Youthful USWNT Learning on the Fly in New FIH Pro League

April 12, 2019, 2:16 p.m. (ET)

Content courtesy of Corey Knapp, B/R Live Staff 

In the opening game of a new league, playing far away from home against one of the best players and teams in the world, a 17-year-old stole the show. Forward Mackenzie Allessie corralled a rebound, calmly made a move in front of goal, and put the ball in the back of the net, lifting Team USA ahead of Argentina in the teams’ debut in the new FIH Women’s Pro League.

“So exciting, I mean it was just a dream come true,” Allessie, now 18, says of that first goal.

 

United States strike first πŸ’₯ 17-year old Allessie Mackenzie puts @USAFieldHockey on the board with a great finish πŸ‘

Watch now on #BRLive: https://t.co/8gWF99OXaR pic.twitter.com/ZtGbunBIeW


It was that moment, as well as the remainder of that first game — Team USA scored again to go up 2-0 before world No. 4-ranked Argentina scored twice in the fourth quarter and won in a shootout — which has encapsulated the Americans’ journey so far in this international league. Team USA has loads of young talent on its roster, but the other nations have the talent and the experience — Delfina Merino, the Argentine captain who scored the late equalizer, has more international appearances than most of Team USA combined — that knows exactly how to get a result when needed.

The FIH Pro League, which has both a women’s and men’s division, is unique in a sport that has been defined internationally by tournament play. The women’s league features nine of the top-13 teams in the world and takes place over six months from January to June. Every team plays each other home and away, for a total of 16 games, and the top four teams in the standings advance to the Grand Final playoffs, which crowns a league champion. The biggest payoff, however, is those top-four teams all earn direct placement into qualifying events for the 2020 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"It’s really valuable that we’re playing consistent, international matches over the course of six months," says U.S. team captain Kathleen Sharkey, whose 156 caps are by far the most on the team but still more than 100 behind Argentina’s Merino. "It’s hard to replicate that intensity in just a test match. We’re growing and improving with each of these games since we are learning so much, so I think we’re just trying to play to our potential each game."

After Wednesday's last-minute 2-1 loss at Belgium, Team USA returns to the pitch away to Netherlands this Sunday (10 a.m. ET, Watch on B/R Live). These teams played in the league once already in America in February, a 5-0 masterclass delivered by the top-ranked team in the world, another glimpse of the work the young American team has to do but also a level and example for which to strive. After all, the coach of the American squad is Janneke Schopman, who won an Olympic Gold Medal and world championship as a player with the Dutch team.

Aside from that first Netherlands matchup, Team USA has been in every game, losing closely and earning two draws in addition to its shootout win. As they chase their first regulation win, there’s a balancing act between wanting results now and finding positives to give the young players confidence moving forward.

"We do have young girls, but they’re so skilled and so athletic and they can take on anyone in international hockey," Sharkey says. "So I think just making sure that they actually believe that and they’re showing that on the field."

To fully understand just how youthful this team is, a glimpse at their collective birthdates will do the trick: All but one player on the Team USA roster were born in the 1990s. The exception is the aforementioned Allessie, who was born in 2001. Danielle Grega, the team’s leading scorer in FIH Women’s Pro League play with 3 goals, is 22 years old and has 8 caps. Midfield standout Erin Matson just turned 19 and already has 48 caps. Striker Margaux Paolino, who has broken out in her 15 appearances, is 21.

"I like the speed of the game (internationally)," Matson says.

"I would say different just intensity wise," Paolino adds. "Competitiveness is definitely a little higher."

It’s an even bigger jump for Allessie, who will play collegiately at Ohio State but is literally going from high school competition to playing against the best players in the world, whom she’s studying on film along with her teammates in order to continue to develop her game.

"So much different, so much faster," she says. "But honestly the team’s so great. They’re like a family to me already. They’re great role models. I can look up to every single one of them and trust them, and they are really supportive."

Their drive and youth is evident everywhere. After the shootout win against Belgium, Matson and Paolino reviewed their penalty shots — Paolino scored, Matson did not — and then jumped into trash talk about March Madness. Both play significant minutes at the international level while also starring at prominent college field hockey programs, North Carolina and Duke, respectively. A score update revealed Matson’s Tar Heels were down by 15, which drew a laugh from Paolino, who had plenty of confidence her Blue Devils would win later that night (they did, barely).

"Like we know we’re kidding … kind of," Matson says about their rivalry discussions.

"But there’s some competitiveness deep down," Paolino confirms.

It’s that juxtaposition — young and inexperienced at this level but competitive about everything — that points to such a bright outlook for Team USA.

Another key to that future is the home facility where the team plays and trains. Spooky Nook Sports in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, "the home of hockey," is the largest indoor sports complex in the United States and serves as the U.S. Women’s National Team’s home base in a deal that runs through 2022. The 700,000 square-foot facility features multiple turf practice fields and courts, weight training and fitness rooms, a hotel and restaurant, a domed practice pitch, and a 2,000-capacity outdoor stadium.

Spooky Nook sits in the middle of the nation’s field hockey hotbed, evidenced by the fact that 11 of the 25 players on the U.S. roster are from Pennsylvania. On a cold weekend at the end of March, two nearly sellout crowds watched Team USA’s shootout victory over Belgium on Friday and 3-1 loss to Great Britain on Sunday in the team’s first two league games at the complex. The players noted the energy they felt throughout the matches. FIH specifically wanted every game of its season to be played at a country’s home stadium, no neutral sites, for that reason exactly.

"Especially the atmosphere and the energy, it’s so exciting to come to a pitch and facility like this where everyone’s supporting and there’s so much going on,” Paolino says. "It just makes it 10 times more exciting."

Don't miss a moment of the FIH Pro League by watching on Bleacher Report Live. #FIHProLeague