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United States Women's Soccer
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History and Mission of the ECNL
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Road Kill Roy will provide entertainment at Saturday's event.
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RKR Dear Uncle's Grave
In some Richmond establishments and household lairs, it's been World Cup all the time of late, and it’s not over. Not yet, and some localized soccer action is occurring this weekend in Richmond (at Goochland County's West Creek, to be exact), with a big Brown’s Island event getting things going on Saturday afternoon. This is the 5-year-old Elite Clubs National League, which is bringing young women’s soccer clubs to Richmond from across the country to compete in its national finals.
Saturday is the “Rivah Draw” celebration, where the tournament bracket will be created, and The Hat caught wind of it from a seemingly unlikely source — Mark Langhorst, organist for alt-rock outfit Road Kill Roy, which wll provide the centerpiece entertainment at this event that's free and open to the public.
There are several moving parts to this evening, so we’ll start with the Elite Clubs National League, headquartered in Glen Allen — yes, that one, over there near Innsbrook. The commissioner is our own Sarah Kate ("Skate") Noftsinger, whose personal story is well worth the read.
Noftsinger is a Richmond native who started soccer with her family at age 5, came up through the Richmond Strikers — playing at first on the boys' squads because there weren’t any for girls. She ultimately went off to play for Wake Forest, then she went pro, and then she joined the coaching staff at Stanford. In 2006, during a training session, she suffered a neck injury, the severity of which she didn’t immediately recognize and dismissed as a pinched nerve. A medical resident at Stanford, also a friend from her youth, urged Noftsinger to get an MRI — and it saved her life. She’d broken a vertebra, and a disc had ruptured into her spinal column. The process of healing interrupted her career in sport.
“I actually went back to business school and went in a different direction,” Noftsinger says. “I was working overseas when this project was put in front of me — of changing the landscape of female soccer in the United States. After some soul searching, I realized that this is a no-brainer. This is what I need to be doing.”
The impetus behind forming the non-profit ECNL is to bolster and continue the power of the United States' female soccer athletes. Noftsinger explains, “The U.S., historically speaking, has the best female soccer in the world. The 1999 FIFA World Cup was the tipping point across the board for females.” The final game, played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, in front of more than 90,000 fans, was a U.S. victory over China. The team's deep bench included Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Briana Scurry and Brandi Chastain.
She still owned property here and started the league out of her house. “We brought the finals here last year, and selfishly speaking, to show off my hometown,” she says. “I wanted to expose the kids to what we have here in terms of soccer, that this is where the magic happens. And we have the support of the city and counties ... this town is excited to have us here.” The age range of team members is between 14 and 18.
The experience of the previous nationals, Noftsinger says, from the accommodations to the restaurants, impressed the visitors.
“It’s fantastic,” she says of the experience, “And neat to create an organization from the ground up.”
If you need a brief tutorial on women's soccer, as I did, and got, thanks to the fine ESPN writer Johnette Howard, you can follow it up with the video below, which shows the national team’s first World Cup in 1991 and concludes with the 2007 team winning the Gold Cup of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.
“To continue that trend,” Noftsinger says, “you have to have a youth system — which is just like having a good school system. The waters were a little murky because there were so many avenues for getting to the national level.” It meant families shelling out for entrance fees and kids playing 40 to 60 games a year, which wasn’t fiscally or physically healthy. (Here, by the way, is a series of interviews with Noftsinger about her career and the reasons ECNL came about.)
“We wanted to create a platform that is player-focused that puts their needs first, that ultimately replaces the financial inequities in youth sports to generate opportunities that will support the game [and] streamline the process that produces the best of the best players.” The ECNL works closely with the U.S. Soccer Federation to support the national team.
The FIFA Women’s Soccer World Cup will be held next summer in Canada, and perhaps some ECNL alumni will take the field.
For Richmond, teams are arriving from distant points, including Texas, Colorado, New York, Minnesota and San Francisco. For some of these young women, it’s the biggest trip they’ve been on and the farthest from home. “And it’s putting these kids at center stage,” Noftsinger says. “We’re celebrating these amazing young women."
On Brown's Island on Saturday, there'll be some 4,000 people, including athletes, family, friends, game officials and college scouts.
The soccer action will thunder across Goochland’s West Creek Park, a facility that Noftsinger calls “a gorgeous complex with eight fields in the bottom of a bowl." She gives credit to the Richmond Strikers and Richmond United in helping to bring it all together.
The Rivah Draw event will feature full-service food trucks; local craft beer and wine by Legend Brewing Co., Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and Philip Carter Winery; artisan vendors; and the World Cup presented on what organizers are calling the biggest LED screen in the commonwealth of Virginia. I haven’t actually measured it or anything.
In the middle of all the action is Road Kill Roy. Langhorst says, “We don’t really know how to describe what we do.” After all, labels are good for engine parts and putting up a pantry, but for music, it’s, well, marketing. Try Roots/Americana — a construction of four-part harmonies, drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, organ, and a desire to get people moving. They’ve been described as Mumford & Sons meets Wilco meets The Band. They perform originals and covers you can sing to. One thing they have in common with the ECNL is that they are both 5 years old. The band grew out of collaborative projects of its members, “And our creative juices mesh together well to create vocal ecstasy — we think so, anyway.”
They’ve performed at a number of downtown events, and Echelon— the event management group — thought this would be another good fit for Road Kill Roy. If you haven't seen them in a while, this may be your last opportunity for a few months. Lead singer Davy Jones and his wife are having a baby. So the band is expecting to get off the live-music circuit and re-emerge sometime in September. “We really want to get back into the studio,” Langhorst says.
The band is Corey Muldoon, drums and vocals; Mike Raybould, vocals and guitar; Langhorst, piano, organs and vocals; Jones, lead guitar and vocals; and, on bass, Ted Fogarty.
The event runs from 1 p.m. until sunset. The finals draw begins promptly at 2 p.m., and the food vendors start cooking at 3 p.m.
And you’ll also have, to quote Neko Case from her concert the other day on Brown's Island, that "big, sexy river” as a backdrop for memorable photographs toward sunset.
Play us out, guys.