Girls With Goals
Northern Virginia has become a women's soccer juggernaut, turning out scores of elite college athletes and even a few pro players. Why is that?
Moira Flynn was 4 when she fell in love with the beautiful game. “My two older sisters played,” says the 18-year-old, who graduates from Yorktown High School in Arlington this spring. “I wanted to be just like them.”
You might say she’s already fulfilled that wish. Like her sisters, Flynn rose up through the ranks of Arlington Soccer and McLean Youth Soccer, ultimately playing at the highest level in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). As co-captain of her high school team, she helped lead the Patriots to a third state championship in 2022, continuing a streak that started with trophies in 2017 and 2019.
In keeping with the family tradition, she’ll be playing Division I college soccer, following the lead of her oldest sister, Meghan, a winger at the University of Tennessee from 2014-2018, and middle sister, Lauren, a defensive phenom getting ready for her final year at Florida State. This fall, Moira heads to the University of Miami to play for the Hurricanes.
And yet she isn’t just like her sisters. There are differences among them that become evident on the field.
“They are my role models. They’ve taught me a ton about soccer and life in general,” says the youngest Flynn, a wing and striker rounding out her final season with McLean’s ECNL program, Virginia Union FC, “but we are different players. Lauren plays center back—she’s on D now, which makes it hard to compare. Meghan is left-footed, has a strong shot and is very fast. I’ll take more small touches to beat someone.”
Following in her siblings’ footsteps wasn’t always easy, she says, but it challenged her to define her own style of play. “I had to figure out what I was good at…who I was as a player.”
Girls’ soccer is Big in Northern Virginia, and it’s getting bigger. Over the past 10 years, McLean Youth Soccer has sent 150 women to play in D-I college programs across the country.
To date, the organization has helped 18 players go pro in the U.S., including Madison Hammond, a defender for Angel City FC—the Los Angeles-based National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expansion team whose high-profile owners include Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Mia Hamm and Serena Williams—and Kansas City Current’s 2023 draft pick Jordan Silkowitz. It’s also cultivated three players who made appearances for their national teams, including Marlo Sweatman, who captained the Jamaican national squad.
At the end of 2021, Virginia Union FC was ranked No. 68 on SoccerWire.com’s list of the top 100 girls’ soccer programs nationwide. In 2022, it moved up to No. 41.
McLean’s next-door neighbor and rival, Arlington Soccer Association (ASA), also has a formidable track record. It’s sent 34 women to college on D-I scholarships since 2015—the year it first started keeping track—including midfielder Sydney Staier, an Academic All-Big Ten athlete at the University of Maryland who now plays professionally for ZFK Spartak Subotica in Serbia.
Arlington Soccer claimed the No. 75 spot on SoccerWire.com’s 2021 Top 100 list, although it dropped off in 2022.
It helps that there’s a sizable and growing talent pool here. ASA is the second largest youth soccer program in the Commonwealth, says executive director Frank DeMarco, with roughly 9,000 registered players each year.
ASA, like McLean, offers recreational soccer for girls in pre-K through high school, as well as travel and ECNL teams. The regional ECNL division plays in the National Capital Soccer League and competes with teams in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. The national ECNL team competes at the highest level across the country, including in major tournaments in Florida and Tennessee.
While McLean Soccer’s ECNL program has been in place since 2009, Arlington’s is relatively new. ASA joined the ECNL after its previous top-shelf program, U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, ended in 2020.
As the “elite” part of the acronym implies, ECNL competition is rigorous. Players who survive tryouts and make it into the program maintain a 10-month league calendar with three training sessions per week in the fall and spring. They work with performance trainers and professionally licensed coaches. Games are “regularly attended by U.S. Soccer scouts, in addition to individual conference and nationally held Talent ID sessions,” according to ASA.
“One of the things we really focus on here is athletic performance,” DeMarco says. “It’s not just the soccer stuff. They train a lot on the field, soccer-wise, but we have an off-the-field component for strength and conditioning, and injury prevention. That’s really helped take us to that next level.”
Gayle Wilson grew up in Falls Church and attended McLean High School, where in 1986 she earned props as “Virginia High School Player of the Year.” In 2013, she was named to the McLean Highlanders Hall of Fame.
Early on, she played on boys’ teams (there weren’t any girls’ teams for her age group at the time) until age 10, when she joined her first girls’ team in what was then the premier girls’ league in the DMV—Women and Girls in Soccer (WAGS). She went on to play at the University of Virginia from 1987 to 1989, and was called up for a brief stint with the U.S. national team in 1992. Today, she’s the U16-19 girls age group director at ASA.
Coaching has always been an integral part of her soccer career. “I started coaching with my dad and helped evaluate players for the teams that he was assigned to coach,” Wilson says. “I coached high school soccer when I was in college with a couple teammates. And then my dad said to me, ‘Hey, listen, I really think you should take these U.S. Soccer Federation coaching courses.’ ”
In 2005, Wilson earned the second-highest U.S. Soccer Federation license (the A license), a credential she continues to renew. Few women have earned that distinction, even though research suggests that female leadership may deepen the talent pool of women players.
According to a 2019 study by the Women’s Sports Foundation (founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King), coaches—female coaches in particular—play a pivotal role in the retention of female athletes.
The study found that girls more readily identify with women as mentors, yet women account for less than 35% of soccer coaches nationwide.
“We don’t have enough women coaching,” Wilson says plainly. “I’ve been very fortunate that wherever I worked…I felt like my coaching goals were supported.”
At the ECNL level, men still hold the majority of executive, owner and oversight positions. A 2022 report by The Washington Post found that “nearly 90% of coaching directors at ECNL clubs are men.”
Of the 39 coaches listed on the McLean Youth Soccer website, only five are women.
At ASA, women hold 18 of the 60 paid professional coaching positions in the travel program. ASA executive director DeMarco is aware of the disconnect and says his organization is working to address it.
“When we look at [the gender] demographics of our players, it’s roughly 50/50. Our coaching staff is not 50/50,” he says. “One of the things we are always working on is the importance of having female role models for girls. A big emphasis for us is attracting and retaining and developing female coaches.”
Finding them can be a challenge. The last time ASA had an open position for an ECNL Academy coach, only 10 of the 70 applicants were women. Retention can be tricky, too, as was the case with Nicci Wright, a former goalkeeper for the Canadian national team who coached ASA elite and travel teams from 2013 to 2022. She was recently snapped up by OL Reign Academy, a farm team for the NWSL’s OL Reign in Seattle.
“I think we just need to do more,” DeMarco says. “We want to get some of the current players involved in coaching, getting them their lowest level license now so they can work with our players in our camps and clinic programs and start to build that pipeline.”
Much has changed since the U.S. women’s team roared onto the international stage in 1999 to claim its first of four World Cup championships. The decades that followed saw legions of young girls donning shin guards and cleats, new generations of role models, and three iterations of professional women’s soccer in America. The current version, the NWSL, has been around for 10 years.
Liz Talotta has watched the momentum build in dramatic fashion. “We’ve been plugged into ASA since 2008,” says the Arlington mom of three, a former player for Connecticut College. “That’s when Emily [our oldest] started in the travel programs. Since then, it has exploded. When Emily tried out, there were maybe two teams in her age group. By the time [our youngest], Jessie, got to that level in 2014, there were probably six teams for the same age group.”
In 2022, Emily Talotta helped carry Christopher Newport University to a Division III NCAA championship, capping off an undefeated season. Her middle sister and fellow ASA alum, Katy, is now a sophomore playing for D-I Davidson College. Both girls co-captained their varsity squads at Yorktown High School, winning state championships in 2017 and 2019.
“Arlington Soccer has seen a 25% increase in the number of competitive female players over the past five years,” says ASA’s DeMarco. “I believe that having women’s professional soccer in Northern Virginia, with the Washington Freedom and Washington Spirit, has been a huge help to the women’s game.”
Nationwide, only 7.2% of girls who play soccer in high school go on to play the sport at a collegiate level, and less than 3% go on to play D-I, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Those averages may be higher in Northern Virginia.
McLean Youth Soccer estimates that about 65% of women graduating from its ECNL teams continue to play competitively in college.
(Plus, ECNL isn’t the only elite game in town. Yet another option for star players is the Virginia Youth Soccer Association’s Olympic Development Program, ODP, which identifies and grooms top athletes for U.S. National Team programs.)
As local clubs grow more established, the talent pool feeding into the Power Five athletic conferences is expanding. Talent attracts talent, and competitive play produces more competitive players.
“If you’re a player on one of Arlington’s top teams, you’re likely going to be able to play in college if you want to, at some level. Being part of one of these ECNL teams credentializes you right off the bat,” says Jon Winer, whose three daughters all played on state championship teams for Yorktown and/or ASA. His youngest, Sam, is committed to play at the University of Maryland in 2024.
Coaches in programs like ECNL don’t just help players improve their ball skills, game intelligence and fitness. They also assist them in pulling together video highlight reels and sports résumés—and can provide recommendations on colleges that would best fit an athlete’s playing style. The leagues and clubs also stage “showcase” tournaments where college scouts can come and watch players in action.
“A college coach can go to a showcase and see 40+ teams playing each other on 20+ active fields,” Winer says. “The players can send out letters to coaches saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be at this showcase. Here’s my schedule and my résumé. Come see me play.’ You could end up having as many as 100 or more colleges represented on the sidelines in the course of one weekend.”
Some players also participate in scouting camps held on university campuses to show a demonstrated interest in a particular school, and to showcase their skills in front of that school’s coaching staff.
All of this happens on a completely different timeline from the standard time frame for college applications. D-I and D-II college coaches are allowed to contact athletes they have their eye on as early as June 15 after a player’s sophomore year. Most athletes going to college on soccer scholarships commit to a school well before their senior year.
Northern Virginia’s relative affluence does give elite players an advantage. “The bottom line is you have wealth here,” observes one Arlington parent. “People can afford to pay for travel programs” and all of the expenses that come with them, including airfare and hotel fees for tournaments, professional coaches’ salaries, state-of-the-art training facilities, nutritionists and physical therapy in the event of injuries.
Before she was captain of the Washington Spirit or a midfielder for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), Andi Sullivan was a wide-eyed 6-year-old from Lorton running around a weekend soccer clinic near Fort Belvoir.
“She came up to me one day and said, ‘I’m going to play on the U.S. Women’s National Team,’ ” recalls Clyde Watson, a well-known figure in the local soccer community. “The chances of that happening are like [finding] a needle in a haystack.”
Watson, a former pro player, has spent over two decades coaching in the D.C. metro area. He honed world champions Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach during his nine years as an assistant coach for the Washington Freedom, the pro team that predated the Spirit. Today, he serves as technical director for McLean Youth Soccer.
For Sullivan, the memory of that precocious first encounter with Watson is a little fuzzy. “But I do remember being in elementary school and telling teachers that I wanted to be a professional soccer player,” she says, speaking from Florida, where she’s just stepped off the field after an NWSL preseason scrimmage.
A product of McLean Youth Soccer and Bethesda Soccer Club, Sullivan went on to play D-I soccer at Stanford, where in 2017, she helped lead the Cardinals to an NCAA championship title and won the coveted Hermann Trophy.
On Oct. 19, 2016, she made her U.S. national team debut in an international friendly against Switzerland, earning Player of the Match.
In early April, Sullivan seemed likely to join the USWNT roster of players flying to Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which kicks off July 20.
She’s continuing to blaze the trail ignited by local superstars like Mia Hamm, who graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax in 1989, and two-time World Cup winner Ali Krieger, who was born in Alexandria and grew up playing in Prince William County.
As a girl, Sullivan was a Washington Spirit fan, and before that, a Freedom fan. “I spent my [summers] going to games. I’d watch and learn,” she says.
Now new generations of players are watching her.
Last January, more than 25 college recruiters braved freezing temperatures to watch local teams square off in a two-day Arlington Soccer showcase at Long Bridge Park, under the roar of planes flying in and out of Reagan National Airport. George Washington University head coach Michelle Demko was among them. “There’s a lot of talent in the DMV,” she said, only momentarily diverting her attention from the action on the field. “It’s very soccer driven, it’s very passionate.”
Showcase matches can be nerve-wracking, especially for high school sophomores and juniors vying for college athletic scholarships. But for goalkeeper Caroline “C.J.” Roy, a senior at the Maret School, the only teeth chattering she felt that day was from the bitter cold. Her fall plans were already sorted with a commitment to Northwestern University—something she credits to her experience playing in Arlington Soccer’s ECNL program.
“I got offers from very good academic and athletic schools,” says Roy, who has played with ASA since eighth grade. “Arlington takes us to these ECNL showcases and puts on events like this that help us get recognition.”
Given the amount of time players spend training, traveling and competing together, there are natural bonds that form. One Arlington team participating in the showcase at Long Bridge Park donned red crewnecks printed with the hashtag “#Ohana” (Hawaiian for “family”) on the back.
“This team feels like a second family,” says Meri Strazzella, a Yorktown sophomore and ECNL player whose sister, Allie (now a junior at Gettysburg College) also came up through the ASA system.
Asked to name her role models, Strazzella mentions two-time World Cup champion and four-time Olympian Carli Lloyd in the same breath with local legend Lauren Flynn (Moira Flynn’s sister), who, as the starting center back for Florida State, helped the Seminoles clinch the NCAA championship in 2021. In 2022, Flynn was called up to play for the United States in the U-20 CONCACAF Championship and the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica.
“She was friends with my sister. I’ve always looked up to her,” Strazzella says, expressing admiration for Flynn’s hustle and versatility as a player.
“I feel like we’re really connected with older teams and like sister teams,” Strazzella’s teammate and classmate, midfielder Elizabeth Schwab, chimes in. “I think Arlington does a really good job bonding all the teams together.”
It truly is a sisterhood, says Liz Talotta, who for years has watched her own girls sharing the joy of victory, the tough losses and the necessary sacrifices with their teammates. “These are lifelong friendships. They will be in each other’s weddings.”
And some may be destined to go pro.
Soccer reporter Emily Olsen contributed to this story.