As the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) starts its sixth season, there are hundreds of women’s soccer teams still finalizing their rosters and getting ready for a busy season starting later this spring. The Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL) may not have national team stars like Carly Lloyd and Alex Morgan, but they play a significant role in the American soccer pyramid. Now, with a second team launching in the Twin Cities this season, top female college players from Minnesota have never had a greater opportunity to hone their game over the summer.
With more than 100 teams in virtually every major market in the country, the WPSL markets itself as the largest women’s soccer league in the world. Because it’s the second highest level of women’s soccer in the country, it could be argued that the league is something of a second division. In fact, some NWSL teams even have affiliates in the league – the Chicago Red Stars Reserves, for example. Though nearly all of the teams in the league are purely amateur. That’s because college stars who sign on to play over the summer can’t play alongside professionals and maintain their NCAA eligibility. But it’s also because running a team costs a lot of money just in terms of travel, hotels, and field time even without considering paying the players.
Sean Jones, the President of the WPSL, says the focus of the league office is squarely on elevating the teams in their local markets and across the country.
Jones is part of a new leadership group for the league and the question driving their immediate strategy is “how do we get more recognition for our teams and how do we help them prosper.” Because of the relatively low costs and track record of success, Jones says the WPSL is practically swimming in expansion applications. In the case of the Twin Cities’ new squad, he couldn’t be more excited.
“I think more teams in the area is good because it promotes competition,” Jones said.
The new kid on the block is the Fire SC 98 (Fire). They’ll be playing their games at Sea Foam Stadium just a few blocks from where the new MN United FC soccer stadium is being constructed in the Midway neighborhood of St Paul. General Manager Aaron Tilsen and Head Coach Mickey McNeil are thrilled at the chance to attract some Midway soccer fans ahead of the MN United 2019 stadium opening. And their passion for the joining the league is evident.
“Sky Above Me. Earth Below Me. Fire Within Me,” McNeil said. “This could not be a more appropriate mantra for a group of dedicated, special, talented, young women who are about to change the soccer world.”
The older sibling is the Twin Stars, coached by Bulut “Turk” Ozturk. As a top club and high school coach, Turk is a known quantity to many of the players in the Twin Cities. Compared teams that play in the fall or year-round, the league presents unique challenges from a coaching perspective.
The Twin Stars will train a few times a week to prepare for what it typically one or two games each weekend from late may through July. But such a compressed schedule means tactics are fairly limited and individual talent tends to drive many games. “Playing as a collective unit, as a complete team, I just don’t think there’s enough time,” Turk explains.
Still, Turk himself was a selling point for Michelle Austin, a soon-to-be Junior at Northern Iowa, to choose the Twin Stars.
“I’ve known Turk a long time,” Austin explains. “And I know he has a track record of being successful no matter where he is.”
After a few coaching changes in just two seasons at Northern Iowa, Austin is mostly focused on staying sharp and preparing for next season. “For my college team, there’s definitely an expectation that we have to get touches,” she said. “And we have to keep our fitness up.”
The Fire’s early recruiting efforts helped them secure four Gopher Soccer players – midfield stars Molly Fiedler and Emily Heslin, likely new starter McKenzie Langdok, and reigning Ms Soccer and incoming Freshman McKenna Buisman.
For Buisman, who enrolled early in January and already started practicing with the team, the biggest benefit may for signing with the Fire is playing with her fellow Gophers.
“I was pretty pumped to get to play with some of the top players on this team,” Buisman said “And then to get to push myself in the offseason and maintain that high level of training to get ready for the fall.”
Kicking things off
Both teams will play in the North Central Region with their first match the weekend of May 26th. More information about the WPSL, the Fire, and the Twin Stars can be found online. Be sure to check back for more coverage this summer.