MANCHESTER — A women’s semi-pro soccer team is coming to Applejack Stadium this summer.
The VT Fusion Soccer Club has obtained an expansion franchise in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, the developmental semi-pro league just below the professional National Women’s Soccer League.
The league is to the NWSL and the U.S. National Women’s Team what the Cape Cod League is to Major League Baseball: an amateur proving ground for the top emerging talent in the sport, as well as an opportunity for players to develop skills and maintain fitness.
It’s believed to be the highest level of women’s team sports ever played in Vermont, according to team officials and Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe. “The level of competition is very high,” O’Keefe said.
“I think it’s a game-changer for women’s sports in our state,” said Sarah Perry, the president of VT Fusion.
Black Rock FC Soccer, a top-tier player development club based in Great Barrington, Mass., had planned to play its USL-2 league games at Applejack in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic canceled their season. If Black Rock plays home games here in 2021 as planned, it would make Manchester an epicenter for top-level development league soccer in the region.
“Having two teams of this caliber — a WPSL team and a USL League 2 team in the same town — is very unusual, and even more unusual for a town of 4,400 people,” O’Keefe said. “For those who love soccer, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch a really optimal level of play this coming summer.”
Black Rock has had nine professional players, 175 collegiate soccer players and 30 high school All-Americans since its establishment in 2013. Its alumni include Jack Harrison, who plays for Leeds United in the English Premier League, one of the top-tier pro leagues in the world.
Sarah Perry, her husband, Eric Perry, and club general manager Chris Chapdelaine, the women’s coach at Castleton University, are leading the effort, and Castleton University men’s coach John O’Connor will serve as coach.
O’Connor, previously men’s head coach at Rhode Island and a men’s assistant at Dartmouth, is also known for his contribution with the Vermont Olympic Development Program, U.S. Soccer, and the Vermont Soccer Association.
Players are not paid, allowing them to maintain their NCAA eligibility. So Eric Perry will be in charge of finding accommodations and summer jobs for the roster.
Due to the pandemic, the team will not hold formal tryouts. But a number of local high school alumnae are currently playing high-level college women’s soccer and could be considered for the roster, Sarah Perry and Chapdelaine said.
Club officials and O’Keefe are hoping to generate a festive atmosphere on game nights, with food trucks parked in the nearby parking lots and limited beer and wine sales.
“We’re going to create a true destination soccer event out of it,” Perry said.
Perry, a Manchester native, grew up on Center Hill and can remember what Depot Street looked like before the retail boom transformed the town. She sees sports and recreation as key elements in a post-retail future for Manchester, making it a destination for fans who will also visit stores and restaurants while they’re here.
“Manchester is not just a shopping town anymore. That’s old news,” Perry said. “We need something to revitalize our community, and one of the best ways to do that is through sports.”
The WPSL has more than 100 teams nationwide. Its teams play a May-July summer schedule in regional conferences, with a national tournament for conference champions. The VT Fusion will play in the Metropolitan Conference against teams from New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
NO BURDEN ON YOUTH PLAYERSPerry and Chapdelaine stressed that the Fusion youth club program, which offers travel team soccer for about 200 boys and girls, will not increase its registration fees or otherwise fund the WPSL team — a common practice elsewhere. Instead, the club is seeking sponsorships and donations to underwrite the WPSL team.
“Most clubs take the brunt of finances and put it on the youth players,” Perry said. “Fusion 100 percent across the board will not in any way shape or form make our youth player’ families in any way responsible for the WPSL team.”
Local businesses and donors are already committing to support the new team, Perry said. The franchise application cost $3,800, and the annual league fees are $4,200, Chapdelaine said.
Applejack Stadium, where the team will play, is a major reason the WPSL was impressed with the club’s application, Perry, Chapdelaine and O’Keefe said.
Over the years, college coaches who have played exhibition games at Applejack have raved about the field’s natural grass surface, which is becoming increasingly rare, and the stadium’s mountain town surroundings. The grandstand got a makeover this year, with stadium seats, ADA-accessible seating spaces, and removal of support columns to open up sightlines. The structure was built in 1887 when the property was a horse racing course.
“The venue itself is second to none and unique to us,” Chapdelaine said. “I don’t think there’s any other venue like it. A lot of these teams play at high schools. Some have stadiums they share, or are tied to an NWSL team. … When I think soccer in Vermont I think of that grandstand, that venue.”
Perry said Applejeck is “the best stadium of this caliber with a grass field in all of New England.”
Castleton University and Middlebury College will serve as the club’s backup fields should Applejack become unavailable, Perry said.