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UWS, the great lab for women's football

The United Women's Soccer league is about to start, with 23 teams on the line, divided in 4 conferences. The 2nd tier of women's football in the States is a fantastic laboratory to discover young players or rediscover players who already had a longer career. And it's all on MyCujoo. Presentation.

United Women Soccer starts on 10 May 2019

Michael Lewis
From the USA

Brooke Barbuto admits that she did not know what to expect of the United Women's Soccer when she joined the Rochester Lady Lancers last season.

"It had been so long since I played in a league in the U.S.," said Barbuto, who performed for clubs in Finland and Iceland for four years. "I went into it with no expectations. I just went into it knowing that I would do everything I could to help myself, perform to the best of my ability and help my team."

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Then came the team's opening match against the New England Mutiny on a rainy night in East Longmeadow, Mass. and Barbuto was convinced the UWS was for real.

"They were a great team," she said. "The speed of play was unbelievable. Pouring rain. Definitely a competitive game. Both teams went out there, willing to fight, willing to compete and leave everything on the field. From that game on, this wasn't a joke. Tis league definitely was a stepping stone. I realized how good the league was."

As it turned out, so was Barbuto, who wound up earning MVP honors. She has returned for a second season -- with Syracuse DA so she can play in her hometown in upstate New York.

Dual purpose

Barbuto's path to the 23-team UWS, which kicks off its fourth season this weekend, might not have been the same as her teammates or opponents. She loves the competition, while others might use the league to keep in shape for the college season while yet others might utilize it as a springboard to play in the first-tier National Women's Soccer League or even abroad.

"Our focus is kind of a dual purpose because we are able to utilize college players," UWS commissioner Joseph Ferrara, Jr. said. "It’s a great benefit for the college players in our league to maintain and hone their skills for their fall season, but also the players who are out of college. It's an opportunity to still play at a very high level. And there are those who are still looking for a professional experience. We're very proud of the fact not only we have been a training ground for some NWSL players."

Ferrara, Jr. noted the league processed 46 international transfers this past offseason for players to play professionally overseas. And some national team players find UWS teams with which to play, such as Canada goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, a former New England Mutiny player who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

So, not surprisingly, there are plenty of stars and rising stars who have great aspirations or either continuing their craft in the U.S. or going overseas.

There's Lancaster Inferno's Haley Crawford, the UWS offensive player of the year, a standout at James Madison University, and LA Galaxy OC defender Natalie Jacobs, the West Conference defensive player of the year who anchors the backline for the University of Southern California.

Houston Aces won the UWS in 2018, but will they manage to keep their trophy in 2019?

And that's not to forget Santa Clarita Blue Heat's Hayley Gonzales, a Vanguard University graduate who was an All-West Conference second team choice, Calgary Foothills' Yvonne Northover, an All-West selection who attends Illinois State, Lansing United's Olivia Trombley, the All-Midwest conference defensive player of the year, the Detroit Sun's Dani Evans, the Midwest Conference offensive player of the year, Lancaster Inferno goalkeeper Kelly O'Brien, the East Conference defensive player of the year and New England's Kate Howarth, her team's career leading scorer (49 goals, 17 assists).

Next generation

And the next generation is ready to push these stars. Stanford University standout Catarina Macario, the reigning MAC Hermann Trophy winner as the best women's college player, has joined LA. Florida Gulf Coast University's Evi Popadinova, a Bulgarian international who has been named her country's women's footballer of the year three times running, is ready to demonstrate her skills to the Blue Heat and the rest of the league, and Colombian international goalkeeper Catalina Perez (Mississippi State), who will guard the Mutiny goal.

The team with a target on its back is defending champion Houston Aces, who are expected to be in the mix in another quest to secure the UWS crown. Last year Houston was paced by the one-two punch of Natalia Ariza and Gisela Arrieta, the Southwest Conference defensive and offensive players of the year, respectively.

"Rosters change from year to year, but there is a core group that always will return," Ferrara Jr. said. "Houston had a great model that worked last season. They had many players with international backgrounds last season that were in that Houston area. That helps matters signficantly, especially when you have teams in Southern California with a such a deep player pool to choose from. It's just a matter of building from that core. Houston, I envision once again will be in the race, as will some other teams who've been able to build some solid rosters."

Don't be surprised if some familiar names gun for the title.

Santa Clarita, the first league’s championship side in 2016, wouldn't mind adding another piece of hardware to its collection, as would 2017 champs Grand Rapids FC, and the Lancaster Inferno, which lost out to the Aces in an exciting and dramatic 2018 final on Julie Gavoski's goal in the 118th minute.

"We have some pretty good organizations all-around, respected organizations like the Long Island Rough Riders who have been around for 20-some odd years," Ferrara Jr. said.

"It will be the 20th season for the New England Mutiny. The West Conference teams have great class, the level of players, the facilities, the organizations. The LA Galaxy are top notch. Santa Clarita is always an extremely good team. Calgary Foothills is probably our best operating franchise from top to bottom. We've added some exciting teams in the Midwest, too. The Detroit Sun has always been in the playoffs. Grand Rapids always has a great atmosphere with their supporters group and the dynamic they have there. Lansing is another one that just gets it in terms of the full sports experience."

Watch United Women's Soccer on MyCujoo