Team: ACF Torino USA
Home venues: Thomas Wooton High School, Rockville, MD; Riverdale Baptism Sportsplex, Upper Marlboro, MD
History: Third season. Made playoffs first season but lost in first round. Finished third in division last year, out of playoffs.
Head coach: Fabio Diletti
Team: ASA Chesapeake Charge
Home venues: Carroll Field, Arundel High School, Gambrills, MD
History: Fifth season. Made playoffs first season, lost on bid to reach WPSL Final Four their second and fourth seasons, participated in WPSL-Elite as overmatched amateur team in 2012.
Head coach: Tim Wittman
Both of the local WPSL teams ended the year on a disappointing note. And both are using that as motivation.
ACF Torino US began last year hoping to win the division. Instead, they were narrowly defeated by the Lancaster Inferno in a match to decide the second and final division playoff spot and missed out entirely – this after winning the division and a first round home match in their inaugural season, when they were the Maryland Capitols.
“We definitely want to improve,” said midfielder Elise Bender, starting her second year with the team. “I know we can play better than we did last year.”
It’s another year of change for Torino. Founder and former head coach David Jones had to move to Florida due to family obligations. Looking for a quality coach to replace him, they found one in Fabio Diletti.
Born in Italy, Diletti started playing when he was five and ended up playing goalkeeper for his hometown professional team Ascoli Calcio. However, he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury at age 22 and had to retire. He moved to the US with his American wife at age 27 and started getting involved with local clubs when his son started playing. Now he runs a Reston-based soccer academy called RES Roma USA, which is affiliated with the noted AS Roma organization back in Italy. College-age members can play professionally in Italy while attending school there. He also led the Langley High School JV Girls Soccer team through an undefeated season in 2013.
“New team, new coach, kind of a new attitude for this year, ” said Bender. “I love the way he wants us to play. Very possession-oriented style, very European.”
When talking with him, Diletti gives the impression of being strict but understanding. “We do have good players. The question is, are the players good enough to follow directions and to execute what I tell them to do? All the girls are very technical. They do have the skill. And playing with different coaches, that just made them that much better. So any system you go in, if you have a smart player, with passion, you should have no problem.”
There weren’t a whole lot of familiar faces in the room for the post-practice get-together I attended. The other one besides Elise was Ashley Weisenberg, a rising senior at Washington Adventist. She’s an interesting case because she played for the Capitols two years ago, then switched to the Lions Swarm last year before returning. She’s also quite happy with the coach and how the team is shaping up. “Fabio is great. Tonight was wonderful. We looked great. We were touching the ball. We looked like we actually belonged as a team.”
The most exotic player with the team so far is Krista Hagan, who hails from Canberra, Australia, by way of Auburn University at Montgomery. “I’m based in Georgetown and needed a team close by,” she said. “And I’d heard good things about the club. The girls are really competitive. They’re quite a few really talented players here, so it’s nice to play with them.”
Operations Manager Kirsten Pelton is optimistic. “We’ve got the girls – they’re just not here yet from college. We should have a really strong team this year, and I feel that we should be in competition for right at the top of the division this year. We’re hoping it comes down to our last game because we end playing against the ASA Chesapeake Charge, who’s been our nemesis. It could come down to the last game of the season for us to determine who wins our division.”
Hagan gets the last word. “Ultimately, I’d like to start winning some championships. Why not this team?”
Jess Hnatiuk (right) has been a leader on the team since its founding. (photo: Ken L. Harriford)
As Pelton noted, they first have to get past the Chesapeake Charge, who have a serious chip on their shoulder after losing a heartbreaker last season: minutes into stoppage time and seconds away from earning a trip to California for the WPSL Final Four, they gave up a goal off a free kick to the New England Mutiny. Then the Mutiny scored an unanswered goal in overtime to take the trip away from them.
Forward Marisa Kresge: “That was the first thought when I woke up this morning – ‘Charge today!’ Then I thought of how we lost in the finals, and it was heartbreaking, so we’re going to really step up this year. I think everyone knows what we want to do and that’s to win nationals. I think we’re all going to be on the same page, going the same direction to do what we need to do and take care of our stuff.
“I think for anybody who played last year that is burning a hole in your heart, and you just want to get it back. I want it back. I want another chance at it. This time I want to finish it right.”
The Charge have the advantage of a solid core of familiar players. “That’s always a key, having that core,” said assistant coach Tariq Walker. “We’ve got the pieces in place that we’d like to go forward with.” The coaching staff also remains unchanged, with head coach Tim Wittman returning for his second year.
The returnees include goalkeepers Lyndse Hokanson and Erin Quinn, their “twin towers” central defenders Jess Hnatiuk and Jen Gillette, midfielder Riley Barger, and forwards Kresge and Cheyenne Skidmore.
Cheyenne Skidmore scores against the Houston Aces. (photo: Ken L. Harriford)
On the other hand, they’ve already been wracked with injuries. Star forward Alexis Prior-Brown tore her ACL in one of the last spring University of Maryland practice sessions before she even arrived. Flank defender Caylin Dudley hurt her leg in their opening match. Midfielder Katie Ponce hurt her shoulder in last weekend’s USASA tournament. Most painfully of all, after missing all of last season due to a meniscus tear, forward Erica Suter appeared in their opening match and promptly tore her ACL. In addition, they lost WPSL Eastern Conference Player of the Year Laura Kane to retirement.
On the positive side, they’ve added two very experienced players in the form of Ali Andrzejewski and Katie Watson, whom I remember from their days with the 2007 W-League champion Washington Freedom. Both forwards, they should add some scoring punch to the team.
“I had part of my foot reconstructed after an injury,” said Watson. “I actually haven’t played on the field for about three years now, so getting back into it and trying to get my groove again.”
Asked why she chose this team, she said, “This is the best team around. I like the coach. It’s a great program. I just feel like it’s a really good opportunity to play.”
Ali Andrzejewski (far left) and Katie Watson (far right) when they were playing for the 2007 W-League Champion Washington Freedom.
Ali Andrzejewski switched to the Charge after playing for Torino last year and is very happy with the decision. “I love it. I think it has an awesome culture. When you’re looking for a team, you’re hoping you’re coming into a good situation, but very rarely do you ever find it. When I came in here, I was absolutely thrilled to see that we have excellent teamwork on the field, really good communication, nobody ever takes offense to any comments, we really work well, communicate well on the field. We really support each other on the field, and that kind of team is something that is really hard to find. When you have a group of girls who are all just really good people, it’s really enjoyable. It makes it much, much more enjoyable to play. So I could not be happier. I didn’t know what I was walking into, didn’t know a lot of players when I came here. But I could not be happier.”
The teams go head-to-head this Saturday at 7:30 pm at Arundel High School. This is the opening match for Torino, while it’s the home opener for the Charge, who defeated FC Bucks Wednesday before last and also hosted and participated in the USASA Women’s Amateur Championship, where they lost in the semifinals but won the consolation match to finish third.
It’s as good a regular-season matchup as you’re going to see between teams at this level in this area, so catch it if you can.