Women's soccer's ever-changing road from Ivy to pro
Former stars on the Ivy field have made their ways to professional platforms in the United States and abroad
November 4, 2013, 9:30 pm·
Ceaphas Stubbs | DP
It was the last game of the season in mid-August 2013 and for the Chicago Red Stars, one of the eight teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, but even a win wouldn’t put them in the playoffs.
That didn’t matter to forward Jen Hoy, a rookie out of Princeton who had already scored a goal to tie the game at 1-1 at the end of the first half.
In the last minute of injury time deep in the second half, Maribel Dominguez played the ball out wide to Julianne Sitch changed. who cut it across the box. With a single blast, Hoy struck the ball cleanly into the bottom corner to win the game.
“It was awesome!” said Hoy, who had graduated just a few months earlier and earned a NWSL Rookie of the Week nod for her goals. “I was very happy with those two goals. Regardless of the game’s outcome, we knew that we wouldn’t make the playoffs, but I’m happy that I was able to contribute to our big win over Kansas City.”
NOT READY YET
Hoy’s early success in the NWSL is not proof that Ivy League women’s soccer is ready to send the majority of its players to the pros. However, it has shown once again that making the jump from the Ancient 8 to professional ranks is a possibility.
“It was always in the back of my mind, so the instant that I was drafted I didn’t hesitate to jump at the opportunity,” Hoy said. “I saw turning pro as a very realistic opportunity after my senior soccer season at Princeton. I was fortunate to be a part of a special group in 2013, and not only did we win an Ivy League title but we also made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.”
“With Jen, I don’t know if we needed to keep prodding, but we kept after her and said, ‘You have a special gift, you’d be crazy not to capitalize on that,’” Princeton head coach Julie Shackford said. “She’s one of those kids who is very bright, a type-A, who was like, ‘Am I okay doing this?’ Once she reconciled that, she went for it.”
With the help of Princeton assistant coach Esmeralda Negron, who was “incredibly supportive” and trained her “mentally and physically” before the NWSL season, Hoy joined the Red Stars on June 5 and made her debut just eight days later.
Hoy has joined a select few Ivy alumni who have played professionally in the United States, a group that includes Canadian National team player Diana Matheson, Mary McVeigh, Kristin Luckenbill, Sophie Reiser, Beth Zotter, and Emily Stauffer. All have made the jump to the first division in women’s soccer in the U.S. in its different forms over the past 13 years.
It’s a story of fits and starts, and very little continuity so far.
The first incarnation was the Women’s United Soccer Association that was launched with the outpouring of support and excitement following the U.S. Women’s National Team’s win in the 1999 World Cup.
Founded in 2000, less than a year after Brandi Chastain’s famous penalty and celebration, the league began in 2001but closed just five days before the 2003 World Cup.
With eight initial franchises, the WUSA struggled to attract fans, faced poor television ratings and also blamed weak corporate support. At the time the league folded, at least four former Ivy Leaguers called the league home.
“I definitely would have tried out for WUSA if it existed and was disappointed that I wouldn’t have the chance when the league ended,” said former Penn forward Katy Cross, who graduated in 2005. “I briefly considered playing in Europe, but decided instead to stay in the States and prepare for graduate school.”
Cross was arguably the best player to ever don a uniform at Penn. A four-time first-team All-Ivy selection and Penn’s first All-American, Cross got back into soccer in 2007 when she began to play for a women’s semi-pro league in California.
“I had already started an MD/PhD program at the time and hadn’t really considered playing competitively for several years — not to mention I was in terrible shape,” Cross said. “But I ended up playing for a couple summers in the [semi-pro] W-League and WPSL.”
After getting acclimated to semi-pro soccer, Cross tried out for the next incarnation of U.S. women’s professional soccer — Women’s Professional Soccer.
“If it weren’t for getting back into these leagues, I never would have considered trying out for the WPS,” said Cross, who never ended up joining a WPS roster. “I couldn’t turn down the opportunity, but I was certainly not on top of my game.”
Although the WPS achieved initial success and saw a surge in attendance after the 2011 Women’s World Cup, internal organization struggles with a franchise ex-owner and lack of institutional support caused the league to fold instead of expanding to eight teams, the number mandated by the United States Soccer Federation guidelines for a top league.
Using the lessons of the past two attempts, after the National Women’s Soccer League adopted many of the teams that were once a part of the WPS and found the support it needed with the U.S., the Canadian and Mexican soccer federations agreed to pay the salaries of national team players on NWSL rosters.
“We’ve had players that over time we recognized have the potential to do it,” Penn coach Darren Ambrose said. “But the first thing is having a league that’s been around long enough and that’s been established long enough.”
HOUR AFTER HOUR
The lack of opportunities in the United States have turned many Ivy women’s soccer players away from the U.S. towards playing overseas.
Take, for example, Negron, who played from 2001-2004, the same time as Cross. During her four years, she scored a school-record 47 goals and was a first-team All-American in 2004, leading the Tigers to the Final Four in her senior season.
She too graduated just a year after the WUSA folded, leaving her with only one option if she wanted to play professionally.
So she moved abroad.
“It was a great experience to compete against the best players in the world,” said Negron, who is now an assistant coach at Princeton. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities for us at the time, so I felt really lucky to have gone abroad.”
Negron first played for USCO Compiegne in Division 1 Féminine in France, where she held her own against the likes of Olympique Lyonnais, which featured stars from both the French and U.S. National Teams.
“We were in the first division, but we were on the brink of relegation the year before,” Negron added. “We did relatively well, we played against the best teams in France, like Lyon … and I was able to play against great competition.”
She moved to FFC Brauweiler outside of Cologne, Germany, where she played for a year in the Women’s Bundesliga, the top tier of football in Germany, before moving back to the U.S. in 2007 to coach at Seton Hall.
“I would have [stayed at home had a women’s league existed],” Negron said. “I think the environment [in the U.S. would have been] better for me in terms of what I wanted to do, but I don’t regret it because now I have a huge love for traveling.”
Negron is hardly the only Ivy player to have moved abroad to play soccer full-time.
Former Penn stars Natalie Capuano and Sarah Friedman are two such examples. Capuano played a season at PK-35 Vantaa in Finland, and Freidman played for ASA Tel Aviv in Israel.
“We have a couple express an interest, but the difference between expressing an interest and doing what is required to make it to that level are two different things,” Ambrose said. “You really got to be committed to that idea and put in hour and hour and hour and hour and hour.”
But will a well-established women’s league push Ivy players to stay in the United States and play professionally?
“I don’t know if it’s becoming easier, we’ve always had kids that have gone and played overseas,” Shackford said. “Certainly having a women’s league puts it in front of everybody so that it’s more of a conversation that they would consider something like that. I don’t know if the path has become any easier.”
First the league must prove that it can stay around long enough to develop talent. In a country where both men’s and women’s soccer struggle to attract media and marketing attention, developing a successful long-term women’s league will be a challenge, according to Shackford.
However, if the league can continue to develop slowly, there is some optimism that we may see more Ivy players like Jen Hoy turn pro in the future.
“Now that I’ve been through a full preseason, I have a much better sense of what to expect for next year,” Hoy said.
“My first season was a fantastic learning opportunity, and I’m looking forward to returning to Chicago in a few months to begin training with my team.”