2016 MWSL Charity Tournament - Photo courtesy of Julia Smith

The Angle

Minnesota Women’s Soccer League Gives All Women a Chance to Play the Game

by on 18 February 2017

While much of the writing dedicated to covering American soccer has been devoted to watching the shifting landscape of its leagues, the stability and instability of the pyramid, and the teams that jockey for optimal position within that pyramid, there is a league in Minnesota that has been humming consistently and growing exponentially since it was founded in 1978. Unfortunately, you might not have even heard of it.

The Minnesota Women’s Soccer League (MWSL) emerged 40 years ago to fill the void in women’s soccer in our state. Originally featuring only a small handful of teams, the league has grown to as many as 60 teams and hundreds of participants around the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. Today, the MWSL is an example of much that is great about soccer: it is inclusive, community-oriented, and provides women from all walks of life a place to get competitive, get in shape, or just get involved.

“When it started, it was about an avenue for people to play,” remarks Angela Larson, president of the MWSL and player in the league for more than a decade. “People would age out of club teams and school sports and they didn’t have options after that. Now it has grown and our focus has expanded to community involvement, educational programs, and community interfacing.”

The MWSL is a member of the United States Adult Soccer Association and formally occupies a spot in women’s soccer’s third tier, along with numerous other regional leagues. But that isn’t where the league is focused. Rather, the league and its leaders are dedicated to providing a quality soccer experience to women locally, no matter their fitness level.

One of these women is Julia Smith, now a player in the MWSL for 24 years. Her story in joining is common and part of what makes the league special. “I had never played soccer before,” she remembers. “I started in my 20s, I had young kids, and my husband had played some soccer in the past. I was invited as a substitute to a team basically so that they didn’t have to forfeit their game that week. They told me I could just stand there if I wanted. But I wasn’t going to just stand there.”

Fast forward over two decades later and Smith has now been the manager of her team for 10 years.

A place for every woman

“We have a wide range of talent,” Larson says. “We have everything from elite college players — 23 years old and playing at a high level but without anywhere to play — to people who just joined for the first time last year in their mid-50s. The league is split into four divisions, with D1 being the most competitive and D4 being the most casual, and is then split into smaller subdivisions like 2a, 2b, etc. It means that each woman can compete in the way she wants, at a level she feels comfortable.”

Smith has spent her career playing at the D4 level.

“In D4, they don’t allow slide tackling. This level has a lot of players who are just playing for the first time. There are also players with some experience, but who have had kids or who have had injuries and they don’t want to play with the same level of aggression.”

That isn’t to say no one ever gets roughed up. Smith recalls, “There was one woman I remember who was a nurse. During the game, she fell and broke her arm. She just took over, sitting there on the ground and instructing everyone around her how to care for her arm, how to fix it. She was determined to not take an ambulance and waited for someone to come and pick her up. She was tough.”

At the top level, the league boasts players playing at a very high level. Commonly, young women in their college off-seasons can use the top level of the MWSL to stay sharp and competitive. It remains a source of pride for the league that it can provide such a wide variety of involvement for women in the Twin Cities.

More than just a game

In addition to providing regular league play, the league hosts the MWSL Annual Charity Tournament to benefit local charities dedicated to women’s issues. Each fall, a charity is chosen and the league hosts around 15 teams in one full day of soccer accompanied by silent auctions, donations, and other fun activities. All proceeds from the event go to the chosen charity, and the winners of the tournament lend a hand in choosing the charity for next year’s tournament. Having run for six years, the tournament has benefited organizations such as the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, Women’s Advocates, and Tubman Alliance, raising thousands for these and other important community institutions.

Smith sums up the importance of the league to her and to her community: “I think that, no matter what your level is, I appreciate that anyone could play in the league. If you’ve never touched a soccer ball in your entire life, you could feel comfortable coming out there, and you don’t have to worry about being injured. People are very inclusive and helpful, and it’s a great opportunity to pick up a sport later – even if you’re in your 40s. If you play at a high level, you have a place to stay sharp and hone your skills. There aren’t many opportunities to do that.”

If you would like to know more, visit www.mwsl.org or email info@mwsl.org with questions or to get involved today.

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