The English are coming ... to lead UNC women's soccer

UniqueThis 6 October 28, 2019
Oct 31, 2019

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Come 7:30 a.m. most Saturdays at the University of North Carolina, Lotte Wubben-Moy is awake and in front of a television. Her presence is guaranteed if Arsenal is playing the day's first game in England, its clocks five hours ahead.

The lullabies her aunt sang to her as a girl were the same songs Gunners fans sang about their heroes. Her fandom is barely even a conscious choice.

When she and Alessia Russo shared a room as freshmen, Wubben-Moy tried to keep her voice down those early mornings. But the refs -- well, the ones that weren't blind -- just had it in for Arsenal. What could she do? Russo slept through the protestations. She grew up the same way, after all. She listened to stories about her grandfather, who immigrated from Italy and became a Manchester United fan, like his children and grandchildren who followed.

"There's this atmosphere around football back home which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world," Wubben-Moy said. "It's just this feeling that I can't even put into words, that's how much of a feeling it is. When you're around it, you're in it and you're immersed in it, it just breeds more and more excitement, more and more love for the game."

"We all look to the European model because of the success of the men's side. I don't think our model is looked at with enough positivity on the women's side." North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance

Yet here both are playing soccer for the third-ranked Tar Heels in the land of stock cars and sweet tea, Wubben-Moy the defensive cornerstone and Russo an attacking centerpiece for the ACC regular-season champions. At a time of unprecedented growth for the women's game in England, and when Europe as a whole is increasingly the envy of the world for its player development, Russo and Wubben-Moy chose what remains a uniquely American path through college soccer.

The fact that the program most synonymous with the history of women's soccer in the U.S. needed their skills speaks to the revolution going on across the pond. And it suggests there is room for more than one model.

"I think it's made us better people for it, and definitely better soccer players," Wubben-Moy said, "because of the resilience we've shown and adaptability to this new life. It's all been a challenge, but a challenge we've both embraced and learned from."

Their stories begin the way stories increasingly can in a place like England. It isn't what Jill Ellis encountered when the future U.S. coach grew up there without access to the game. It isn't the only marginally improved world Kelly Smith knew before the woman who would become arguably England's greatest player left to play at Seton Hall two decades ago.

Russo and Wubben-Moy grew up with opportunities, playing in local youth leagues to start and then trying out for the well-funded and well-staffed youth systems for well-known clubs. Wubben-Moy made the cut at Arsenal, Smith's old club in more spartan days, while Russo found her way into Chelsea's system.

"From there, the world is your oyster," Wubben-Moy said, "in the sense that you've got some of the best coaches, some of the best opportunities to play for your national team and you can play some of the best opposition."

Unlike in the U.S., where the costs of youth soccer can soar beyond the means of many families, Russo and Wubben-Moy said their families paid a fee of just £250 a year to cover basic expenses in the academies. They trained three nights a week, with games on the weekend, moving up through each club's youth teams toward the reserves and eventually the professional senior teams that play in the Women's Super League.

With its emphasis on player development over results and the absence of a pay-to-play model, the European system that dates back generations for men receives credit for the accelerated competitiveness of countries like England, France, Netherlands and Spain in women's soccer. Europe always had infrastructure; it just wasn't always available to half the population.

But the European model also separates athletics from academics. There are compelling philosophical arguments in favor of that, but practically speaking, it left someone like Russo with a dilemma. If she continued with Chelsea while pursuing her studies, she would travel 90 minutes each way to training every day and another hour each way to university. For Wubben-Moy, an Arsenal contract included online classes but little human interaction.

"It was great they were including it in our contracts, and maybe that's something they hadn't considered before." Russo said. "But I think it was a little bit unrealistic, how I was going to be able to manage all my schoolwork and mileage and getting the right rest and everything."

At North Carolina, both noted, those worlds are available within the radius of a few miles.

Already conscious of the American opportunity through her older brother, who ran cross country at Missouri, Russo reached out to Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons, her academy coach at Chelsea, for more information. He provided a list of good programs, but she was sold on North Carolina after one visit. A friend since they met on youth national teams years earlier, Wubben-Moy followed suit. (Another countrywoman and youth national teammate joined this season when Lois Joel transferred to North Carolina from West Virginia.)

Granted, North Carolina isn't the only school that continues to benefit from an inflow of European talent. South Carolina's Grace Fisk and Anna Patten played alongside Russo for England's U-20 World Cup team last year. In all, a third of that English team play for U.S. universities. The Netherlands and Germany also had NCAA-based players in that event.

'I think right now the American collegiate game is undervalued," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said. "We all look to the European model because of the success of the men's side. I don't think our model is looked at with enough positivity on the women's side."

On a systemic level, that debate will continue. The short season with too many games each week, the substitution rules, the temptation to value results above development -- all provide fodder for critics of the college model.

But on a personal level, even coming from a new Europe, many players find the opportunity here, as Wubben-Moy put it, almost too good to be true.

"It's important to have a Plan B," Russo said. "In England, it would have been the easy route for both of us to go play professionally. Saying that, it sounds like a bad option. It's an unbelievable option, and that's our end goal -- to play professionally. But it's nice to have something to fall back on, and coming here to get a degree at such a prestigious school ... the balance of the education and the soccer was something that I was interested in.

"And the life experience, coming to America, being alone, growing up, that was a big part of it. I haven't regretted it for a day since I came here."

That includes the days after she broke her leg in the regular-season finale almost exactly a year ago, unable to play as the Tar Heels then advanced to the national title game. That wasn't an easy experience. It isn't easy still to find the patience to wait to feel entirely right again, bits and pieces of her game still coming back even as she is second on the team in goals this season.

But there is so much more to savor than merely soccer. And even in the most frustrating days after her injury, Russo found some of her favorite memories watching and supporting people who weren't just teammates a few hours a day, but friends around the clock. Russo and Wubben-Moy ventured here as friends in search of soccer and school. They got much more.

"The fact that you can do it with someone you've known for such a long time and someone you're comfortable with, it was amazing to be able to do that," Wubben-Moy said. "But I didn't know before I came over that I'd acquire 20 Alessia-like people when I came over here -- people who I could equally call sisters to me and who are like family to us now."

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