Hilltoppers play professional soccer team on home turf

Women’s soccer fans should recognize the names Shannon Boxx and Amy LePeilbet: both have competed at a national and international level for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, which won the gold medal in the London Olympics and placed second in the most recent FIFA World Cup. Boxx and LePeilbet both play for the Chicago Red Stars, one of eight National Women’s Professional League (NWSL) teams. The Red Stars came to St. Edward’s University this past Wednesday, March 27, to play a friendly against the Hilltopper women’s soccer team.

This is the first time in school history that the St. Edward’s women’s soccer team has played a match against a professional team. Even though Boxx and LePeilbet were not at the game and the score was an 8-0 loss for the Hilltoppers, all parties involved—fans, coaches and players on both sides—were more than pleased with the result.

Getting the Stars to Austin

What brought the Red Stars to Austin and, even more specifically, to St. Edward’s campus, is a bit of a mystery. St. Edward’s provided the Lewis-Chen Family Field for the Red Stars to use for practices, and, in exchange, the Hilltoppers were guaranteed a scrimmage. Outside of a status on the Red Stars’ Facebook fan page, there was little to no publicity announcing the game.

Despite short notice, there were over two hundred fans crammed in the bleachers to watch the game. Lonestar FC, a local soccer club, cancelled practice and encouraged the young girls and their parents to attend the game.

Running with the big dogs

The Hilltoppers were able to keep up with the Red Stars, only letting two goals past the Hilltopper defense in the first half. Freshman forward Lauren Heller had a few breakaway moments, and the Hilltoppers were able to put great pressure on the Red Stars’ defense while holding their own defensively.

The tides turned in the middle of the first half when Red Stars’ forward Ella Masar was fouled in the Hilltoppers’ box. Midfielder Leslie Osborne scored the Red Stars’ first goal on the resulting penalty kick, despite a well-placed dive by Hilltopper goalkeeper Danielle Licarione.

“I thought, especially in the first 25 minutes, St. Edward’s was very organized, had possession of the ball and asked some questions of us,” Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames said. “Now [the Hilltoppers] know that they can play with players at this level.”

The Red Stars’ Lori Chalupny scored a second goal to close out the first half and opened the second half with another goal. The Hilltoppers grew noticeably tired and began to fall apart, allowing the Red Stars to dismantle the Hilltopper defense. Forward Jessica McDonald scored four goals in the second half, and rookie Hanna Gilmore scored her first goal for the Red Stars, wrapping up the score at 8-0.

Despite the harsh loss, both the Stars and the Toppers were all smiles post-game and even came together in a huddle to celebrate the end of the match. The camaraderie and mutual respect between the two teams, while not necessarily visible during the hard-fought match, was very much there after the game.

“For our team, I think we played really well,” Hilltopper goalkeeper Licarione said. “Besides the score, we held our own. Defense did really well, [and] we got a few shots. The girls worked really hard. This was such a great experience. Just to be on the same field as them is pretty crazy.”

“I thought it was a great experience for our girls,” Cowell said. “We wanted to make the most of that opportunity, so it’s good to see that there’s another level out there that they can aspire to even higher things than they’ve achieved so far.”

The heart of the game

Masar, just like all of her teammates and all professional women’s soccer players, says she plays professionally for three reasons: she loves the sport, she loves the fans and she wants to be a part of laying the groundwork for the future development of the sport.

“We’re not necessarily playing for us,” Masar said. “We’re playing so that in ten years, our kids can have something to look forward to.”

Red Stars defender Michelle Wenino has been playing professionally for the past four years. Because Wenino and many of her teammates do not have big name recognition, she works a full-time job to supplement her income from professional soccer.

“You do it because you love it. We all have other jobs … I have a full time job over at Sears Holding, so I work eight hours a day plus practice and training and games and travel. I have great bosses, though, so they’re flexible,” Wenino said.

The players came to the fans at the end of the game and signed soccer balls, iPhone cases, t-shirts and fans’ arms.

“We give these little kids role models in the sport, and it’s great for our players to be able to interact with them,” Head Coach Dames said. “There aren’t a lot of professional sports where you can have straight access into the players, and that’s the biggest thing. The players are excited to be here, they’re playing for the right reasons and giving back to the next generation.”

The next step

This match against St. Edward’s is one of a few remaining matches before the NWSL kicks off season play. The Red Stars plan to stay in Austin until Sunday, March 31, and play a match against the Houston Aces of the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) Elite on Saturday, March 30 at 4:00 p.m. The site for this match has yet to be announced. The Red Stars’ season opens on Sunday, April 14, when they host Seattle Reign FC at Benedictine University Sports Complex in Chicago.