If it seems like the ECNL season just wrapped with a scintillating round of finals matches in Richmond, Virginia, it’s because it wasn’t that long ago. Suddenly, we’re thrust into another season for the top girls club league in the nation.
To honor the occasion, here are five fascinating clubs to monitor for the 2015-16 season with story lines galore trailing them into the season. From Mallory Pugh’s last club season to the heralded return of the nation’s No. 2 recruit for 2017, here are some of the best stories to follow in the anticipated ECNL season to come.
So Cal Blues U16
Over the course of the 2014-15 season, the Blues and the Michigan Hawks U15 sides seemed to be on a collision course with one another. The Hawks had won the U14 championship the year before, and they were among the most dominant teams in the country with the nation’s No. 1 recruit in that age cadre in Alexa Spaanstra. But the Blues, with a number of similarly ranked stars, ultimately came away with the spoils in the national title game in Richmond in a fully deserved 3-1 win. That should carry this star-studded cast into 2015-16 with more momentum than ever.
Assuming the bulk of this team doesn’t skip ahead to the U17 team - which is entirely possible, especially in bursts - the Blues’ U16 team will have talent few teams in the nation in that age group can even rival, let alone match. The Blues managed to finish the season without a single loss thanks to a blindingly efficient attack and a defense that gave up a staggering four goals in the entire regular season. That discussion starts with keeper Lauren Brzykcy, who’s as good as it gets in this league. Alongside Sydney Duarte and Ashley Soto, among others, this age group is stocked up for another run in 2016.
Real Colorado U18
Mallory Pugh’s last club season. Need we say more?
Real Colorado’s postseason fell apart on the final group day when it suffered a 3-2 loss to Crossfire Premier that cost it a spot in the U17 final. It was a bitter pill for a team as individually talented as any at any age division in the country. After a tough run the last couple years, this is the team’s last crack at a major ECNL trophy before it disperses to a handful of the nation’s most prestigious college programs.
That, of course, starts with Pugh, who’s vacillated between striker and attacking midfielder over the course of her time at the club. No matter where she’s been deployed, she’s the most dangerous single threat in the ECNL. It doesn’t tend to matter how many markers she has. And the teams that do go all-in on her quickly find themselves heads up with the incendiary speed of Julie Mackin off the wing, or Tatum Barton or Cydney Billups up the gut. With Alyssa Kaiser holding court in central midfield, there should be no team capable of beating this Real Colorado crew in 2015-16 without its very best performance. Asking that of a team against this much talent isn’t practical. The question now becomes whether Real Colorado can bury its demons of the past and finish its run on a high.
Slammers FC U15
If there was any single story of an emergent player worth telling last year, it was that of Jenna Nighswonger, Slammers FC’s incredible midfielder who shot up to the No. 1 spot in our recently unveiled Class of 2019 rankings. Nighswonger got there on the back of a fantastical performance at the ECNL Playoffs (and U14 finals) in Seattle this summer. Slammers FC’s U14 outfit went 5-0 in Seattle, including a breezy 2-0 win in the title game against San Diego Surf. It was the team’s breakout performance, and it set the table nicely for this season.
Nighswonger is a tempo-setting midfielder capable of controlling a match, but she’s just one of many facets that make this team go. Kate Wiesner is just as highly touted, and as a left winger there aren’t many more technically able at this age group. At one point in the title game, Wiesner heel-clicked past a defender to buy space in the attacking third. Not something you expect to see in a U14 game. Led by keeper Amy Kirk, the defense is good enough to stand up to anyone, making Slammers FC an immediate title threat in the U15 age group as the core of that U14 crew moves up. The bonus? This team is a blast to watch.
De Anza Force U17
While we’re on fun teams to watch, it didn’t get much more interesting than De Anza’s U16 team last year. The Force were justly crowned U16 national champs in Richmond after destroying a So Cal Blues team with top recruit Ashley Sanchez 4-1 in the finale. How’d they do it? Not with brute strength, but with finesse. This team is built on the spine created by forwards Samantha Tran and Kayla Fong, attacking midfielder Luca Deza and holding midfielder Tierna Davidson. But in the final, Alyiah Shields, one of the many top class talents, scored a hat trick and assisted on the fourth. How deep is this team? That deep.
As the bulk of that De Anza U16 team moves up to the U17 ranks in 2015-16, there’s no team better positioned to pull of back-to-back championships. Deza, a 2017, is arguably the best pure creative attacking midfielder in the nation, and she makes this team tick over. But Davidson is the quiet heartbeat of this squad, and if she doesn’t skip a year and move to the U18s, this team should be nigh unbeatable this season. Pair that with the Fong-Tran partnership up top and the back line should have little to do this season. As far as watchability goes, this team legitimately tries to play fluid soccer out of the back. What more could you want?
San Diego Surf U17
Two seasons ago, the Surf U15s were the toast of the town. With star forward Catarina Macario blitzing back lines with ease, the Surf made it through the ECNL Finals and ground out a deserved 1-0 win over PDA to take home the U15 championship. Hopes were understandably high for 2014-15, until Macario suffered a devastating season-ending injury after playing just 10 games. In those 10 games, the California 2017 verbal commit (she’s currently the No. 2 player in that class) - Macario scored nine goals and contributed five assists. Anyone would’ve struggled to replace production like that.
The Surf did respectably without Macario the rest of the way, finishing fourth in the difficult Southwest Conference and pulling in second in their U16 playoff group behind the irrepressible De Anza Force. The presumptive return of their talismanic attacker for the 2015-16 season should provide a single boost no other team will be able to boast this season. This team is set up to run fast and hard with Macario back, as players like Chloe Frisch, Julie Doyle, Yasmin Ahooja and Arlie Jones have set up one heck of a foundation for the U17 level. Surf should be back in the hunt this season, even if it isn’t the favorite to win. They’ll still be a fascinating team to monitor in the coming season.