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Grainey: Growing trend of women playing in Europe during missionary work

There’s an emerging trend of women playing college soccer in North America and then playing for European clubs while doing missionary work abroad. UEFA World Cup qualifying continues, while Oceania qualifying is set for September of 2014.

Missionaries on Clubs Qualifying for UEFA’s Champions League

Gillian McPherson is a native of Richmond, British Colombia, who played at Biola University (6,300 students), a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school in La Mirada, California. After graduating in 2010, she went to Europe to volunteer with Surge-Global Player Initiative. Based in Austria, GPI is a program that facilitates soccer players who want to continue their careers along with serving an evangelical mission. GPI’s website states that: “While soccer is a great attraction, the focus of this program is to provide a reality experience in discipleship – a chance to learn and grow while serving people.”

GPI connected McPherson—the first non-Austrian women’s soccer player that they accepted in the program–to top Austrian side SV Neulengbach, who defeated Apollon of Cyprus (loaded with six American imports) to make the UEFA Women’s Champions League Round of 16 last month. With Neulengbach, who have made the round of 16 in the Champion’s League for the fourth year in a row, McPherson toured Germany during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. While in Austria, she also took short mission trips to Liberia and Kosovo, where they visited a hospital’s children’s cancer ward among other activities.

Erin Law in action (left) in the Northern Ireland Premier League. (Photo courtesy of Erin Law)

Erin Law was a forward on two National Christian College Athletic Association Division II National Championships sides (in 2008 and 2011) at Baptist Bible College and Seminary (1,000 students) in Clark’s Summit, Penn. At the NCCAA Division II National Championships her senior year, she learned about Athletes in Action (AIA), a Christian-based athletics fellowship ministry. AIA is part of Campus Crusade for Christ: “which works with athletes and coaches to use the unique platform of sport to assist people around the world with their questions of faith.” In these types of ministry programs, the athlete typically has to raise funds to participate. Law raised the money the following spring and then journeyed to Belfast, Northern Ireland. After a nerve racking flight, including an unscheduled landing in Nova Scotia due to mechanical issues, she finally arrived in the Emerald Isle. She joined Crusaders/Strikers of Newtownabbey—about 20 minutes north of the capital–while she coached for AIA.

Law learned a lot from playing abroad, explaining: “I was able to learn an unbelievable amount from my coaches, but also from my teammates. I believe I became a better, well-rounded player from what I learned out here. My mind was stretched on seeing a different perspective of how the game could be and was played.” She accepted that she was playing at a lower level than in Sweden or Germany that attracts top U.S. national team players; in fact Northern Ireland has never come close to qualifying for a Women’s World Cup.

But still, she found it beneficial.

“Northern Ireland football is small on the map, but as far as football they are proving to be competitors. The players that I have seen play–and have been able to play with–have the ability, the work ethic, the heart, and dedication to play this game at the highest level.”

Law played for Crusaders from June to August of 2012 and then again in 2013 from May through last month. She won the 2012 Northern Ireland Premier League title with the club, which qualified them for the 2012-13 Champions League round of 64, where they were drawn against MTK Hungaria FC of Hungary, WFC Kharkiv of Ukraine and Raheny United of Ireland. Though Crusaders hosted the four-team event, other commitments kept Law from participating in the tournament, which MTK Hungaria won. Law will return to the States next year to marry her fiancé, Adam, a native of Northern Ireland. They are planning to settle in her native New Hampshire.

Note: This season, Glentoran of Belfast won the league crown for the sixth time in the past decade, and will play in the Champions League of 2014-15 as the Northern Irish representative. Glentoran was undefeated in the eight team, two round league with 30 points on a 9-3-0 record, with Crusaders/Strikers second on 24 points with a 7-3-2 W-D-L tally. For more information on Northern Ireland women’s soccer, click here.

Another avenue for North Americans to play in Europe is through various religious fellowship abroad programs. These players transfer their love of the game through coaching venues and clinics, as part of their opportunity to reach people with a Christian-based message. The Charlotte Lady Eagles of the W-League have long taken a similar approach, attracting players from all over the country to play top quality soccer while performing various religious and fellowship outreach duties. While bringing their joy and knowledge of the sport to their new countries, even players from ‘minor colleges’ who didn’t play in WPS or with youth international teams, have been able to help clubs in European Leagues domestically and in UEFA competitions. This is a trend to watch in future years and in other regions of the world.

UEFA World Cup Qualifying Review

After UEFA’s World Cup qualifying tournament games on Oct. 30 and 31 (with two more dates at the end of November before continuing next spring), we look at some key individual performances and how each of the seven World Cup qualifying groups is shaping up. The seven group winners advance directly to the 2015 Women’s World Cup while four second place teams (based on those with the best records against the teams in their respective groups who finished first, third, fourth and fifth) will play two semifinals and then a winner-take-all match for a final spot in Canada.

In Group 1, the Republic of Ireland defeated Slovenia 3-0 away with goals from Fiona O’Sullivan (ex-University of San Francisco who has played professionally in Sweden, France and most recently with Freiberg in Germany), Denise O’Sullivan (Glasgow City in Scotland) and Aine O’Gorman (Peamount United in Ireland after time with Doncaster Rovers Belles in England’s FAWSL). Head coach Sue Ronan’s team doesn’t have a lot of senior level depth to call on but they are currently second on 7 pts. from three games behind undefeated Germany (9 pts.). Germany should be a lock to win the group and capture the automatic spot, but the Irish must keep an eye behind them on Russia—still in the doldrums from a disappointing Euros Final tournament in Sweden–with 3 pts. from two games and who could still make a late charge for the second place spot, as the two teams have yet to play each other. The Russians lost 9-0 to Germany in September and need to get on track in a hurry.

In Group 2, Spain defeated Italy 2-0 at home and these two nations will battle to the end of the matches next September to determine a winner. Spain and Italy are tied on points with 6 but Italy has played one more game. Veronica Boquete, a W-League and WPS veteran now in Sweden with Tyreso, captained Spain. Romania and the Czech Republic are both improved sides this year (4 pts.) but a second place spot against Spain and Italy is surely beyond them.

In Group 3 Switzerland defeated Denmark on the road with a 26th minute goal from Ramona Bachmann (ex-Atlanta Beat in WPS) while Lyon’s Lara Dickenmann (ex-Ohio State University) also started. The Swiss are 3-0-0 on 9 pts. Switzerland needs to not drop points against Iceland and Israel to see its way safely to Canada. Second could be a shootout between Iceland (3 pts) and Denmark (1 point), with both having played two matches. For Denmark, Bachmann’s former Beat teammate Johanna Rasmussen (who also played with magicJack in 2011) started the game against her former club mate. Rasmussen now plays in Sweden with Kristianstads. Israel is undefeated after one game, a 2-0 home win over Malta. Their league has just recently opened up to foreign-born players which should help the game grow locally, but 2015 is too early for them to capture one of the top two places.

In Group 4, Scotland has had a dream start with 12 points on 4 wins, the latest a 4-0 away victory over Poland. Jane Ross scored a hat trick and her Glasgow City club is also in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Polish-American Nikki Krzysik—on loan to Apollon of Cyprus—started in midfield in her full national team debut. Sweden is perfect through three games after defeating the Faroe Islands 5-0 in Gothenburg on Oct. 31. Lyon’s Lotta Schelin scored a brace along with singles from Jenny Hjohlman and former WPS players Caroline Seger and Kosovare Asllani.

Group 5 has three nations clumped at the top—Norway and Belgium on 9 pts. (but with the former having a game in hand) and the Netherlands on 6 pts. It’s hard to envision former Canadian women’s national team coach Even Pellerud’s side not winning the group after an eye opening run to the European Final last summer, when many expert’s expected them to not advance out of the group stage. Norway defeated Netherlands 2-1 on Oct. 30, with goals from Caroline Hansen and Ingvild Stensland while Anna Miedema replied for the Dutch. An interesting battle for second will come down to the Netherlands and Belgium, who together have pioneered the BeNe League, a cross border league competition. Belgium defeated Portugal 4-0 on Oct. 31 on a pair of braces by Tess Wullaert and Aline Zeler, teammates at Standard Liege. Portuguese midfielder Edite Fernandes, who played with distinction in the W-League for a few years with Santa Clarita Blue Heat, captained her side. Projecting who will finish second is difficult; the Dutch have Swedish Damallsvenskan scoring star Manon Melis of Malmo but has never made a World Cup and only one Euro Finals (2009) while Belgium has never made the finals of a major international tournament. In another game in the group, American Furtuna Velaj, who tried out for the Portland Thorns last spring after finishing at Quinnipiac University, scored the only goal in Albania’s 1-0 win over Greece on Oct. 30, their first victory in four matches.

In Group 6, England is off and running with 12 pts. after four games with a huge advantage over the three teams in second place: Ukraine (one game played), Wales (two games played) and Belarus (three games played), who all sit on 3 pts. Former WPS striker Eniola Aluko scored once in England’s 4-0 win over Turkey on Oct. 31. American-bred goalkeeper Karen Bardsley (ex-Sky Blue in WPS) and defender Alex Scott (ex-Boston Breakers in WPS) helped secure the shutout. Brent Hills, England’s assistant women’s national team coach since 2002 (who once coached at Chapman University in California), could be named by the English FA on a permanent basis. A good choice it seems on merit, but yet another example of the intransigence in which the FA treats the women’s game—typically as an afterthought, after putting up with Hope Powell’s belligerent, meandering form of leadership for 15 years. With good candidates available on a global scale, it appears that the FA will go for the easiest, short-term solution, arguing that continuity is always best. Despite the good start, continuity is not a persuasive argument when it perpetuates the legacy of mediocrity started by Powell, of which Hills was a long-time contributing factor.

In Group 7, Finland surprisingly tops the group on 9 points, after defeating Kazakhstan 1-0 at home on October 31. Annica Sjolund, who plays in Sweden with Jitex BK of Molndal, scored the only goal in the 40th minute. The Kazak coach—Kaloyan Petkov—is a Bulgarian who assisted FC Indiana in WPSL and the W-League for years before coaching club soccer in Russia and Kazakhstan. France is also undefeated on 6 pts. with a game in hand. Austria has 6 pts. as well after four games. Hungary with 3 pts. on two games could overtake Austria for 3rd at the end, but this is clearly a battle between France and Finland, with the former favored. The second place team should make the play-in versus three other teams at the end but could be hard pressed to win two consecutive playoffs to make the World Cup.

Our early projections for WWC spots in Canada:

Group 1: Germany

Group 2: Spain

Group 3: Switzerland

Group 4: Sweden

Group 5: Norway

Group 6: England

Group 7: France

Top 4 Second Placed Teams: Finland, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Scotland with Scotland advancing to Canada.

For the latest UEFA World Cup Qualifying standings and results see:

Oceania World Cup Update

With New Zealand’s recent visit to play the U.S. national team this past week, it reminds us that their Oceania region’s 2015 Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament is set for September 10-20, 2014. New Zealand is an overwhelming favorite to capture their region’s one berth for Canada, having advanced to the quarterfinals at the London Olympics. New Zealand, who lost to the U.S. 4-1 in San Francisco before salvaging a late 1-1 tie in Columbus, had four players currently with U.S. university programs: defender Megan Lee (Louisiana State) and forwards Stephanie Skilton (Syracuse—9 goals this season), Rosie White (UCLA—2 goals) and Hannah Wilkinson (Tennessee—5 goals).

Wilkinson, a speedy player with strong ball skills, scored the late equalizer in Columbus. They are part of approximately three dozen Kiwis active in U.S. college programs—a trend which we have also seen on the men’s side. Former 2010 New Zealand World Cup Captain Ryan Nelson played collegiately in the U.S. before a playing career with D.C. United, in England’s Premier League before coaching Toronto FC this season in MLS.

The Kiwis brought other players with connections to North America or who are currently playing professionally. Midfielder Betsy Hassett played at the University of California before going to Germany. Goalkeeper Jenny Bindon was born in Illinois, played at Lewis College and married a New Zealand native and emigrated there. Defender Ali Riley played at Stanford and won two WPS titles before winning the Damallsvenskan title this past season with Malmo. Defender Ria Percival of USV Jena in Germany played with FC Indiana and Ottawa Fury in the USL W-League. Midfielder Kristy Yallop won a W-League title in 2009 with the Pali Blues before playing in Sweden, where she is now with Vittsjo. Forward Amber Hearn also played with Ottawa and now is with Jena. Defender Abby Erceg is also in Germany with Jena while forward Sara Gregorius is with Liverpool in the FAWSL. Two play in Australia: defender Rebekah Stott and Katie Hoyle, both with Melbourne Victory.

Oceania’s World Cup qualifying tournament will take place next September with one spot available to the region’s eleven nations:

American Samoa

Cook Islands


New Caledonia

New Zealand

Papua New Guinea


Solomon Islands




The island nations have few opportunities for international competitions but there is still improvement in the region for the women’s game. Tonga has received a gift from FIFA of athletic gear. OFC President David Chung (from Papua New Guinea) has prioritized the women’s game: “Women’s football development is an important element of what we are trying to achieve for not only the game in our region, but in addressing social issues we face. Domestic violence, health issues, gender bias and access to education are sometimes limited but with increasing numbers of women participating in football we can address some of these challenges – that’s why this equipment is symbolic and these new leagues are important.” After some delays, Tonga has started a senior league as well as a U-16 league.

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Equalizer Soccer.  His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham was released last year.


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