the local teams:
Atlanta Silverbacks Women: The Silverbacks were W-League powerhouses from 2007 to 2011, coming in first in their conference or division every year. The Washington Freedom defeated them in the 2007 final, then they finally won the championship in 2011. Since then, though, they’ve failed to make the playoffs. This year they have Florida State’s Cheyna Williams and Georgia’s Gabby Seiler on the roster, which may provide them with a boost.
Carolina Elite Cobras: The Cobras finished second in the conference in 2013 but upset Dayton in the playoffs to get to the W-League final four, where they lost to runner-up Laval. They missed the 2014 playoffs by one standings point. New coach Andrew Hyslop will look to change that.
Charlotte Lady Eagles: The Lady Eagles have made the playoffs ten out of twelve years of their existence. Longtime fans might remember them participating in the 2012 Eastern Conference playoffs, hosted by the DC United Women at the Soccerplex. They easily beat Long Island, 4-0, but then fell to DC, 3-0. Last year they made it to the W-League Final Four but lost to the eventual champion LA Blues in the semis. Charlotte is returning nine players from that strong team, including 2014 W-League Defender of the Year (and twin sister to USWNT/Boston Breakers goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher) Amanda Naeher.
Dayton Dutch Lions: The Dutch Lions joined the league in 2011, then came in first in their conference in 2013 only to lose to Carolina in the playoffs. Dayton’s marquee players include Wright State’s Brittany Persuad, who returns to the team after playing professionally for three seasons in Sweden and the Netherlands, and South African national teamer Ode Fulutidilu.
Team: Braddock Road Stars Elite
Home venue: Robinson Secondary School, Fairfax, VA
History: Second season. 5-6-1 last year, second place in Northeastern Conference, lost in conference championship to Spirit Reserves, 6-0
Head coach: Larry Best
Braddock Road joined the W-League as a young, inexperienced team last year. They began the season 0-4-1 but finished 5-2-0 to earn the second playoff spot in the Northeastern Conference, only to be mowed down in the conference championship by a Reserves team determined to return to the Final Four.
The team may be even younger this year, with all but one of their college graduate players gone. Last year’s captain and MVP Marisa Park is playing in Norway this year. Sandra Matute has retired. And Allie Wisner has moved on, leaving only this year’s captain, Wake Forest graduate Kristen Meier.
“Last year we had more college players, and this year we’re definitely a younger team,” says midfielder Rachel Moore, returning for her second season after her freshman year at William and Mary, where she earned Second-Team All-CAA and CAA All-Rookie honors.
On the other hand, the 95ers like Moore who form the core of the team now have a year of NCAA soccer under their belts. “We have players who’ve played in college for a year,” says head coach Larry Best. “Now that experience is big. They’ll bring that valuable experience back and then deal with our younger players. Our younger players have gotten better. The younger players who played in the W-League last year have gotten better, and our 97s and 98s who are just joining the team have gotten better.”
Braddock Road has three players who were on last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup team: midfielder Carlyn Baldwin, goalkeeper Rose Chandler, and defender Kaleigh Riehl. Unfortunately, of those only Riehl is healthy. Baldwin is recovering from an ankle operation, and Chandler broke her hand in practice.
Defender Elysse Branton, who plays with Moore at William and Mary, just got a call-up to the U-19 national team. And defender Natalie Larkin, still finishing her freshman year at Princeton and yet to join the team, was in U-18 WNT camp in 2013.
On the younger side, there’s forward Olivia Fiegel, who as a ’97 is finishing her junior year in high school but even so was part of the team last year. When asked what she hoped to achieve this year, she says, “Last year I didn’t score at all in W-League, so my goal this year is to get a goal. And just continue to grow as a player and just have fun.”
The overall mix is about three-fourths returning players from last year and one-fourth new players, with all of the latter except Chandler being younger players who have matured enough to be considered for the senior team. These include 98ers Amy Luttges, a midfielder, and Kelsey Kiley, a defender. Luttges was on my interview list but demurred due to having had some dental work done. Kiley says, “I’m very excited because a lot of these college girls can teach me a lot about the game, and they’re all very talented, so I hope I can learn a lot from them. I need to get better in a lot of aspects of the game. I’ll get faster and stronger by playing with these girls, by playing up. And hopefully my soccer awareness will increase also. I’ll be able to play faster.”
The amazing thing about the team is that except for Meier and Chandler, every single player comes out of the Braddock Road Youth Club. And Best sees the W-League team as just the top step on the BRYC ladder, noting that this year they’ve also added a rung just below it as well. “New for this year we started the U-20s, so now we have a W-League team and a U-20 team, so two post-graduate teams. It allows us now to have almost a pro team, reserve team approach, but it’s still all of our club players.”
Fiegel noted the advantages of having a unified ladder of teams. “Because everyone practices the same style we can all work together and play the same way, so it’s not that big of a transition or that difficult to work in players that you haven’t been playing with.”
Meier described the house style: “Our focus is on possession style of play, keeping the ball, looking for our chances to go forward but within the framework of a possession-oriented team. For us the focus this year is on exactly that, moving the ball quickly, beating players, combinations, that kind of stuff.” The result is an elegant style of play that’s fascinating to watch and remarkably sophisticated considering the youth of the players doing it.
Meier also emphasizes that winning games is not the primary goal. “Our focus is on development, getting players ready for their respective collegiate camps, getting players ready to play in college for the younger ones. Of course we want to win, we want to go to the playoffs, but we take a much more developmental approach to the game.”
Moore’s goals mostly match that. “Get really fit going into school again.” But then she adds, “Beat the Spirit at least once!”
Braddock Road is already into their 2015 schedule, playing the W-League season kickoff game on the road against Dayton last Saturday, May 16, then having a rematch the following day. They lost the first match, 1-0, and the second, 5-2. Fiegel got her wish to score some goals this year, getting both tallies in the Sunday match, albeit in a losing cause.
Their home opener is this coming Sunday, May 31, at 2 pm against the Atlanta Silverbacks at Robinson High School.
Team: Washington Spirit Reserves
Home venue: Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Bethesda, MD
History: Fifth season. Made playoffs every season but the first (as the DC United Women). 10-0-2 last year, first place in Northeastern Conference, downed Braddock Road in conference championship, beat Ottawa Fury on PKs in league semifinal, lost 6-1 to LA Blues in championship game.
Head coach:K. J. Spisak
On the other hand, for the Spirit Reserves “it’s all about the W’s,” as second-year midfielder Maddie Huster says, tongue not entirely in cheek.
“Our goals are to win the regular season,” says Amber Stobbs, a forward starting her third year with the team. “Make it to the nationals, and then win nationals.”
“The ultimate goal is to win the whole thing,” echoes new head coach KJ Spisak, who experienced that herself in 2007 as the goalkeeper for the Washington Freedom, who claimed the W-League crown that year with a star-studded team that included Ali Krieger, Lori Lindsey, Sarah Huffman, and Christie Welsh.
This team isn’t quite so loaded, but unlike then there’s a professional league taking the cream of the talent. Still, it’s definitely a roster that’s going to rack up the W’s. Three players are currently up with the US U-23 team participating in the Four Nations tournament:
Midfielder Andi Sullivan is a rising sophomore at Stanford after being widely considered as the #1 recruit of the 2014 freshman class. She was captain of the US U-20 national team at last year’s U-20 WWC. From Lorton, VA, she’ll be starting her fourth year on the team, the second-longest tenure of any player.
Margaret “Midge” Purce, from Olney, MD, is a rising junior at Harvard, where she was Ivy League Player of the Year as a forward in 2013.
Carson Pickett is a rising senior with NCAA champion Florida State, playing defender and midfielder. From Fleming Island, FL, she scored the lone goal in the 2014 ACC championship. Assistant coach JP Sousa describes her as “phenomenal.”
Other players with youth NT experience include Florida midfielder Meggie Dougherty-Howard, Duke midfielder/forward Imani Dorsey (the #3 recruit of 2014), Duke defender/forward Schuyler DeBree, Duke midfielder/forward Casey Martinez, and Wake Forest midfielder Maddie Huster, the only one other than Sullivan who’s been with the team before. Huster is the little sister of Spirit pro stalwart Tori. Martinez and Dorsey are Maryland natives, from Towson and Elkridge, respectively, while Dougherty-Howard has family in the area.
Dougherty-Howard says, “I just wanted to have a good experience with soccer over the summer somewhere that will help me get better for the season coming up and my coach has connections to here so I got hooked up here.” From St. Petersburg, FL, she had George Fotopoulos – husband to former national team regular Danielle Fotopoulos – as a coach at the club level.
Dorsey comments, “It’s local, and a lot of my Duke teammates are here. I knew it would be a really good environment to train in, a lot of good players to play with. And I think it’s cool that I get to play with other players that I play against in my conference.” She said she played for Shannon Cirovski with Maryland United for many years.
Then there’s forward Amber Stobbs. In 2013 she tied for the W-League lead in assists, then was recovering from injuries last year and not very effective. But now she says, “I’m injury-free. I’m going to have a much better season.” She just finished a master’s degree in sports science and strength conditioning from Hofstra and will be working at Explosive Performance in Ashburn, VA, with Chris Gorres, who works with both the Spirit and Washington’s professional football team on conditioning.
Another new arrival is Yanara Aedo, a forward with the Chilean national team. Sousa just says “wow”, but notes “We need to be better communicators with her” since she doesn’t speak much English, and they don’t speak much Spanish.
At the same time, there have been some big losses. Katie Yensen, my selection for team MVP last year, is playing in Switzerland. Satara Murray is playing in England. Sam Lofton was drafted by the Boston Breakers and now plays for their reserve team. Kelsey Pardue and Jennifer Skogerboe have been claimed by the pro team for the summer, to fill in as needed while the national teamers are away for Women’s World Cup. Of the four players on the Reserves who made the All-Conference team last year, only Herndon is left.
Still, assistant coach Sousa – who’s held that position for as long as they’ve been the Spirit Reserves – says, “On paper I think this is as good a team as we’ve ever had. The new players that we’ve brought in from some top college programs are going to bring their talent here, and it’s going to be really really good. It’s going to be fun for us to coach.”
When asked what selling points they used when recruiting players, he said, “It’s the Washington Spirit. We’re one of nine pro organizations in the country, and the only one with a reserve team in the W-League. We’re going to have training sessions at the Soccerplex, the girls are going to have the opportunity to be around the pro team like we’ve done in years past. That’s a huge selling point, to be able to train and be a part of something bigger, and to see how it all runs and at the same time represent the club and the Reserves, and let’s have another run through the W-League.”
The overall roster mix is almost exactly half-and-half between returning players (10 on the list I was given) and new ones (11).
At the top of the list of veterans is forward Ashley Herndon from Ashburn, VA, the only player who’s been with the team every year since its founding in 2011. She’s now a rising junior at James Madison University, where she led the team in scoring in 2014.
Other familiar names include Tennessee forward Aaran Parry, Duke defender/midfielder Kara Wilson, Virginia defender Meghan Cox, Vanderbilt forward Lina Granados, and William and Mary midfielder/forward Leci Irvin. Says Wilson: “I’m really looking forward to the season. Every year I’ve been here we’ve had a really solid group, and it’s cool because there’s a core group that’s been here throughout the years and then you get new college players and you get to play with different people.”
The Duke Blue Devils lead the college representation with four players: Wilson, Dorsey, DeBree, and Martinez.
Meanwhile, in addition to new players, the Reserves have a new head coach in Kati Jo Spisak. Originally from St. Louis, MO, she’s been a part of top-level local women’s soccer since 2007. Named an assistant coach with the pro team last year (and still holding that role), she was tapped this year to take over coaching the W-Leaguers from German Peri. Longtime fans will remember her playing goalkeeper for the WPS-era Washington Freedom.
Another change is the new home venue. Spisak was vague about the reasons for moving from the Soccerplex to the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, where she coaches and teaches, and initially joked “We just built a brand-new stadium for the Washington Spirit teams!” In fact, the Spirit exhibition match against Virginia Tech back in March was the first competitive use of the field that’s so new it has yet to show up on Google Maps.
More seriously, she says “We’re very thankful to Stone Ridge for letting us use the field. The facility’s state-of-the-art. It’s a great atmosphere for the girls to play on.” Then, less seriously, “And, keeping with the theme of the World Cup, playing on turf!”
As for why fans should show up for games, Sousa said, “We’ve got great players, they’re a local product, they grew up here, they went to high school here, they went to college in the region, they’re playing for youth national teams, come see them play this summer.”
The Spirit Reserves open their 2015 campaign at home this Saturday, May 30, at 6 pm, at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart.