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Jo Dragotta, Holly King, Erika Tymrak and Kathryn Williamson (left to right) are preparing for the pro debuts.

Thursday February 14, 2013Former Gators Get to Continue Careers in New National Women's Soccer League

Jo Dragotta, Holly King, Erika Tymrak and Kathryn Williamson (left to right) are preparing for the pro debuts.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When they walked off the field for the final time in a Gators uniform in mid-November, none of them knew when their next match would be.

Florida soccer players Kathryn Williamson, Erika Tymrak, Holly King and Jo Dragotta had aspirations to continue their careers, but when and where and how remained vague.

“I definitely didn’t want to end my career not playing as much as I wanted to because of my injury,’’ said Williamson, an All-SEC defender who missed the majority of her senior season due to a knee injury.

And then on Dec. 17 in Boca Raton at halftime of an exhibition match between the U.S. Women’s National Team and China, the U.S. Soccer Federation made the official announcement. There would be U.S. women’s professional soccer in 2013 after all.

The National Women’s Soccer League would open play in the spring, providing American female stars such as former Florida standout Abby Wambach and rising star Alex Morgan an opportunity to continue to build the game’s popularity in the U.S.

A couple of months prior to the U.S. National Team’s gold-medal-winning performance in the London Olympics, the financially strapped Women’s Professional Soccer League announced it was folding. The same had happened to its predecessor, the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first women’s soccer league in which all the players were paid as professionals.

As Team USA traveled the country in the fall on a 10-city exhibition tour, Wambach and her teammates wondered what was next, too. However, that was not the case on Wednesday night when Wambach scored the 153rd goal of her international career – five shy of former American star Mia Hamm’s record – in the U.S. National Team’s 3-1 victory over Scotland in Nashville.

The NWSL’s inaugural season opens March 13 when FC Kansas City hosts Portland Thorns FC.

Williamson and Tymrak, the 2012 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, will be there. Williamson was Portland’s first-round draft pick in January and Tymrak was taken by FC Kansas City in the second round.

“I kind of feel like it’s the best-case scenario,’’ Tymrak said. “To have the opportunity to play with some of the biggest names in soccer – Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, all of them – we get to play in the same league as them, on the same teams as them. It’s going to be an opportunity of a lifetime.”

There is renewed hope that the third time is the charm for women’s professional soccer in America.

The eight-team league has teams based in Kansas City, Portland, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, New York and Rochester, N.Y., Wambach’s hometown where she will play for the Western New York Flash.

What makes this league different is that U.S. Soccer is subsidizing the salaries of the players on the U.S. National Team, as is Canada and Mexico for its national players.

Gators head coach Becky Burleigh is hopeful the league can stick and offer women an opportunity to play professionally on their home turf for years to come.

“It’s such a relief because so many players don’t peak until after college,’’ Burleigh said. “For them to have an opportunity here to do that without having to go overseas is tremendous. And for the future success of our National Team it is a must, which is what I think the Federation finally realized since they are contributing to the league.”

Dragotta didn’t decide to continue her career until after the season was over. She was drafted in the third round by the Boston Breakers, which also features former Gators Heather Mitts and Adriana Leon.

Whether or not the league is a viable long-term outlet remains in question.

“I hope for the best,” said Dragotta, who had seven goals and 18 points for Florida last season. “Only time will tell. I’m so thankful I have the opportunity.”

The 2012 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, King was a third-round pick of the Washington Spirit.

To prepare for their professional debuts, the four former Gators are in Gainesville practicing on their own and playing in a men’s league to keep their games sharp. They will head to training camp at the beginning of March.

Williamson’s Portland team includes Morgan and Team Canada forward Christine Sinclair.

“I was definitely kind of skeptical of it but when people said it was backed by the U.S. soccer, I felt a lot better,’’ Williamson said. “I know from the players involved in it that it’s going to be a real competitive environment. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity and I think it’s a great way for soccer to be showcased, especially from the women’s perspective in the United States.”

If the upstart league had not formed, the former Gators said they would probably have tried to continue their careers overseas.

Now they don’t have to. They can stay on U.S. soil and compete against some of the world’s top female players.

“I’m just so proud of those four because they have really earned it through their work ethic and their determination,’’ Burleigh said. “I’m not sure all four of them thought that when they came to Florida that they would have the opportunity to do this.”

 

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