On June 17, Ashleigh Gunning officially signed with WPS club magicJack. With nine players missing on Women’s World Cup duty and Lindsay Tarpley out for the season with a torn ACL, magicJack has been short on numbers during this World Cup stretch. Enter Gunning, whose first name is actually Sarah but she goes by Ashleigh.
Gunning most recently played with the USL W-League’s Charlotte Lady Eagles, her third season in the last four years with the team. This past winter, she also traveled to Australia to play for Adelaide United in the Westfield W-League. In October 2009, Gunning signed with Sky Blue FC but did not make any appearances in WPS.
Now, she has a chance to play at the world’s highest club level with magicJack after trekking the globe this past winter to play in Adelaide, where her team endured a rocky 0-10 season in which it scored only four goals while giving up 36. Below she talks about how the women’s game is treated in Australia compared to the United States and how she has been settling in with her new team.
How was the experience in Australia?
Just all around it was a great experience. It was a great experience. The soccer was fun. I was playing with Adelaide United and result-wise we didn’t do very well but for me personally, it kind of showed how great everything else was, in that I am an extremely competitive person and very serious about soccer and doing well. Even when the results weren’t going our way, I still enjoyed it and I still had a great time there. That kind of speaks to how great everything else was, that even without the results it was still a positive experience.
Did it weigh down on the team that the season was so rough?
Yeah, anytime you are going an entire season without having a result it is hard. It’s hard on the team, it is hard on the coaching staff, it’s hard on the club, the supporters – that’ hard. For me personally, I get a lot of joy and fulfillment trying to mentor younger players and we had such a big group of younger players on our team to me who are like babies – these girls who are 17, 18, 19. I’m not saying that I have all the right ways to do it by any means, but having been there, you are kind of put into this situation and it is so much harder for a younger person without as much experience. I really just found my niche in trying to talk to the younger players and help them grow as players and people and deal with the situation as best as possible.
What made you go to Australia? How did the opportunity arise?
A teammate of mine from Charlotte, Gianna Cavuoto, is from Adelaide and it’s just kind of how things work out. It’s who you know and when you know. She asked me what I was planning on doing after (the 2010) season and I had a couple of teams in Europe I was talking to and then the opportunity with the Australian team came about and I just saw it as the best case scenario to be able to play in a country where English is the first language, it was summer – just a lot of things that work well for me. And then FFSA, Football Federation South Australia, and the Women’s Standing Committee had a really big part in making it feasible for me to come over. So just the club, the coaches, FFSA and the Women’s Standing Committee all got everything together and really just provided everything I needed to have the most positive experience possible.
Kendall Fletcher, who blogs for The Equalizer, said that there is a lot of support in Australia from the federation to support the women’s game. It sounds like you sensed that as well?
Yeah, there absolutely is. Actually, Adelaide United has now been taken over by FFSA, FFA and Parks and Recreation along with Adelaide United the club. Those four entities are now keeping the W-League team afloat. It was not going to be sustained solely by the club and so FFA stepped in first and the rest followed. There is just a lot of support. I found a lot more support there from those governing bodies, from even just media and the public. Even if we didn’t have big numbers, people were more aware of soccer as a sport. Australia is a great sporting country. They love their sports and they love competition and they love to get behind their local teams, so that was a really great part of the experience – having, I think, a lot of support from all these different angles, not just the small little soccer community sort of niche that you get in the United States.
It seems like the United States could benefit from taking a page out of Australia’s book with that. Would you agree?
For sure, that would be ideal. I think part of the reason that my situation in Adelaide got a lot of that was because of the men’s team, the A-League team, is very successful. They had a really good year last year. They have this awesome fan base and they get great crowds. We were obviously able to feed on that a little bit just with the name, so that definitely added to it as well.
What do you take back from that experience overall?
Something I really personally got out of it was that before heading to Australia, I did not think that I wanted to coach soccer. I thought after I was done playing that it would be the end of my involvement directly with soccer. But being there and having the opportunity to really impact some of the younger girls – almost more of the individual training with some of them – I really enjoyed it. It kind of peaked my interest in wanting to do more there, specifically in Australia, but with soccer in general after. I am doing my masters right now in sports leadership and I’m about halfway through with it. I would like to get involved in the administrative side of things with an athletic organization, but I think I’d also like to do some development with youth academies and technical development, which I really, through the not so successful season we had (Adelaide), was able to find that. So it is sort of the silver lining that I had the opportunity to invest in some of these younger girls and I really enjoyed it.
How would you compare the level there? You have played in WPS, the USL W-League (U.S. pro-am) and the Westfield W-League (Australia). Is the Westfield W-League somewhere in the middle?
Yeah, I would say the W-League in Australia was somewhere between your average W-League in the states and WPS. Just like college soccer, your top Division I teams are going to be head and shoulders D-II and D-III team, but there are going to be a couple who fluctuate either way. It’s kind of like that. There are teams from each W-League that could kind of go either way, but I think it is very safe to say that WPS teams would be very much above that. The two W-Leagues could sway. Now, that’s what my perspective was from an 0-10 team in the Australian W-League.
You have spent three seasons over the last four years with the Charlotte Lady Eagles. What’s it been like there?
Charlotte is just an amazing organization. It’s owned and run by Missionary Athletes International and there is the USL PRO team and the women’s W-League team. It’s similar to Adelaide United in that there is that brother-sister team and we are able to get a little bit of ticket help and involvement and branding get a lot of help from the men’s team. But Charlotte Eagles is just an amazing organization. Soccer is the focus. Soccer is what we do, but it is more than that. We get involved through camps, sports ministry training that every player goes through and a lot of outreach and training. So there is a lot of outreach and opportunity through the sports ministry and soccer.
So how did you get in touch with magicJack?
I received one of the calls from one of the assistant coaches of magicJack and again, it’s the same thing of who you know and who had seen me play and they had a need at that time. Those things just all worked out and I got a call and they invited me in for about a week on essentially a trial and if I was a player the team would need at that time. For right now hopefully I can be the player that can contribute positively to this team.
How have you been fitting in with the team?
I think they are great. I think any time you have a group of 20 or so women, especially, put together, there are a lot of different personalities and different characters. Everyone has been great and welcoming. It’s a great level. I got here right around the time the World Cup players were leaving, so I don’t know them nearly as well. The players that are here now have been really great. They have been really welcoming.
You’ve played all around the pitch in the past few years – outside back, forward, center midfield. How do you fit into magicJack’s picture?
With Charlotte I played up top and with Adelaide I played 10 out of the 11 positions on the field throughout the season. Here I have kind of been told that I could be used anywhere. I don’t know, I guess if there is such thing as a utility player in soccer I guess that would be my position, which is fine for me. That doesn’t bother me at all. With each team I’ve been on it seems to be different and that is fine. I like to think that maybe I can help each team differently. So I don’t really have a preference of where to play. It is really wherever the team needs me the most, so it changes with each team I play with.
What do you look to take from this experience with magicJack? With Sky Blue FC you didn’t stay with the team past preseason. Do you have something to prove?
I don’t think I’m necessarily out there to prove anything. I love to play soccer, I love to be on a team, I love building relationships that you can only get through a team environment. So in that regard I am really excited to be here. I personally feel that WPS is the strongest women’s league in the world, so any chance you get to play at the highest level – that is kind of why you play. So, it’s a great opportunity. I’m really thankful to magicJack and the team and the organization for the opportunity. I just hope that I can contribute to the team and the players as much as possible.
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