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The teams line up before the opening WPSL Elite contest.

WPSL Elite Opens: It’s Not WPS, But It’s Something

The teams line up before the opening WPSL Elite contest.

EAST LONGMEADOW, Mass. – Even for someone who was but a passive WPS observer for most of its history, I couldn’t help but be a bit nostalgic as I pulled into East Longmeadow High Saturday afternoon for the opener of the new WPSL Elite between the host New England Mutiny and the New York Fury.

ELHS is a fine high school facility, and much easier for me to get to than Harvard Stadium – former home of the Boston Breakers and an hour or so to the northeast – but my mind flashed back to the buzz surrounding WPS last summer, when Alex Morgan sent kids scurrying for her autograph just by walking out to tape a Fox Soccer Channel promo. When 15,000 people showed up in Rochester and nearly 10,000 in Atlanta to watch professional women’s soccer.

Of course, you know the rest. If you don’t, it’s all here on this site for you somewhere, complete with the sordid details.

But as the hard-working Mutiny staff got things together for the opener, it was quite obvious that 10,000 people were not walking through that gate. And with only three portable toilets available, that was probably a good thing on that front.

Surely as Paul Riley walked out onto the field and took a look around, somewhere in his mind, those thoughts must have been there. As two-time defending WPS Coach of the Year with Philadelphia, Riley has to be considered one of the top women’s coaches in the nation. The league was coming off a World Cup bump last summer, Riley’s star was rising, it looked for a fleeting moment like WPS would thrive, and surely Riley’s reputation would right along with it.

Even when WPS collapsed, Riley still held out hope for some kind of return in 2013, which was surely part of the reason why when he returned to Long Island with the Fury he initially stayed out of WPSL Elite. But as it became (becomes?) increasingly obvious that WPS might be gone for good (and an opening left by Aztec MA made it convenient), Riley and the New York Fury were in the WPSL Elite for its inaugural run in 2012.

It can be a dangerous hobby to focus on the past. What’s done is done, and a few (or a good deal more than a few) mistakes shouldn’t deter us from looking toward the present and the future.

“I said to the players in the locker room, ‘After seven months of what has happened, you’ve got to want to play.’ To put the uniform with your name on the back means a lot,” Riley said. “I’ve been a social director and a psychological director the past several months trying to give them the best advice I could, whether it be abroad, whether it be here, for another team in their neck of the woods. That includes not just our players, layers from Sky Blue, players from Atlanta, just because we’ve got connections. I’ve been trying to help everyone as best we can. We’ve obviously got quite a few players from WPS.

“It’s nice to be back on the field, it’s nice to be coaching again, to put a suit back on and feel like you’re back at church again on a Sunday night. I enjoy the games , that’s what we all live for is the games. Hopefully, this will be the start of getting back into a WPS-like league, making it full-time for the players. We’re doing our best to make it full-time.”

(You can see my complete postgame interview with Riley here.)

Full-time or not, Riley has put together a squad (not even including his Supergroup that will play in some exhibition games this summer) that looks like a favorite in WPSL Elite. After a brief bright start from the host Mutiny, the Fury had four goals by halftime, three by Merritt Mathias. But a look around the Fury lineup saw basically what would be a WPS team, perhaps minus the stars.

Yes, there were no national team players and Vero Boquete is in Sweden, but Brittany Taylor at right back was too strong for anyone the Mutiny had to offer. Riley gave full credit to veteran Kim Yokers for dominating as a holding midfielder in a 4-4-2, and rightfully so. Tina and Gina DiMartino ran the wings, while Meghan Lenczyk played an attacking role in support of what would be two WPS rookies in Jasmyne Spencer out of Maryland and Mathias.

(Tobin Heath is on on the New York roster, but it’s not clear if she’ll be able to play at all with the national team schedule. Heath was on the roster as No. 19, and late in the game, Riley put a No. 19 in the game, who was announced by the PA announcer as “Tobin Hearth”. But it obviously wasn’t her.)

The Mutiny, while pretty clearly outclassed in this game, did show signs that they could be competitive in the new-look WPSL Elite, mostly because of who they didn’t have. Kristen Mewis, Toni Pressley, Vicki DiMartino (who missed the chance to play against her sisters), and Morgan Andrews are all with various age level national teams. The team also looked much more comfortable when defender Kate McCarthy was inserted late in the first half. Coach Tony Horta decided not to start McCarthy because she had arrived to the team after finishing finals at Boston College just a couple of days before kickoff. A game against Chesapeake this Saturday (with Andrews) should give us a better gauge of where they’re headed.

Mathias is an interesting story in her own right. She was as highly touted as they come as a youngster out of Alabama, playing in the youth national teams, and committing to North Carolina very early (sophomore year). But after two inconsistent years under the microscope in Chapel Hill, Mathias decided she would rather be at Texas A&M, where she was a two-time All-Big 12 selection and was one of the best college strikers in the nation. However, since U-17, she hasn’t made an appearance in the national team, and went undrafted in WPS.

Riley, though, saw potential, and when WPS collapsed, and with the national team players (as well as stars like Boquette and Marta) basically out of commission in the States for 2012, it was an opening for players like Mathias. And Saturday was certainly a good start to making a big impact.

“With the league (WPS) folding, the dreams and ambitions of all these players were kind of crushed,” Mathias said. “It was hard to rebound from that, but everyone has come full circle. It’s heartbreaking that the league’s not around, but we’re doing the best we can. It’s still awesome to be able to play at good facilities and against these kind of players.

“Right now, it’s about playing and enjoying it.  I think it’s sad that the girls from college don’t have what they had two years ago. It’s a huge bummer, but this is a great opportunity. So long goal ahead, get to the World Cup and Olympics, that would be awesome. But for right now, enjoying playing and playing as long as I can. It’s what I love to do.”

There was a delay, a pregnant pause even, before that last sentence, almost like she had to apologize for it.

I thought of the curious – or really not so curious – case of Boston College goalkeeper Jillian Mastroianni, who grew up near me and rose to be one of the best in the nation at her position. She was drafted by Sky Blue in January, and with a couple of WPSL Elite teams in Massachusetts needing help in goal, it was assumed she would play for the team of her choosing.

Instead, with a degree from Boston College in her pocket, Mastroianni chose to “retire” and go out into the real world. For 99 percent of America, they nodded their heads at Mastroianni’s choice and said to themselves, “Good for her.” But those invested in women’s soccer probably just sighed and shook their heads, not in a judging manner, but in a sad one.

Surely, Ciara McCormack is one of those headshakers. ­Since graduating from college in 2001, McCormack has gone from Boston to Vancouver to Denmark back to Vancouver to Ottawa to Norway back to Vancouver again all while representing Ireland (qualifying through her father) internationally in the last decade. She started at center back for the Mutiny in the opener last Saturday.

Along with Tiffany Weimer and Manya Makoski (two former WPS players who are playing in Denmark and Finland, respectively), she runs GirlsCANFootball, also just a few miles from my abode in Connecticut (Weimer and Makoski are both local products from our sometimes great state), which has helped her keep playing.

“It’s been a cool way of marriaging the opportunity to continue playing and then also mentoring younger players through coaching them, that’s sort of allows us to continue our dream and ability to play at this level,” McCormack said.

McCormack has also written for various publications and on her blog (check out this moving tribute to her “Mum” on her 60th birthday recently), sometimes controversially, as she has called out the Canadian soccer federation, WPS stars, and anyone else that draws her ire.

If I have sympathy for people like McCormack, it’s because there is a kind of kinship there. God knows how many times along my life’s journey, people (including family) have wondered why I do what I do, why I spend so much time coaching and writing about soccer (and other sports) when I almost certainly could have a more lucrative profession. But when I asked Ciara – who went to Yale (with one graduate season at UConn) – about it, she summed it up much me eloquently than I ever could.

“I’ve had border guards at the airport ask me what’s my connection with the U.S., and I say, ‘coach and play soccer’, and then they start laughing when I tell them where I went to school,” she said. “I get it from my parents. I mean, again for me, I think the most important thing is knowing what your passion is, and obviously going to a school like Yale was a great opportunity educationally, and exposed me to a lot of fantastic things, but soccer has always been where my passion is. Whether or not that fits the mold of what an Ivy League graduate is supposed to be doing at 32, I’m not sure, but I have no regrets. I obviously still love the game enough to be out here, so here I am.”

And here we are. The WPSL Elite will not be the caliber of WPS this season, there likely won’t be any games that 10,000 paid customers show up for. But in the next couple of months, we’ll try to bring you as many stories as we can from the league as best we can while holding down real jobs and other commitments just as many of the players and coaches we’ll be reporting on do.

It’s what we love to do.

The uniforms of Kate McCarthy (#21) and Rebecca Mays (#10) await their owners prior to the New England Mutiny's opening game.