By Charles Boehm
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – There were coaches, soldiers, boys, girls, high school players and elite-level club standouts, Under-15 through U-17 ages, and even a few intrigued parents in attendance at the one-day clinic hosted by the Fredericksburg Area Soccer Association and the National Guard at FASA Park on Sunday.
But one attribute they all shared was pride and devotion to the event’s special guests, Ali Krieger and Megan Rapinoe.
The two U.S. Women’s National Team stars, Olympic gold medal winners and National Women’s Soccer League standouts graced the event at the National Guard’s invitation, adding a bit of celebrity sizzle to the part-time military force’s latest initiative in its growing relationship with youth soccer.
With coaches from FASA and nearby University of Mary Washington leading two sessions’ worth of drills, small-sided games and scrimmages, Rapinoe and Krieger mingled among their younger counterparts for several hours, providing advice, photo opportunities, autographs and words of encouragement for the more than 100 participants.
“I’m kind of jealous,” Krieger, a local icon who grew up a half-hour’s drive north of Fredericksburg, told SoccerWire.com. “It’s great to come out here and be invited by the National Guard and just be a part of this experience and hopefully inspire these girls at the camp. I think it’s really important, what they’re doing for these young kids.
“I miss camp,” she added with a grin. “I loved doing these little drills and breaking for lunch and coming back out. It’s a good opportunity for them, we’re happy we were invited.”
The event was free of charge and included drinks, T-shirts and a sub sandwich lunch, all underwritten by the National Guard, whose only request of the participants was taking part in an information session about the Guard’s college scholarship opportunities during the lunchtime break.
The Guard has already crafted partnerships with US Youth Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues (of which FASA as a member), and is exploring further such links with NWSL and other soccer organizations. As one of the first clubs to host a National Guard clinic several months ago, FASA general manager Pete Cinalli and his staff helped them craft blueprints for future events.
“They’re focused on the grassroots effort, the USL is focused on the grassroots effort. It really combined into a great program,” said Steven Short, USL’s director of league growth and partnerships, who journeyed from USL’s Florida headquarters to attend on Sunday. “With what Pete has been able to do here at FASA with the clinics, it really all tied together really well.”
The National Guard is eager to spread the word about the in-state tuition rates and full-coverage grants it can provide to its members, and committed young soccer players already possess many of the fitness and educational attributes that make good soldiers.
“We are looking for motivated individuals,” Sergeant First Class David Therrell (pictured above, with Rapinoe), one of the managers of the Guard’s soccer outreach effort, told the crowd, noting how many opportunities Guard members provide for aspiring students as well as the athletically inclined, including a “world-class athlete” program to assist those with Olympic ambitions.
Both had played a full 90 minutes when Krieger’s Washington Spirit team defeated Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign FC 1-0 at the Maryland SoccerPlex less than 24 hours earlier. But Krieger and Rapinoe spent plenty of time on the microphone, answering a range of questions from clinic participants – from “Do you get nervous in big games?” to “How do you get your hair so poofy?” – with some entertaining and heartfelt replies.
Other topics included favorite pregame music (Florence and the Machine for Rapinoe, hip-hop, house or “something with a good beat” for Krieger), the challenge of learning a new language at overseas clubs, their opinions on the first season of NWSL and their approach to nutrition.
“It’s cool to have something like this that we can partner with,” Rapinoe said afterward. “I do my own camps as well, but I only do a couple a year and they’re not all over the country. To be able to kind of get out and – as cliché as it is to say – to give back and be able to come out on the grassroots level and see what these kids are up to, it’s a pretty cool experience for us.”
The spirited winger had stayed in the Washington, D.C. area a few extra hours to take part in the clinic and traveled separately from her Reign teammates, who’d flown back to Seattle in the morning, as a result. But the veteran traveler was eager to make that small adjustment in order to connect with younger players and advertise a bit for both her sport and league.
“I think as women’s athletes, we have promote ourselves a little bit more and promote our sport a little bit more,” Rapinoe told SoccerWire.com. “NBA players, football players and whatnot, everybody just shows up to their games. But we know that we have a responsibility and there’s a need for us to market ourselves. So I think we’re fortunate to have these kind of opportunities where it allows us to do that.”
She was clearly impressed by the venue, FASA’s brand-new complex of 10 lush natural-grass fields surrounded by farmland a few miles east of Interstate 95.
“We definitely didn’t have these nice facilities, that’s for sure,” when asked how her youth soccer experience was different from the clinic participants’. “We were like, playing out in the cow patties!
“It’s so cool, there’s, I think 18 or 20 million kids that are playing soccer in the U.S. right now, it’s just absolutely insane the way that it’s blown up and to have these facilities like this and to be partnering with something like the National Guard and these other big companies – it’s really cool to see how many people are interested in soccer and to have it on the grassroots level. So when it comes up, we have a league now and hopefully the National Guard and programs like this can sustain that and sustain the league.”