Liberty Takes to the Road in Aussie Tour

This weekend, women from eight countries will travel to Melbourne to contest the International Cup championship for the third time.  IC17 will be the first to take place since the inauguration of the AFLW competition, and with it, a heightened interest in women’s footy and the potential for women outside of Australia to etch their names into the fabric of the game at its highest level.

Sandwiched in between the competition that will unfold over the next fortnight and the origins of women’s football at the international level, the first USA Freedom Australia Tour, which came about in 2009.  The ladies who took to that first excursion went up and down the East Coast of the continent, from Melbourne to Cairns, taking on a potpourri of sides. 

Not only did that tour leave an indelible mark on the players who travelled, but the tour was responsible, at least in part, for the creation of the women’s division.

The growth, and the desire to cultivate the seeds of the next generation of international women footballers, begat the USA Liberty side, which debuted in time for the 2011 49th Parallel Cup against Canada.  Players have come up through the system, and former Freedom players, such as current Liberty coach Judith Stein, are cultivating the next Freedom coaches.

The 2014 Liberty team took part in the IC as a competing team.  This year’s edition come to Melbourne just like that first side in 2009, to tour local sides and get valuable experience that they can take back to their own clubs, and potentially prime themselves for a spot on the Freedom and beyond.

As of this typing, three matches are scheduled between the Liberty and Melbourne-based teams.  The squad will face the Manor Lakes Storm on Saturday, August 5th, Monash University on August 11th, and West Brunswick Magpies on August 13th.  That is subject to change.

Captain Lizzy Even Vice Captain Clare Algozin Vice Captain Lauré Kwoka Midfielder Amy Arundale

At the helm on the field are two Liberty veterans in captain Lizzy Even of the Minnesota Freeze and vice-captain Lauré Kwoka of the Sacramento Suns, and debutante Clare Algozin of the New York Lady Magpies.  There is a mixture of national team newcomers and veterans on the squad, one that should be competitive and fun to watch.

“For me my number one goal with the Liberty is to work on my on-field and off-field leadership,” Even told USAFL.com.  “Any little thing that I can take away from this that helps to bond the team back home even more is crucial.”  A crucial part of Minnesota’s defense, the tour will see her expand her positional horizons and play elsewhere on the track, which will make her a more rounded player.

“I'm going to be playing in a position that's just a little bit different than what I play at home. Reading the play is an area that I can always grow in.”

“I think the most exciting part for me is to get to play an entirely different version of footy than we're used to,” says Algozin, who is in her third season with New York.  “The women who play here grew up learning or at least being around the sport and will be playing a much faster-paced game than we're used to. From a learning perspective that is a really exciting opportunity for us to see that, and adapt to it. Ultimately I think it'll change the way that we as players make decisions and I'm looking forward to absorbing that and being able to bring it back to our home clubs.

“We focus so much on growing the game and teaching it in our home clubs which is crucial and I love it,” Algozin adds, “but I am looking forward to playing a little faster-paced game and being forced to make quicker decisions on the field. I think that's an area I always want to be working on and I think these games will really offer great opportunities to develop that.”

One player who has quickly ascended in such a short period of time is Amy Arundale, who only started playing footy last summer at the behest of her Philadelphia Hawks teammate, Erica Sacci, who will also be in Melbourne for the tour.  Arundale moved from her native Alaska to Haverford College to play soccer, and her play at Nationals showcased those skills – quick, smart, and the engine of a hybrid car – and that got the attention of the Freedom training camp selectors.

In her short time as a footballer, she has picked up many nuances of the game, but she acknowledges that she still has much to learn, which is what she looks to take from this tour.

“This is a chance for me to improve my on-ball decision making,” she says.  “Learn to take that extra second to see all my options and make the best decision. It goes back to trying to be a student of the game and soak in everything I possibly can while I'm here, watching, playing, being coached, getting feedback, I think it all builds to a better understanding and more experience in the game.

”I'm really excited to get to play against and with Australian teams. The chance to VAFA teams and train with the Spurs and VFL academy, means we're going to get to play against and learn from high quality opponents and get pushed much more as players and as a team than we would in the states. I'm also just excited to watch as much footy as we can and be surrounded by it.”

Arundale is one of the players that Algozin is looking forward to playing beside in Melbourne, citing her “energy and endurance in the mid field, makes good decisions and without hesitation trusts all of her teammates.”  She also recognized Lauren Balsley from the Columbus Jillaroos who, like Arundale, is playing in her second USAFL season in 2017.  “She's tough, fast, and smart and after Montreal and Eastern Regionals I can't wait to stop playing against her and have her on my side!”

Even mentioned Kwoka, who played at the IC for the Liberty in 2014, and who spent time playing in Wollongong, New South Wales, that year as well.  Arundale pointed to Boston defender Cailin Deal, who also played in that last tournament three years ago, as well as Sacramento forward Oanh Nguyen, Seattle defender Valerie Barber-Axthelm, and San Francisco midfielder Robyn Leslie as players to watch for spectators at the matches.

Much like that first tour in 2009, the focus is not just on the games at hand, but also to make a mark on the community and take in the home country of the game they’ve come to love.  “Last time we had the opportunity to go to the schools and coach little kids and I cannot wait for that opportunity again!” said Even.  “Footy is a community rather in the US or in Australia itself. I absolutely look forward to the impact it will bring to me and to the community.”

Algozin, who is already in Australia for a two month stretch around the tour, lived in Sydney previously and is coming to Australia for the third time.  “So far it's been a bit footy-focused. I've been able to jump in on a couple trainings with the Cranbourne team and work on skills with my best friend, who plays in the VFL. Not to sound boring, but I love making this trip all about footy. I don't get the same access in New York so I'm soaking it up while I'm here.”

It is worth mentioning that the Liberty will come to Melbourne searching for the program’s first ever win.  Most recently, they went 0-4 at IC14, and the last time they played was at the 2015 49th Parallel Cup, when they fell 14-5 in a hard fought slog on a sweltering night in South Florida.

That point hasn’t been lost on Even, but she puts the whole thing in perspective succinctly.  It’s good to finally put a tick in the “W” column, but the real takeaway from this tour, much like the pioneer tour of 2009, is about what it will mean for the players and the program down the road.

“To this point the Liberty have never won a game and for me, I would love to see that change. I know that the competition is extremely difficult as these are women who've been playing the sport most of their lives and have been playing together on a regular basis for really long time. But even if we can grow our skillset enough to in the future when a game that would be a big success.”

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