By Matt Williams
---- — The ECNL, a national girls club soccer organization backed by Nike and Gatorade, aims to give young players a chance to hone their skills at the highest level against the best competition.
For a number of local players on the Stars of Massachusetts U14 club, the trip to Virginia for the ECNL national finals last month felt like the Super Bowl.
Held in Virginia, the event featured tournament of the top club soccer teams in the country for various age groups. Some of them had to qualify in another tournament, held earlier in Colorado, but the U14 group qualified based on the regular season alone. That sent the Stars, who practice in Acton, to the national stage.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” said Kate Drohosky, who is from Boxford and plays defense (left of center back). “There were tents with merchandise and products for the all the players (from Nike and Gatorade) and the competition was the best, which is my favorite type of soccer. The play was fast and you had to stay switched on the entire 80 minutes.”
The Stars wound up defeating Charlotte Academy, 3-0, in their first game and topping Colorado Storm, 2-1, in the second. They lost a semi-final to PDA, 3-0, and fell in the consolation game, 3-2, to San Diego Surf, to finish fourth in the nation.
“The pace of the games was definitely faster,” said Taylor O’Connor, a goalie from Danvers. “Skill wasn’t what surprised us the most, it was the amount of stamina the other teams had. There was never a part of the game where teams started slowing down.”
For many of the U14 players, nationals was the first time to see clubs beyond the East coast. The atmosphere of competition and also mutual admiration made an impression.
“Each team was so different, but at the same time everyone is so respectful,” said Lucie Poulin, a midfielder from Marblehead. “We play PDA a lot and I always saw them as the best, and to go to nationals and see so many good teams, and know that we’re among them, you gain a lot of respect.”
Besides Poulin, O’Connor and Drohosky, area players on the Stars U14 club include Kaitlin Donovan of Boxford, Mia Karras of Middleton, Samantha Neyman of North Andover and Jennifer Herrera of Lynn. There are 18 players on the team, coached by Tom Phillips.
Training with the Stars is a big commitment for players that live on the North Shore. The vast majority feel the travel time is worth it because of what they learn.
“The speed is quicker, the level of skill is higher and the passion for the game is stronger,” said O’Connor, who has been with the Stars for 21/2 years. “I feel like I’ve learned more these past couple years than since I started playing.”
One of the differences at ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) Nationals was the tactics of the game. It wasn’t simply going out and playing; the game plans could be tailored to the specific opponent. That sort of tactical play adds another layer to the game as the girls get older.
“It felt very official and that was different for us,” said Poulin, who has been with the Stars for three years. “I’m used to going in and kind of adapting on the fly and we had a lot of information about the other team’s styles and strengths. It was an advantage but it was also foreign for us.”
The U14’s were the only Stars club to compete at nationals, with the older age groups finishing ninth at the other tournament in Colorado. The support from their older teammates was overwhelming, “Lots of Tweets and e-mails and good luck messages. It felt really cool,” said Poulin.
The girls would have liked to win a national title, but playing four games and finishing fourth was an accomplishment they’re quite proud of.
“One of the most important things I got out of the experience was that anything is possible,” said O’Connor. “My team worked very hard to get where we are today and two years ago we never would have imagined ourselves there playing in front of hundreds of college coaches at 14-years-old.”
Perhaps the most memorable part of ECNL nationals, besides the games, was the opportunity to meet United States Women’s National Team legend Mia Hamm. There were a number of people with connections to USA Soccer at the event, but for almost every little girl that puts on a pair of shin guards, Hamm is the holy grail.
“She’s an idol to all the girls and to be able to meet her was the experience of a lifetime,” said Drohosky, a left back who enjoys jumping into the attack when she can and has been with the Stars for four years.
“It was awesome all around and the way everything was run makes me excited to earn the opportunity to go back next year. At the end of it hopefully I can say I’m a national champion.”
One of the ECNL’s objectives is to help girls soccer grow, both in terms of skill and in terms of popularity. Involving major sponsors and people like Hamm bring it beyond the scope of simply scouting and developing players for college; they’re planting seeds for the girls to fall in love with the game.
“It’s amazing,” said Poulin. “Just the fact she (Hamm) comes to an event like this is so special. It shows that the players care about this generation and about younger people. Seeing all the representatives of US Soccer, I thought was crazy.”