In Santa Clarita, female soccer players fight for a league of their own

Kodi Lavrusky, right, celebrates with UCLA teammates Lauren Kaskie, center, and Taylor Smith after scoring the winning goal against Florida State to win the NCAA women's soccer championship on Dec. 8, 2013.

Kodi Lavrusky, right, celebrates with UCLA teammates Lauren Kaskie, center, and Taylor Smith after scoring the winning goal against Florida State to win the NCAA women’s soccer championship on Dec. 8, 2013.

(Ellen Ozier / Associated Press)

The most challenging part of practice with the Santa Clarita Blue Heat comes after the training session ends. The players have just a few minutes to corral the loose soccer balls, wheel the two goals off the worn field and gather their belongings before the lights go off and the automatic sprinklers come on at the city’s Central Park.

Welcome to United Women’s Soccer, a new second-tier semi-pro league and the latest addition to the U.S. soccer pyramid. The country may have the best women’s national team in the history of the sport, but it’s a much humbler game for the teams, leagues and players that feed both that program and the top-tier National Women’s Soccer League.

The salaries are tiny, if they exist at all. And if you ask Mele French, who has had a vagabond 12-year professional career, playing in four soccer leagues on two continents, that doesn’t seem right.


“It still doesn’t make sense,” said French, who has seen many of the teams she has played for, and the leagues she’s played in, fold. “Having the best women’s soccer team in the world and you can’t sustain a team, let alone a league, for more than three to four years?”

French was named most valuable player in the W-League after leading the L.A. Blues to the title in 2014. But that league was disbanded a year later and the UWS, also known as UWoSo, was formed to take its place this summer.

The Blue Heat, the only West Coast team in the league, is one of five former W-League franchises to make the jump to the UWS. Santa Clarita opens its season in Houston on Saturday, just 11 days after its first practice, and will play its first home game at the Masters College in Santa Clarita on June 2.

French says there’s much to celebrate in that the Blue Heat has stuck around.

“We have a place here. We are creating something special,” she said. “We’ve had to fight extra hard for it. But we’re all doing it together. And … I do believe in five, 10, 15 years, it’ll be a well-paid job.”

French isn’t likely to reap those benefits. At 31, she’s the second-oldest player on the Blue Heat and likely one of the oldest in the league. But as one of the founders of the Force Football Academy, an elite training program for young players in Southern California, she’s in this for the long haul.

“It’s not easy, especially when there’s no money involved,” she said. “The fact that I still have the ability to play and it’s my passion, to be able to be that role model for my kids, is a big deal for me.


“We don’t have a choice. We can’t sit here and just say we want to build the best women’s professional league in the world. We have to actually prove that we can.”

The team she’s chosen to make her stand with is an eclectic group featuring four teenagers — among them high school sensation Viviana Villacorta of Mira Costa and Julia Hernandez, a Spanish national team candidate who recently transferred to UCLA. Also on the roster is former Canadian national team defender Sasha Andrews; Yadira Toraya, who played for the Mexican national team; Irish international Cherelle Khassal; and Kodi Lavrusky, who scored the goal that gave UCLA the national championship in 2013.

For Lavrusky, the Blue Heat was her only option for continuing in competitive soccer once her college eligibility ran out. Although she decided not to enter the NWSL draft, she wasn’t ready to quit playing soccer either.

“It’s definitely hard to give up,” said Lavrusky, one of five Blue Heat players with UCLA connections.

In virtually every male sport, there are a number of options between college and a top-flight pro league. That’s not true for women’s soccer, which is why Lavrusky agrees with French that the UWS serves an important purpose.

“Not every girl gets the opportunity to go play in the NWSL,” she said. “It’s another way for girls that don’t get that experience to come out and play. It’s cool because it’s a very competitive league.”


Just don’t forget about the sprinklers.