New faces, established names mingle on day one of ECNL National Event: Phoenix
By Charles Boehm
PHOENIX – It was business as usual for many clubs who traveled to Arizona to take part in the opening day of play at the Elite Clubs National League’s first National Event of the year on Saturday. Yet there were also no shortage of new developments around the fast-growing girls’ soccer competition.
Saturday’s packed day of matches under hot, clear conditions at the Reach 11 Sports Complex and the Scottsdale Sports Complex featured strong performances from established ECNL powers like Eclipse Select Soccer Club (Ill.) – whose teams racked up a perfect 4-0 record on the day – CASL Chelsea Ladies (Raleigh, N.C.), Dallas Sting and San Diego Surf, as well as new entrants Texas Rush and Mountain View-Los Altos SC (San Jose, Calif.) and rebranded members Sporting Blue Valley (Kansas City region) and FC Wisconsin Eclipse.
“It’s great to be playing at this level and being involved with the league,” said Stuart Fitzsimons, coach of Texas Rush’s Under-17 and U-18 teams. “It’s great for our kids to see the next level.”
The Houston-based club’s four teams in Phoenix went 1-3 on the first day of their inaugural National Event, competing well but discovering the tighter margins for error that exist in most ECNL matches.
“Our kids are just not quite used to the environment where you make one little mistake, it gets capitalized on by the opponent, and that’s what’s happening at the moment,” added Fitzsimons. “But no surprises, this is a quality league, the best in the country, and you expect to have those situations where those little mental mistakes can really cost you.”
Fellow newcomers MVLA, whose director of coaching, Albertin Montoya, missed this event due to his duties as U.S. U-17 women’s national team coach, fared a bit better in terms of their first day’s results. Though like most members of the fourth-year league, the well-established Bay Area club’s prime focus is player development, the results of which could clearly be seen in their teams’ tendency to play a fluid, possession-oriented style.
“It’s good. We waited a couple of years to join the league, to see how it was unfolding,” said Seth Alberico, coach of MVLA’s U-16 squad. “We’re happy with the ability to play against the best teams day in, day out.”
Sporting Blue Valley are in many ways a new club as well, the product of a merger between Blue Valley SC and KCFC, ECNL members who have joined forces under the brand of their area’s Major League Soccer club, Sporting Kansas City.
“[It means] an awful lot for both clubs, and for Kansas City. We think and believe that Kansas City can compete nationally, and do well,” said Huw Williams, the club’s director of coaching, whose teams impressed onlookers with a blend of individual technique and tactical cohesion. “We’ve got a couple of teams that are already doing that both on the boys and the girls side of things, and by bringing the two clubs together we’re getting more of the top players from our area into one club, under one banner.
“And with the connection to the pro club, we’re getting unbelievable facilities, access to top-notch coaching – it’s just a win-win for both clubs and for the kids.”
Similarly, FC Wisconsin Eclipse is a new creation conceived by several leading figures from FC Milwaukee, in partnership with the original Eclipse just across the border in the Chicago suburbs. Club president and director of coaching Christian Lavers, who also serves on ECNL’s Board of Directors, feels the new enterprise is off to a great start despite only coming into existence on June 1.
“The energy has been really good in the club, the players are working hard,” said Lavers. “We wanted to put a real focus on the top-level players in Wisconsin and be able to put more coaching resources into them. We have a certain philosophy in terms of how we want to train, and how we want to play, and we wanted to be able to do that with other people who are like-minded.”
ECNL National Events have also become major occasions for top NCAA women’s soccer programs, and even in the midst of their own regular season, hundreds of colleges from across the nation have sent scouts to Phoenix to evaluate potential recruits.
“ECNL does such a good job of bringing these teams in. We make every effort that we can to come out here,” said Lisa Stoia, associate head coach at West Virginia. Stoia sacrificed most of her previous night’s sleep to reach Phoenix in time, traveling directly from Ft. Worth, Tx. after the Mountaineers’ Big 12 road victory over TCU on Friday night.
“If we have the opportunity to get out here, we’re going to.”
The ECNL National Event: Phoenix continues on Sunday, with matches kicking off in eight time slots from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and concludes on Monday. One of ECNL’s core principles is that teams play no more than one game per day. Other policies include official scouting and evaluation of nearly every match by member coaches, and a “club pass” registration system which gives coaches the flexibility to move talented players up to compete in older age groups.