Another step toward realizing the dream of playing professional soccer will be made this Thursday by Colorado Pride players.
The new women's franchise, which features local players and standouts from Australia, England, and Germany, open against the Cherry Creek-area Colorado Storm at 7 p.m. Thursday at Colorado College's Washburn Field.
The pro-am W-League is one step below the professional National Women's Soccer League, the female equivalent of Major League Soccer. This summer's experience can help a college player develop her skills and garner the attention of pro scouts.
Colorado College junior midfielder Kaeli Vandersluis - one of five current and former Tigers on the Pride - hopes that is the case. Vandersluis is one of the homegrown talents, having played club with the Pride since age 4.
"It will be very challenging to get playing time," said the CC standout, who will be joined on the squad by junior forward Jessie Ayers, sophomore midfielder and Air Academy graduate Sarah Schweiss and CC alums Kelly Browne and Sarah Haizlip. "But that is a good challenge. If you want to get to the pro level, you need to learn to play at that speed. It is good for my individual development to be exposed to new coaches and the international players."
The W-League allows amateurs to compete while maintaining their college eligibility since none of the players are paid. The short season ends a week before NCAA preseason practice begins in early August.
"This will really prepare me for next season," said defender Sophie Howard, a dual citizen of Germany and Great Britain who plays for Central Florida. "But right now, I am more focused on this summer and helping this team succeed."
Six Pride players played professionally before in the NWSL or overseas. Midfielder Holly King, who just earned a master's degree in elementary education from Florida, is in Colorado Springs to work her way back to the NWSL or develop overseas opportunities.
The team has several who compete together in college, including Colorado-Colorado Springs players Kia Jeffords and Hannah Levett, and four who played for the W-League's Colorado Rapids, which Pride coach Daniel Clitnovici, a native of Australia, coached last summer.
"It's up to them," Clitnovici said. "You can't really go in and change everything because it's such a quick turnaround. It's good to have players who have played together before. The experienced players can adapt and contribute to the team environment."
The Pride plan to contend for the Western Conference title against teams from Arizona, California, Colorado and Washington state.
"On paper, we should be very competitive," King said.
The 20-year-old W-League has 25 teams in the U.S. and Canada in four regional conferences. The league is overseen by United Soccer Leagues, which manages the USL Pro men's league. The expansion Colorado Switchbacks franchise begins play in that league next summer.
Colorado Pride schedule
All home games, Washburn Field, Colorado College
Tickets: $8 adults, $5 children
Thursday, Opener vs. Colorado Storm, 7 p.m.
May 31, at Los Angeles Blues, 6 p.m.
June 4, at Colorado Rush (Trailblazer Stadium), 7 p.m.
June 7, at Sedona (Ariz.) Strikers, 3 p.m.
June 10, Colorado Rush, 7 p.m.
June 13, at Seattle Sounders, 8 p.m.
June 15, at Bay Area Breeze, 4 p.m.
June 26, Bay Area Breeze, 7 p.m.
June 28, Santa Clarita Blue Heat, 5 p.m.
July 3, at Colorado Storm (Legend HS) 6 p.m.
July 11, Seattle Sounders, 7 p.m.
July 13, Sedona Strikers, 3 p.m.
July 25-27, W-League championship tournament, Bradenton, Fla.
No. name, recent club/college (nationality), position
No. 1 Britt Eckerstrom, DC United, goalkeeper
No. 2 Maureen "Mo" Smunt, Chicago Red Stars, NWSL, defender
No. 3 Catherine Ruder, Santa Clara, defender
No. 4 Jessy Batelli, Chicago Red Stars, NWSL, defender
No. 5 Ashley Spina, Newcastle Jets (Australia), midfielder
No. 6 Sophie Howard, Central Florida (Germany), midfielder
No. 7 Jessica Ayers, Colorado College, midfielder
No. 8 Chloe Legarzo, Sydney FC (Australia), forward
No. 9 Tara Andrews, Newcastle Jets (Australia), forward
No. 10 Chloe Roberts, Rapids (England), forward
No. 11 Kaeli Vandersluis, Colorado College, midfielder
No. 12 Natalie D'Adamio, Rapids, goalkeeper
No. 13 Sarah Schweiss, Colorado College, forward
No. 14 Kelly Browne, Colorado College, defender
No. 15 Nicolette DiGiacamo, Denver, midfielder
No. 16 Mallory Weber, Penn State, forward
No. 17 Katy Oehring, Real Colorado, midfielder
No. 18 Hannah Levett, UCCS (England), midfielder
No. 19 Sarah Haizlip, Colorado College, defender
No. 20 Holly King, Washington Spirit, NWSL, defender
No. 21 Erin Gunther, Rapids, defender
No. 22 Kia Jeffords, Colorado-Colorado Springs, defender
Autograph session, children's skills clinic
5:30 p.m. Tuesday, VillaSport, 5904 Prairie Schooner Drive, 80923