It’s a different landscape for elite women’s soccer in the DC-area this year. With the folding of the W-League, the Spirit Reserves and the Braddock Road Stars Elite (now the Washington Spirit Academy) have come over to the Women’s Premier Soccer League to help form the Colonial Division along with perennial WPSL powerhouse ASA Chesapeake Charge. This means that the Charge and the Spirit teams – long separated by the lack of love between the W-League and the WPSL – will finally play each other for the first time ever, and in home-and-home series. That’s certainly something I’m looking forward to.
The remaining teams in the division are Fredericksburg FC, the Richmond Strikers, and Virginia Beach City FC, but I’m just going to look at the aforementioned ones that I’ve been following.
Team: ASA Chesapeake Charge
Home venue: Arundel High School, Gambrills, MD.
History: Seventh season. Participated in WPSL-Elite in 2012, came in second among non-WPS-heritage teams. Twice one win away from WPSL Final Four (2011, 2013), once two wins away (2014).
Head coach: Tim Wittman
The Charge have been a WPSL powerhouse team for years, on the strength of a core of players who come back year after year. “I think we’re doing really well [for this] early in the season, so I’m excited,” said second-year forward Bridgette Andrzejewski. “Most of our players are returning, so I think that’s why we’re doing so well.”
Adds captain Jess Hnatiuk, who’s been with the team every year of its existence, “Some familiar faces, some new faces, just like every season. The new girls look good, fitting in, everyone’s getting along well, the ball’s moving well.”
Familiar names in addition to Bridgette and Jess include the very experienced Ali Andrzejewski, the leading scorer for the Freedom’s W-League championship team of 2007 and Bridgette’s sister, Sarah Bonney (Towson), Gabby Galanti (Maryland), Brazilian Talita Pereira (Franklin Pierce), who joined the team last year, Erica Suter (Johns Hopkins), Karly Tolentino (Monmouth), and goalkeeper Lauren Vetock (Francis Marion).
Newer players are yet to be determined, and their planned opening match for Saturday, May 21, was cancelled due to weather conditions, so the full roster is TBD.
Hnatiuk brought up the competition with the Spirit Reserves even before I mentioned it. “We have the Washington Spirit in our conference now, both of them. It’s going to be a really good season, it’s going to be fun, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
“We’re always up for a challenge,” said Andrzejewski, who’ll be starting her freshman year at North Carolina after finishing with the Charge. “We can always deal with challenges – it’ll make us better in the long run.”
Team: Washington Spirit Academy
Home venue: Robinson Secondary School, Fairfax, MD (upper turf field)
History: Third season. 5-6-1 first year, second place in Northeastern Conference, lost in conference championship to Spirit Reserves, 6-0. Second year, 1-11-0, sixth place in Southeastern Conference.
Head coach: Larry Best
The name may have changed, but the team hasn’t. They’re still almost entirely younger local Northern Virginia players brought up through the Braddock Road Youth Club system, which has produced such marquee players as UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell, USWNT head coach Jill Ellis, and all-time great Mia Hamm.
They’re not short on talent this year. Four players are currently in U-20 WNT training camp: goalkeeper Rose Chandler, defender Kaleigh Riehl, forward Madeline Elliston, and Emily Ogle. And according to head coach Larry Best, two have had U-18 callups, forward Myra Konte and defender Kelsey Kiley. That’s not even counting outstanding core veterans like Carlyn Baldwin and Rachel Moore.
I asked about the philosophy of rostering the team, whether it was going to be “once a Braddock Roader, always a Braddock Roader” or more that the Academy is the youth team that feeds into the senior team.
“Our model is still the younger players,” said head coach Larry Best. “They’re probably always going to be the better group because they’re going to have. But ours is going to be maybe getting the younger players ready to go to them. And it’s all about home-grown identity. We’re trying to look at future draft picks, and that is what this is about. So here’s a display of 26, 27 kids on display as future draft picks for the Spirit, and that’s what we’re trying to build.”
I noted that Baldwin and Chandler could easily be on the senior team. “Carlyn was because of her injury. Rose because she’s going to be in and out with the 20’s. We have four Penn State kids, but they’re going to be in and out of the 20’s all summer. But we’re going to blend them in. They’re going to be training over here as well. We’re trying to get through the first game, and then we’ll do some co-training.”
As for the feeder model, he said, “We want to get to that, but it’s going to take another year before we get that identification. They want two strong teams.”
Team: Washington Spirit Reserves
Home venue: Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Bethesda, MD
History: Sixth season. Made playoffs every season but the first (as the DC United Women). Last year: won Southeastern Conference with 9-0-3 record, won semifinal over Quebec Dynamo ARSQ, 1-0, won championship over Colorado Pride, 2-1.
Head coach: K. J. Spisak
Are the Reserves out to win their second championship in a second league? “Of course!” says assistant coach J. P. Sousa. “We’re going to put the best team out there, and we’re going to try to win everything we do.”
They certainly have the horses to do it. Last year’s team had two players who have started NWSL matches (Caroline Casey for Sky Blue and Carson Pickett for Seattle, though Casey has since been cut). Four players on the current roster were in U-23 WNT camp earlier this month: Brittany Basinger (Penn State), Meggie Dougherty Howard (Florida), Midge Purce (Harvard), and Ashley Herndon (James Madison), something that pleases the coaches. “We’re happy for them. We’re very very happy for them. When we saw that initial camp roster for the beginning of May, we were thrilled that we saw those names on there.”
W-League final MVP Yanara Aedo – a player some think is good enough to be on the pro squad – is back. Alli Murphy (Texas Tech), who was drafted by the pro Spirit, has stuck around to play for the Reserves.
There’s some nepotism going on with younger sisters of pro players on the Reserve team: Jackie Stengel (NC State) with Katie, and Maddie Huster (Wake Forest) with Tori.
That’s not even the end of the list, as Charles Boehm noted:
— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) May 20, 2016
The defining player for the team is Ashley Herndon, who is the only founding player left from 2011, when they were the DC United Women. Now a rising senior at James Madison, this could be her last season before she becomes eligible for the NWSL draft. “It’s been fun,” she said when I pointed that out. “Just hoping to end it on a good note, win another championship.”
As for being up with the U-23s, “It was fun, a really good experience, very exciting. There were really good players. I was very honored to be there.”
Maddie Huster is in her third season with the team and is “very excited” to be back. “It’s definitely a great way to stay in shape, keep your foot on the ball. The team – and the teams that we play against – are always really competitive. I love playing with this team. It keeps me fresh and helps me get better.”
I asked her if this year’s team was as good as last year’s. “We have some of the same personnel, but definitely a few fresh new faces. I think we’ll still have the same level of play and a competitive team here.”
“The core group is the same,” Sousa agreed. “We had some players move on for very good reasons. We’re happy with some of the new, younger players that we brought into the fold, understanding what we do here with the Reserves, and it’s a great opportunity for them to be part of this club for the summer and see what it’s like. We feel that they’re going to add value and make our team really, really good.”
One of the new players is Olivia Mills, who just finished her freshman year at Maryland. “I think it’s going to do amazing things. It’s going to make me faster. Just the speed of play is so much different. It’s always fun to play on different teams because you get to meet so many different people, and you get to play a different style. I love KJ and JP, their style of play. I think it will do really good things for me.”
As for going from the W-League to the WPSL, it hasn’t made a huge difference other than the travel requirements. “No more multi-day road trips,” said Spisak with evident relief. “Everything’s regional-based, which is nice,” added Sousa.
Washington Spirit Reserves 3, Washington Spirit Academy 0
If the opening game is any indication, this is going to be a great season in the Colonial Division. Ignore the score line: two late goals padded the score, but for 89 minutes it was never more than a one-goal game.
The Academy had the first good chance in the 30th minute off a Brianna Oliver corner kick. Amy Luttges redirected it into a low shot on net that looked to be no problem for Reserves goalkeeper Savanna Wojtanowski , but then it bounced off someone’s foot and went high. Wojtanowski had to leap to tip it up and over the crossbar before it went in.
Aedo got the lone non-late tally in the 40th minute when she got to the top left corner of the box and sent in a perfectly curved shot into the upper right corner.
The Academy had two good chances in the second half. In the 65th minute Olivia Fiegel had a 1-on-1 after a Reserves turnover but waited too long to shoot, and her shot was blocked. In the 85th minute, Charlotte Hyland beat a defender on the right but shot wide left.
Meanwhile, the Reserves sent in a rocket shot in the 65th minute that Academy goalkeeper Madison Card managed to tip aside, then in the 75th minute another shot went off the crossbar and almost straight down. Card grabbed it before it could go anywhere else.
The game was put away in the 90th minute when Alli Murphy collected a Casey Martinez corner kick at the top right corner of the box and sent it in off the underside of the crossbar. Then several minutes into stoppage time Jackie Stengel made a run up the middle onto a through ball from Aedo and put it away over Card in a play that looked offside from the stands.
“It was a good display of football,” said Academy head coach Larry Best. “The ball’s on the ground, it’s moving, it’s zipping, the game’s quick. We’re connecting passes. It was a good display for promoting the game.
“Two goals at the end was kind of tough to give up. I didn’t think it was a 3-0 game. The difference is they finished their chances. We didn’t finish our chances. We could have been up 1-0. Their keeper made a great save on one, but overall they’re just more experienced, and you can see it. But overall I thought it was a great outing. Our kids did really well. We’re probably missing seven starters today. Four are with the U-20s and two are with the 18 camp. That’s six players who will step in and make a difference.”
“The Spirit Academy was a great team,” said Reserves defender Brittany Basinger. “We knew from the start they were going to come after us, but we were well-prepared, our coaching set us up. We came out and won.”
Basinger is on her second stint with the team after playing for them two years ago. “The team’s great. It’s so fun to play with different people from different colleges, get different ways of touches and balls and just playing together. Great coaching, great team to play on, so I knew I wanted to play here.”
One of the most renowned names in the DC soccer community is Harkes. A member of the US Soccer Hall of Fame, John is the first American player to appear in the English Premier League and spent thirteen years on the national team. Wife Cindi is a member of the Virginia-DC Soccer Hall of Fame and was the first assistant coach for the Reserves, back in 2011 when they were the DC United Women. Now the next generation is coming along, and the Reserves have a representative thereof in Lauren, who just finished her freshman year at Clemson. “The program here is great,” she said. “The coaches here are great. Playing with the girls, they’re all at a high level, so it’s definitely pushing me to play at a high level as well, so I really like it. It’s just like playing in college, high speed and everything like that. I feel like I can play at that level, too.”
On the Academy side, the marquee player is probably Carlyn Baldwin, who’s a major force when she’s healthy, but she’s been nagged by injuries through her young career, and saw her first minutes for the team in a long time as an early sub. “This was my first game back since the college season,” she said. “The first 15 minutes of a game can be hectic, so waiting until that settled down and then bringing me in and letting me get my feet wet a bit.”
Her goals for the summer are, “To stay healthy, just keep getting sharp, getting back into peak match fitness so I’m ready for August.”
They were great,” she said of the Reserves. “They knocked the ball around well. Our plan was just to do our best, see how we all fit in together, get everyone some time. I thought everyone played well, everyone played hard. Disappointed in the result, obviously, but I think we went out there and did a good job for our first game.
“Yes, it’s a tough first game, but it shows us what we need to work on and our weaknesses. It can be a shock at first, but getting that experience right off the bat is really good for us.”
The Academy has two defining sets of players: the 95ers like Carlyn, who are now halfway through their college careers, and the up-and-coming younger players. One of the latter is Amy Thompson, who won’t even graduate from high school until 2018. (And Carlyn will be extremely upset with me if I don’t mention that Amy has committed to Tennessee, where Car is now.) “It’s been awesome,” she said of the experience playing for the Academy team. “I love playing with the older girls. It’s great to see what I need to work on.”
As for what she needs to work on, she said, “I just want to be able to play quicker and know better movements.”
“I thought we could have won it,” she said about the match. “I thought we were close, but they are really good, obviously, they’re amazing. But we hung in there, and I thought we played well.”
The Reserves coach, K. J. Spisak, said after the game, “It’s good to come out and get a win, first game. This team has never played together. I’ve had a maximum of ten players in a practice. One of the players has been to all four practices. It’s good to have a group get out and play a game and get to know each other. Half these girls have never even talked to each other before this game. Good teams find a way to win, and we found a way to win, and we’ll continue to build.”