U.S. Youth National Team players called up to train with OL Reign NWSL squad
A paragraph in OL Reign’s Fall Series roster update informed readers that OL Reign Academy defender Smith Hunter and goalkeeper Neeku Purcell would be training with the first team while the squad prepared for the Fall Series.
The notice was more than a footnote; it was another important moment in OL Reign Academy’s efforts to provide the highest level of training possible to its players, further cementing the pathway from the youth system to the first team.
Hunter and Purcell are already accomplished players for both club and country, despite their young age. Both joined OL Reign Academy in 2016 and have gone on to represent their club and country for the U.S. Youth National Team, including Hunter’s inclusion on the 2018 U17 Women’s World Cup squad.
Purcell praised her time in the academy for helping them develop as players and become mainstays in the youth national team pool.
“I think that the academy has a really good platform,” Purcell said. “It’s a club that focuses on individual development as well as performing well as a team. Through joining the academy, I’ve had more exposure to different scouts and helped start my national team journey, so far. I’m really humbled to be a part of all of that. The coaches that we have at Reign are such next-level coaches. They really care about you as people as well as players. The development that I’ve had individually from my coaches at the academy has really helped my youth national team journey.”
Hunter and Purcell are not the only OL Reign Academy players to train with the first team.
OL Reign assistant coach Sam Laity, who has also worked extensively with the academy, estimates that between 20-30 OL Reign Academy players have trained with the first team since the academy was founded in 2016. One notable example is forward Sakura “Sakky” Yoshida, who played with the first team last preseason and currently plays college soccer at the University of Oklahoma.
“Lots of clubs talk about the development pathway and what it looks like for a player,” Laity said. “The difference is that we are giving those players the opportunity. Every player, from the youngest at the club or one of our professional players, we’re all part of the same program. This is one club. We are a seamless club where players as young as seven or eight right up to our senior pros are in the same club together.
“Similar to Smith, Neeku, and many other players that have been out in the past, it’s important that they have models at the first team model, and it’s important for the younger players in the academy to see older academy players getting the chance to train with the first team. We want the young players aspiring not just to be first team players, but to be a Neeku and be a Smith and be a Sakky.”
For both players, the opportunity to train with some of the world’s best players provides an extra challenge as they continue their development during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunter, who would otherwise be in her freshman season at Harvard University, feels the opportunity to continue training and competing at a high level is certain to make her a more complete player.
“Training with the first team has been an amazing opportunity,” Hunter said. “To be training every day with players who I’ve been watching since I was a young teenager is amazing. I’m especially grateful to the coaches for allowing me to have this opportunity. While it’s disappointing that my freshman season at Harvard has been cancelled, training has helped me look on the bright side of things and focus on staying prepared for university level soccer and beyond. I’m grateful to the coaches and trainers that have helped support me during the pandemic and pushed me to elevate my game. The environment at OL Reign has really pushed me to do that.”
For both players, the level of competition at training is an adjustment, but a welcome one.
“The level of training around the professional players is great,” Hunter said. “Their mindset is top notch. Every time they step on the field you can see that they want to put their best out there to help them and their teammates prepare for whatever game is coming next. There’s a different level of competitiveness in small sided games. Even the other day, we were playing soccer tennis and you can see that they want to win everything. That really motivates me. Their professionalism is great to see, in how they treat coaches and staff. They’re so welcoming to me as a younger player. They’re so willing to give me advice about soccer and college. Their support motivates me to give my all every time I step on the field.”
“Mentally, physically, tactically, you have to be sharper,” Purcell said of the first team environment. “You have to be five steps ahead and scan more than you think you need to. It’s physically very difficult. You have to stay mentally engaged. If you make a mistake, you have a lot more work to do after that mistake, so you have to bounce back really quickly and learn from it right away so that you are able to succeed on the next play. Technically, you have to be super sharp. The players expect you to be just as good as everyone else. They want you to be as technical and make the same good decisions that everyone else makes.”
Hunter and Purcell have both found role models in the first team from whom they can absorb knowledge.
Centerback Amber Brooks has taken Hunter under her wing—a relationship bolstered by a shared history of playing for current Harvard women’s head coach Chris Hamblin. Hunter says the veteran Brooks will often give her positional advice, even while scrimmaging against her on another team.
For Purcell, holding her own in a keeper corps that maintained a league-best four clean sheets at the NWSL Challenge Cup is a test she relishes facing on a daily basis.
They expect a lot from me,” Purcell said. “At goalkeeper training, you’re serving to the other keepers if you’re not working. I have to make sure that even if I’m not working, I’m giving them my best so that they can get the best training they can get. They’ve been super supportive and really welcoming. They’ll give me pointers or tell me what I can improve on for the next rep. It’s been amazing learning from them and being in the same training environment as them. I’m very grateful for the wisdom they’ve passed to me and the intensity that I get to learn from in that environment.”
Hunter also cherishes the opportunity to help the first team prepare for competitive play during the Fall Series, though neither player is allowed to appear for the club without losing their NCAA eligibility.
Hunter stated: “It motivates me to put my best performance out on the training field so that I can push myself and the other players. I want to give them quality balls and quality chances to play their best on the training field to help them prepare for the games that are coming up. I’m really excited that I get to see how everything will be executed live, watching the principles in training and then getting to see it translate to what I’ll see on tv. It’s a really exciting time for me and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
Purcell and Hunter’s time in training with the first team is another step in OL Reign’s mission to create a pathway for youth soccer players to reach the professional ranks. A pathway, Laity is certain, that becomes more concrete with each passing year.
Laity stated the following: “It’s important for us to have the opportunity to bring these players in, but at the same time they have to earn the opportunity. Both of them have spent significant time with the youth national team. That shows their ability not only as players but their human characteristics and their personality. They’ve been given the opportunity at the youth national team level. The fact that they’ve stayed in it is a testament to their character. We provide the opportunity to them, but those things aren’t handed out willy-nilly. If the player puts themselves in a position through hard work, their dedication and their quality, the opportunity is there. When these players come out, there isn’t a drop-off in the level, that’s for sure. The speed of the game is significantly quicker than they’re used to, but there’s not a drop off in the level of the first teamers to (Hunter and Purcell). It’s exciting for them. It’s exciting for the academy in terms of the work that Matt Dorman, Tracy Kevins, Kim Calkins, and Amy Griffin have put in over the years. It’s a testament to the work that they’ve done that the foundation of the club is set at the younger age groups to create the profile of the player to move through the ranks and step into a first-team environment in a relatively seamless fashion.”