West Virginia's Illusion, a newcomer to the United Soccer League, has been kicked around – and through, and over – like the new kid on the block. Their three initial matches ended in a combined tally of eight-nil, a greeting from the three hefty hitters in the already top-heavy Eastern Conference Atlantic Division. There was a breakthrough of sorts last week versus Carolina's Railhawks, a fellow fledging team, as West Virginia scored its first goal in team history in a 2-1 defeat that left it 0-4.
"I think the girls thought it was more of a college atmosphere," Illusion head coach Joe Dorini said. "I don't think they realized what they were in for playing against professional players. After the losses, the girls have finally realized they need to be at practice with more intensity."
And there's the very real issue. Created as a training ground for West Virginia University players, the team hasn't much else. USL Women's League rules limit programs to five players from any single Division I program, with an unlimited number of athletes from lower divisions. That's not a major concern for teams like Atlanta or Charlotte, which siphon players from Georgia and Georgia Tech or Wake Forest, Duke and North Carolina while also dipping into deeper pools of local talent. For the Illusion, West Virginia is the de facto supplier, and there is no significant aid from the now-general population of post-collegiate talent. The state ranks in the bottom 15 in terms of Division I players produced yearly, and the 1.8 million residents (Rank: 37th of 50 with no major metro centers) have yet to cozy up to the European game as they have in the surrounding commonwealths/states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
"There are some former North Carolina and Duke players who live and teach in Atlanta, and because they are there, they play," Director of Media Relations Michael Minnich said. "That allows the team to have larger numbers of major college players on its roster because they can spread the numbers out. And some teams have former national-team players on it, people who have played at a very high level."
The result is a combined 11-1 start for Atlanta and Charlotte, while teams like West Virginia, Hampton Roads (Va.) and, somewhat surprisingly, Richmond, are mired at the bottom. Dorini, also the Director of Soccer at Pro Performance – a 50,000-square foot FieldTurf Arena connected to a 28,000-square foot fitness center that serves as the current training home of the Illusion – has maximized his WVU connection to minimize the gap. With assistance from Mountaineer head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown, Dorini selected current University players Kelsey Fowler, Michelle Molinari, Greer Barnes, Megan Mischler and Nicole Mailloux. With Mailloux playing for the Under-20 Canadian national team, Elkins native and WVU forward Sydney Metheny is a roster fill-in. Former Connecticut keeper Megan Jessee, an Orefield, Pa. native, travels to game sites weekly to play, but does not practice during the week because of commitments to work and education. That has forced Minnich into goal at times simply to give the team a warm body for drills.
"It's coming," Dorini said, "day-by-day. If we were not in Morgantown, the inception would not even have been though of. The West Virginia women's program has such a strong backing here that it is the core of our team. The alumni and players are what we look for."
Outside of that, the roster is dotted with state natives who attend Morehead State, Stony Brook, Harding, West Virginia Wesleyan and the University of Charleston, among others. Washington State University's Megan Cecchini is a backup midfielder. Former WVU player and current Illusion defender and assistant coach Christen Seaman is on injured reserve and will likely not play – but can see the on-field issues plaguing West Virginia.
"I think you have your top college programs and then some of these teams are a step above that," Seaman said of the USL. "Some of these teams move the ball incredibly well and have older women who are still dedicated. For me, I have only gotten wiser as I have gotten older. I always say that if I had the mind I have now when I was 17, I would love that. You have women who are playing who are so smart in how they move the ball, how they play and possess it. That's what some of our younger kids don't understand. It becomes a mental game: Let's think about how we move and how we get in and score. That's how they capitalize on any mistake that you make."
West Virginia practices from 8-10 p.m. weeknights at Pro Performance. The business has financial commitments for field usage during the day, leaving Dorini and the players a final time slot that often allows for late bedtimes and early wake-up calls for jobs and classes. The team, still missing five players who are finishing schoolwork at respective universities, also factors in individual times for strength and conditioning workouts.
"By the time you get out and shower and eat and take a look at what you have to do the next day, it's 3 a.m.," said midfielder Marisa Kanela, a roommate of Seaman and former first-team All-Big East selection. "I also coach, and it's busy but you get used to it. We're always saying we want to get on a schedule, but never can."
The Illusion is currently tied for last in the nine-team Atlantic Division going into its home game Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Fairmont State University's 5,000-seat Duvall-Rosier Field. The match, versus the Carolina Dynamo (0-4-1), is the most equal pairing of talents yet for West Virginia, which will end a five-game home stand. The next home match will be July 11 versus Richmond following five straight road contests. Admission is $5.
"There will be growing pains with any team that is out there," Kanela said. "We will hit bumps, but even though we lost by (large scores) we have played (better) games. We have shown we can compete at this level. We just have to counter on other people's mistakes and not let them counter on ours. We have to continue to keep trucking."
The USL is a 41-team format in four conferences playing 12 to 14 regular season matches that run through July. WVU has 22 players competing in various summer leagues, including 11 in the Women's League, the highest USL level of play in the United States and Canada.
"W-League play is a great venue to see high-level soccer," Izzo-Brown said. "Participating in summer leagues is critical in the development of our players. There are more and more opportunities to play during the offseason that allow our players to get better."
A list of WVU players and their summer teams:
West Virginia Illusion (W-League): Kelsey Fowler, Michelle Molinari, Greer Barnes, Megan Mischler, Nicole Mailloux. Northern Virginia Majestics (W-League): Kerri Butler, Lisa DuCote, Caitlin Hickey. Minnesota Thunder (W-League): Mallory Beck. Rochester Rhinos (W-League): Erica Henderson. Jersey Sky Blue (W-League): Carolyn Blank. West Virginia Illusion (U-20): Sydney Metheny, Heather Saffel, Jamie Kocher, Meredith Metheny. Central Delaware SC Future (WPSL)/Spirit United Gaels (U-19): Cassandra Deitrick.
Carmel United Soccer Club (U-19): Alli Kealing. Slammers Futbol Club (U-18): Ashtin Larkin. St. Louis Soccer Club (U-18): Morgan Betscher, Blake Miller. Eclipse Select North (U-18): Meghan Lewis. Ohio Premier (U-18): Chelsey Corroto. West Virginia University begins preseason workouts on Aug. 6, with its home opener scheduled for Aug. 22 against Towson at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium.