Hannah Bebar and Ainsley Ahmadian are different. They’re two of the best 14-year-old soccer players in the United States. They’re clever, savvy, and work their way out of difficult situations with an unnatural ease.
Even among the best players in the country in their age group, they standout from the elite crowd.
Bebar and Ahmadian hail from Illinois, a prominent state in the youth soccer world. The Land of Lincoln is home to three teams in the Elite Clubs National League, currently the top youth club soccer league for girls soccer. Bebar and Ahmadian don’t play for any of those teams.
They suit up and play against the boys.
It’s a path that many of the former U.S. Women’s National Team players followed. They tested their mettle against the boys while competition lacked on the girls side. The reasoning for Bebar and Ahmadian is a bit different.
“The opportunity to practice with and play against very skilled, technical and quick boys seemed challenging and fun,” Jeff Ahmadian, Ainsley’s father, told TopDrawerSoccer. “Every training the girls have to prove themselves and work their hardest to contribute. Also, it was important to not just join any boys team, but join a top boys team where good soccer was played and taught.”
Ahmadian, who spoke for both sets of parents, said that having Jay Konrad, one of the best youth coaches in Illinois, coaching the girls was a crucial part of the decision in letting the girls play on a boys team.
Konrad had known Ainsley Ahmadian for years and welcomed her onto the boys team pretty quickly.
“A while ago Ainsley tried out for Eclipse Select (where I worked at time) on our girls side as a U8,” Konrad told TopDrawerSoccer. “I talked to her dad and told him I thought she needed to play up at least an age to get appropriate challenge. When I went to Galaxy, a top Chicago area club, Jeff reached out, asking about the possibility of them training and playing with us. He brought both girls to a couple practices. It was immediately evident that not only would they ‘fit' into the talent of the team, but they would be at the top of our talent bubble.”
Konrad’s Galaxy SC side is ranked as one of the best teams in the U14 age group in Illinois. They finished as semifinalist in the Illinois State Cup in 2015 and play against the best clubs in the region.
“Their technical and tactical ability have earned the respect of not only our parents and players, but the players, coaches and parents of our opponents as well,” Konrad said when asked if there had been any challenges in inviting two girls to join his team. “We play in the top flight of the Midwest Regional League for USYSA Region 2, and we have the opportunity to see top teams and coaches, and the girls have continued to impress. I communicate with Ainsley and Hannah's parents often, and the concern has always been, at what time is it no longer beneficial for them? Does the game get too physical? So far the girls have done great.”
From the girls and their parent’s perspective, the move has gone smoothly and better than expected in some cases.
“At the very beginning it was a challenge to adjust to the speed and athleticism,” Jeff Ahmadian said. “The girls also had to adjust to not being as dominant, not always being best player in training and games. Oddly, there have been very few challenges beyond that. The girls love their teammates, feel very much part of the team and the boys treat them as equals.”
As for the opposition in games, Ahmadian said it’s actually less physical than they expected.
“Playing top boys from Fire Academy, Cup, Chicago Magic, SLSG or Vardar, the games are very technical and not overly physical,” he said. “To survive and then thrive the girls have had to match skill level and play just like the boys.”
Yet, there are still some coaches and parents that don’t enjoy getting beat by girls.
“Only one time was there an issue,” Konrad said. “We had an opponent's coach tell me after we beat them 3-2 in a great game that we had an unfair advantage having girls on my team. I asked what he meant as I have never been told that before, and he said his players are not used to playing against girls and that they should play on a girls team. Needless to say, I was super happy we won after those comments.”
The playing style has carried over to when they play with the Girls National Team. Ahmadian and Bebar look at ways to solve problems without using their athleticism. They use their minds. They create openings with their movement and they see passes that not many players their age see on the field. The brilliance of the two has made them a focal part of the 2001 youth national team age group.
“They think on a different level and I think you can see they are technical and crafty,” U.S. Soccer Development Coach Mark Carr, who is in charge of the 2001 age group, said about Ahmadian and Bebar. “They’ve had to solve things that way instead of running with the boys. If they run with the boys, they’d get run over.”
Konrad explained that playing with the boys had some influence on the two talented players, but he is quick to point out that they were very good players before they came to his team.
“I cannot take credit for their game,” Konrad said. “They are relentless in their work to excel and have been role models to that point. They have been a tremendous asset to the boys as they see what it takes to be at the top of the game at this age.”
There have been areas where the girls have improved over the past two years while playing with the boys.
“The three areas where I have seen the biggest strides are speed of play, improvement in technique at game speed and adjustments to the physical nature of the game,” Konrad said. “In my opinion the boys game is a much faster paced game, and as a result, their decision making and technical play have improved to match what was needed in training and games.”
The girls parents echoed what the coach said about the steps in their development.
“Ainsley and Hannah were both good players before joining the boys,” Jeff Ahmadian said. “They'd been ‘playing up’ on girls teams that had won and been finalist of Illinois State Cup the prior two years. However, joining the boys raised their level of play tremendously. The biggest difference was speed of play and speed of thinking. Had to make decisions and make plays much more quickly.”
Whether they continue to play on the team affectionately known as “the team with two very good girls” or they return to playing with a girls team, Ahmadian and Bebar have made the most of the situation so far after seeking out the hardest challenge possible in their quests to be the best players possible.