Field of Dreams

As Delaware County prepares for its pro soccer debut, our senior editor gets to the heart of the sport’s success on the Main Line.

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One for the Girls

Philadelphia Independence’s Mallory Lofton-Malachi, Amy Rodriguez, coach Paul Riley, Caroline Seger and Dani Collins.

Women's pro soccer is on the up locally, and the Philadelphia Independence is leading the way from Downingtown.

Kelly Rowland knows the turf, the lay of the land—an important advantage in soccer. She also knows the game, its players and fans. In the offices of the Philadelphia Independence at the United Sports Training Center in Downingtown, she’s the resident expert.

“That’s what they should call me,” she jests. “Who else could be better to sell the game of soccer in Philadelphia? If I could’ve picked the perfect job, this is it.”

The Wallingford resident and 2003 Strath Haven High School graduate is the director of outreach programs for the Independence. The new team begins its 24-game schedule on April 11 at West Chester University’s 7,500-seat John A. Farrell Stadium against fellow Women’s Professional Soccer expansion team the Atlanta Beat. The Independence’s second game against the Boston Breakers will be nationally televised April 18 on FOX’s Soccer Channel. It will feature former Boston players Heather Mitts, Amy Rodriguez and Sue Weber, who now dress for the Independence.

Rowland has worn many hats with the Independence, the second-year league’s eighth franchise. But the thrust of her work is partnering with local soccer clubs—a program called Clubs of Philly. Her list included 35 clubs as 2009 ended. “The response has been great, and it’s continuing to grow,” says Rowland, a former All-American at Florida State University, where she roomed with Radnor High School soccer star Toby Ranck, a former FC Delco player.

Rowland fondly recalls the most recent former pro female league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, and the Philadelphia Charge, which played at Villanova University before games were suspended in 2003. Her senior year, Rowland’s Strath Haven team attended a game. She remembers the large crowd and Mitts, a standout Charge player who has returned to Philly. After the league folded, Charge coach Mark Krikorian became her coach at Florida State.

“Soccer can be a small world,” says Rowland. “Now, our league is more fiscal-minded. We’ve learned and corrected the mistakes, and we think we’ll get the support the old Philadelphia team had. Maybe the soccer gods are looking down on us.”

Independence head coach Paul Riley welcomes pro soccer’s joint return to the region, adding that his team may play a game or two at Chester’s new PPL Park as part of a doubleheader with the Philadelphia Union. “The synergy will help us both,” says Riley. “Some have suggested it will hurt [the women], but the fans who go to our games aren’t the same as those at men’s games. We have our own niche. The women’s fans aren’t sitting at home watching on TV—they’re playing the sport.”

Riley lives in Long Island, N.Y., where he’s director of the 60-team Albertson Soccer Club and coach of the Albertson Fury and the Long Island Fury. He admits there’s some pressure for WPS to succeed. “The league has to make it, or there isn’t going to be another go-around—or it’ll be 10 years before there’s another go-around,” he predicts. “For the sport to make it, this league has to make it. We’ve picked good cities, and with all these kids playing, I can’t imagine people not coming.”

The United Sports Training Center is indicative of progress. There are three indoor turf fields and 20 outdoor fields. Within the community, the Independence is committed to helping coach and train young players in their own venues and club environments. It’s a determined decision not to come on too strong and to encourage affiliates and supporters. Much of that is Rowland’s responsibility.

“The level of the women’s game and its leadership has grown so much,” says Rowland. “I wish this had all been brought to the area when I could’ve still played a few years.”

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