In addition to our two local W-League teams, one in northern Virginia, the other northwest of DC, there are two local WPSL teams, both based east of DC, the Anne Arundel County based Chesapeake Charge, and the Prince George’s County based ACF Torino.
In contrast with the W-League, the WPSL is exploding. It’s expanded to 82 teams this year from 72 last year and includes at least 4 teams affiliated with professional NWSL teams. (The Spirit Reserves are the only W-League team associated with an NWSL team.) It’s reportedly the largest women’s league in the world.
The downside from a journalistic perspective is that the WPSL is comparatively lackadaisical about providing information. I know all about the W-League playoffs. All I know about the WPSL playoffs is that just one team from the South Atlantic Division will qualify, the conference finals will take place in New England the weekend of July 18, and the league finals will take place in Houston the weekend of July 25. But just try to find any of that information on the WPSL website.
South Atlantic Division
The South Atlantic Division is living more up to its name than in previous years, when it included teams from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This year it has five teams from Maryland and Virginia. The Maryland teams are familiar, ACF Torino and the ASA Chesapeake Charge, while the Virginia teams are all new: Chesterfield United (south of Richmond), Fredericksburg FC, and Virginia Beach City FC. Torino assistant coach and midfielder Elise Bender is happy with the smaller geographic footprint. “Thank goodness, we’re just Virginia and Maryland. The farthest game for us is Virginia Beach, so that’s not so bad.”
Team: ACF Torino
Home venue: Riverdale Baptist Sportsplex, Upper Marlboro, MD
History: Fourth season. Made playoffs in first season (as Maryland Capitols), 5-3-2 in 2013 (3rd place), 4-6-0 in 2014 (4th place).
Head coach: Jessica Jach
Torino has had to cope with change every year of its existence, and it seems to have taken a toll. Founded as the Maryland Capitols, after the first year the team affiliated with Italy’s ACF Torino and changed its name to match. After the second season, founder and head coach David Jones had to move to Florida for family reasons, and the team brought in an outside coach, Fabio Diletti. In the process, they’ve gone from making to playoffs to just missing the playoffs to last place in the division.
This year they aim to change that by coaching from within. Elise Bender explains: “So this year Jessica Jach is going to be the head coach. She was a player for Torino two years ago, played in college, was injured, so she’s settled for the coaching side and I’m going to be the assistant coach this year, mostly a player-coach role, so I’ll come up with the concepts for practices and when it’s game-time I’m mostly a player. But I’ll also lead the warmups, and I helped create the fitness package for this year.”
Jach (pronounced more like “yock” than “jock”) explained how she ended up with the job: “I blew my knee – after blowing out both knees. I was 35, so it was a time to transition. We needed someone to step up. I love ACF Torino. I love the program, I love the team, I love the WPSL, and I wasn’t about to let it fall apart. So we needed someone to step up, and I was happy to do it.”
She’s been coaching since she was 14 and got her first license at 18, going on to coach ODP. She played as a youth out west, including college at San Diego State, before moving east and eventually joining Torino.
Founder David Jones had a vision when he started the association with the Italian club. I hadn’t seen much of that, but Jach says it’s still there. “We’re tied to ACF Torino in Italy. We’re their US branch. They’re one of the most expansive teams for women’s pro soccer, especially in the Italian area. They wanted to branch out to the US, and that’s our partnership, and we’re happy to carry their brand. We’re really hoping to be able to send players back and forth in the offseason for training, between Italy and the US, to increase our connection to them. And we’re working to expand the USA name as well as the Italian name.
“They have a vision. They love soccer for the sake of soccer. They want to see it grow. It’s the beautiful game. And not only do they want to see soccer grow, but they want it to grow for women, which in so many parts of the country is just ignored. We’ve got the Women’s World Cup coming in just a couple of days, but look around, you don’t see that advertised. You don’t see the commercials. When the men’s World Cup was here it was everywhere. It was soccer frenzy. We’re not less than the men. We should be taken as equals. And I love that they have that philosophy.”
They’re working with a group in Baltimore to offer camps and are introducing themselves to local rec leagues. They’re starting a feeder program of youth teams that will give players a chance to participate until they’re eligible for the senior team when they turn 18. (The age limit is a rule WPSL added this year, possibly in response to last year’s Lions Swarm team of mostly high school players.)
As for the team itself, she’s optimistic. “We had our players last night. It was amazing because most of these girls had never played together before. You had your usual bumps, trying to figure out the way we play, communication, some errors, but for the most part they gelled. And to get that right off the bat and to be able to build on that, that’s really going to be special. I think we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with this season. We have the talent and we have the capability and we have the desire. As long as we can come together it’s going to be a real interesting season. I’m looking forward to giving the Charge a run for their money.
“ACF Torino, we’re all about two things: promoting women’s soccer and team unity. I don’t want to have one star on this team, or two stars. I want the team to be a star. To be the best team out there you don’t have to have everyone to be absolutely the best player, you have to have the best teamwork. So we go out there, we’re as strong as our best player, we’re as weak as our worst player, and we all help each other. That’s what’s going to help us win this year, and that’s what we plan on doing.
“The one thing you’re going to get when you come see us is, you’re going to have a good show. You’re going to have great skill, great soccer, good vibe, and it’s going to be a great time. If you have young children, boys and girls, bring them out. It’s going to be inspiring for everybody. I mean, look at these girls. Everybody started somewhere. When I was five years old, I played for AYSO. It’s a nonprofit, it’s kind of looked down on by the clubs. And I went on to play Division I college, coaching, and now look where I’m at. Everybody has a humble start, and look where you can take it. Come out and watch us and see where you can go.”
Bender feels the same way. “Our goal this year is to stay positive, play good solid possession soccer, play the beautiful game. That’s really what we’re out here to do. Not so much focus on wins and losses but playing good soccer and feeling proud of what we’ve accomplished on the field.
“It should be an interesting season this year. Again, three new teams plus us and the Charge, so obviously there’s a little cross-town rivalry there. But I think there’s going to be good competition, and I think we’re going to give every team a run for their money this year.”
As with most teams, the roster is a mix of new and old. In addition to Bender, familiar names include Lauren Badalamente, Guatemalan national teamer Diana Barrera, and Rachel Lindenfeld.
Rostered at forward, Lindenfeld started out playing soccer at age 7 in San Diego, continued at U-Cal San Diego, and was fortunate enough to participate in the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel, which she referred to as “the Jewish Olympics.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of the returning players and how we’re going to work with all the new players. It’s going to be some good soccer, I’m hoping. I don’t know. I’m getting older, and I’m thinking this is a good time to prove that I can still be competitive. I want to be surrounded by other players who are still competitive who push me to run faster and be better. I’m looking forward to that.
“Every years it’s a different group of girls, but it’s always a fun group. I always really enjoy myself. I’m usually one of the older players, so I’m kind of motherly. I feel kind of motherly. [“Big sister,” I suggested.] Big sister is a better term. I like that term. I feel there’s a better connection with this team, I really do.”
Asked to offer a mission statement for the team, she said, “DC area can play great soccer!”
As for why people should come to games: “I think DC offers a lot of different events and certainly women’s soccer is important because we can motivate a lot of younger girls to come out and show them what exists before college, during college, and after college. So that way you can still be competitive.”
New to the team this year is local Sonia Rada, who grew up in Silver Spring and played for four years at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before attending Maryland and playing club soccer there. “It’s not varsity, but you still compete against all the big schools, who all have club teams. We played against teams like Penn State, so it’s still really competitive, it’s just a different level. There’s still the regional tournaments, national tournaments.”
“I just want to play at a higher level. I just want the team to do well. I want us to do well as a team. I miss being on a team. I haven’t played on a team for a year or so. I’m just excited to have everyone together and work towards a common goal and hopefully do really well this season.
“We had our first scrimmage yesterday and we did well. We’re just getting used to each other. Obviously, I’m new, a lot of them have already played together, so I’m just trying to get my chemistry going with them.
“Come out and watch us. We’re going to play, we’re going to give it our all, definitely try to rebuild the team this year and try to a little better than we’ve done in the past. Everyone come out and definitely support us because the Women’s World Cup is coming up, so just support women’s soccer in general.”
Team: ASA Chesapeake Charge
Home venue: Old Mill High School, Millersville, MD
History: Sixth 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
(My writeup on the Charge is brief because I was unable to schedule a preseason get-together with the team that was convenient to both of us.)
The Charge have repeatedly been the bridesmaid but never the bride, always falling a bit short of making it to the WPSL Final Four. In 2011 and 2013 one more win would have gotten them there. Last year they fell in the semifinals but to the team that went on to the Final Four. Is this year their turn?
Defense has never been an issue for the team. They gave up all of two goals during the regular season last year, though the loss of central defender Jennifer Gillette is a big one.
Offense, though, has been the big challenge. Last year they had a “triple-edged sword” of Marisa Kresge, Cheyenne Skidmore, and Ali Andrzejewski, who collectively provided the lion’s share of the scoring, along with some help from veteran Katie Watson, who told me after Sunday’s game she expects this season to be her last. This year, Kresge is spending the summer in Wisconsin, though they may have a more than sufficient replacement in Ali’s little sister Bridgette, who is one of the best players her age in the country. The only downside is that that age group is high school juniors. She was named 2014 National High School Player of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. She’s been called up to the U-17 and U-20 national teams and has been in the U-18 pool.
She already showed her worth in their opening match on Friday, May 29, when she notched 2 goals and 2 assists in a 6-0 win on the road against Chesterfield. She was unavailable on Sunday, May 31, when the team eked out a 2-0 win against the same team in their home opener, with goals from Cheyenne Skidmore and Fernanda Marques.
The latter is a surprise addition to the roster. The Charge normally keep their recruiting close to home but this year have added two Brazilians to the roster, Marques and Talita Pereira. They played together in Brazil and are currently attending and playing for Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Pereira has played in both Japan and Iceland as well. Asked how they ended up in Millersville, MD, she just said, “A friend introduced us to the coach, and then we’re here.”
About the experience so far, Marques said, “I’m here to do my best and try to help the team. To get in shape, to work as a group. It’s hard like when we came we didn’t know anyone here, but they received us like very welcome. Everyone’s very nice.”
Team captain and central defender Jess Hnatiuk – one of the very few players who’s been with the team all six years – is pleased with the addition. “They’re very technical. They create a lot of opportunities for us up top and also in the center. Fernanda scored one tonight, and I think Talita scored two [on Friday]. So they’re creating a lot of opportunities, creating a lot of good combination plays.”
She also mentioned some other additions. “We signed Nikki [Boretti]‘s sister, Maria, she’s playing in the back. We signed Lauren [Vetock], the goalie. We signed a lot of good players. I think it’s just a matter of gelling together. We haven’t been practicing a lot. Same thing we go through every summer, the beginning of the season is always a little rough, but we’re get out stuff together by the end of the season.”
Last year’s main goalkeepers were Lyndse Hokanson and Erin Quinn. Quinn is now with the Washington Spirit Reserves. Hokanson played on Sunday but today (Saturday, June 6) will be the backup goalkeeper for the professional Washington Spirit. As Hnatiuk mentioned, they’ve signed Lauren Vetock from Francis Marion, who’s previously played with the Virginia Beach Piranhas and the Spirit Reserves.
Hnatiuk on the team as a whole, two games in: “It’s going pretty well. We got off to a good start on Friday. Drove down to Richmond, VA – Fort Lee, played the same team that we played today. For what we went through that day, we played really well. The bus was delayed. The game started almost an hour late. They didn’t have any ac. But we came out, we overcame what we went through, we came out, played hard, got a 6-0 win against a pretty good team. And today we came out, they came out, played hard, it was a 4-0 improvement [for the other team]. But we still got the job done, 2 goals, came away with the victory.”