The 2014 DODDS-Europe girls soccer season kicked off last weekend with deeply-entrenched contenders in Division I and II and an entirely clean Division III slate. The opening weekend’s handful of games gives way to a full-fledged slate Saturday, all leading up to the DODDS-Europe championship tournament set for May 19-22 at sites around Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Here’s a look at the season ahead.
Why should a good thing have to end?
The fierce girls soccer rivalry between large-school powers Patch and Ramstein has only intensified in recent years. The Royals beat the Panthers in the 2012 title game; Patch earned its revenge last spring with a stirring 1-0 shutout win that ended the Royals’ unbeaten season.
While it’s by no means guaranteed, this spring could yield another entry in the programs’ ongoing championship-game series.
Start with the defending champs, Patch. The losses for the Panthers are significant, including Stars and Stripes girls soccer Athlete of the Year Caroline Rivera and revered head coach Tom Manuel. But the new and returning talent is encouraging.
First-team All-Europeans Nadia Santangelo and Whitney Mannier are back to patrol the midfield and defensive backfield, respectively. The midfield, a key area where possessions – and games – are often won and lost, is particularly well-equipped, with standouts Heidi Farrar, Amber Garcia and Kelsey Ortwein joining Santangelo at the position.
That capable cast now falls under the direction of new coach Blake Little, a veteran of DODDS-Europe coaching in Italy and an internal promotion from within the Panther assistant ranks.
Little’s first task as Panther head coach is a big one: hold off vengeance-minded Ramstein.
Ramstein coach Ricardo Buitrago, who has led the Royals to four European titles over the last decade, returns to the sideline after a break last season. The decorated coach said he’s “rejuvenated, refreshed and excited” to reassume command of the Royal ship and is hard at work crafting the considerable talent on hand into a team worthy of reclaiming its lost title.
“If we want to be on the pitch on May 22, we have to be mindful of the challenges that are in front of us,” Buitrago said. “It has to be a team collective effort. We can’t leave it to chance.”
In addition to the Panthers, those challenges include 2013 semifinalists Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden and aspiring contenders International School of Brussels, Lakenheath and Vilseck.
Kaiserslautern, a third-finisher in each of the last two seasons, has valid reasons for optimism; the Raiders return 11 varsity players, including defender Johanna Quinn and goalie Montana Staab.
“With a lot of returning players, they already know how to play with each other,” head coach Brian Daly said.
It seems Italy’s local sports skirmishes have been spilling over to the European championship level with increasing frequency in recent seasons. The longstanding girls soccer rivalry between Naples and Vicenza was an early example of that trend, and it’s only set to escalate in 2014.
Defending champion Naples has won the last four Division II titles, and they’re properly equipped for another successful defense this season. The Wildcats defeated the Cougars 3-0 on Saturday in one of only a few games played the opening weekend.
Striker Isabella Lucy, a member of DODDS-Europe’s elite since the dawn of the decade, is finally a senior, and has known nothing but championships in her prep career. Fellow seniors Amilia Espiet and Hannah Hood are among the continent’s most accomplished midfielders and goalies, respectively. Junior Kylie Beltz anchors a strong Wildcat defense. And dynamic sophomore Tyler Treat, the breakout star of last year’s tournament run, is poised to replace Lucy as the centerpiece of the Naples offense; in the meantime, they’ll combine for DODDS-Europe’s most explosive frontline attack.
Vicenza, meanwhile, has been anxiously looking forward to a rematch since losing a heartbreaking 2-1 decision in last year’s title game. Head coach Arric Alicea attributed the loss to a “lack of depth,” and said the team is focused on addressing that concern with hopes of reversing last year’s outcome.
If depth is an issue, it may well be the only one for a Cougars squad with a loaded roster that is a mirror-image of rival Naples. The team has top-shelf star power in Alex Frank, coming off a brilliant junior season that saw her rack up 20 goals and 11 assists. It has senior leadership in Frank, goalkeeper Zakiya Folks and midfielders Katie Claunch and Sarah Henry. The Cougars even have their own rising sophomore star in midfielder Emma Knapp.
While another Wildcat-Cougar showdown seems preordained, plenty of worthy spoilers lurk in the Division II ranks.
SHAPE – which returns 14 players from last year’s roster - and Bitburg are primed for another shot after falling to the Italian clubs in last year’s semifinals. Black Forest Academy is an annual candidate to pull off a bracket-flipping upset. Hohenfels, Ansbach, Bitburg, AFNORTH and overlooked Italian schools Aviano and AOSR will also look to make noise. To make things more competitive, 2013 Division III champion Alconbury and runner-up Rota have both moved up to the Division II level.
With the full season still stretched out in front of them, anything seems possible.
“There is tremendous work ethic and heart in each of the players,” Bitburg coach Aubrey Maxwell said. “They want to succeed and are willing to work hard.”
The promotion of finalists Alconbury and Rota to Division II leaves the small-school scene smaller than ever.
As they’ve been in every team sport this season, incumbent Division III stalwarts Brussels, Menwith Hill and Sigonella will be centrally involved in the fight over the abdicated small-school throne. Remote contenders like Incirlik also have improved odds of making a deep tournament run.
Brussels packs enviable veteran leadership and a winning culture. The Brigands return eight varsity players from last year’s team, including Ali DeFazio and Aleeza Vitale, who recently keyed the Brigands’ second straight basketball championship.
But even with Alconbury and Rota gone, Brussels’ path isn’t clear. Sigonella beat Menwith Hill in last year’s third place game, and each has the talent to move into the main event this season.