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The Week in Women's Football: Interview with beach soccer star Leslie; A-League moves; Afghani national team in Melbourne

This week, we look at the growing phenomenon of Beach Soccer/Football for women, and talks exclusively to Lauren Leslie of the U.S. women's beach soccer national team. We also present news from Australia, focusing on players joining clubs abroad and Melbourne Victory's two-time reigning champions head coach Jeff Hopkins helping to coach Afghanistan's women's national team in exile in a Melbourne amateur league. We also look at the recent league finals for the Nicaraguan women's league.

The U.S. recently won a professional beach soccer tournament in El Salvador, with Argentina and Bahamas rounding out the group, along with the host nation

One option for a soccer career—even on a part-time basis but also professionally—is with the growing women's sport of Beach Soccer. talked exclusively with Lauren Leslie, who has been a member of the U.S. women's beach soccer national team since it was founded in 2019 and played in regional qualifying and the ANOC World Beach Games (a multi-sport event) in Qatar that year. In April of this year, Leslie was with the side which won the El Salvador Women's Beach tournament with a 4-2 win over Argentina on April 14, a 5-2 win over Bahamas on April 15 and a 3-1 win over the host nation on April 16. She had 4 goals in 3 games and has 12 caps and 10 goals in total for the national team.

For those who have never seen the sport played, Beach Soccer is played on a field that is approximately 36 meters long and 27 meters wide. The game is played on sand that is a minimum of 40 centimeters deep and players must be barefoot. Five players, including a goalkeeper, are on the field at one time and play three, 12-minute periods. There are up to seven substitutes on the bench, and like Futsal, there are unlimited substitutions allowed.

Leslie played at San Diego State University and the Point Loma Nazarene University Sea Lions in San Clemente, California; she is now a youth coach with Southern California Blues Soccer Club. In 2010-11 Leslie played professionally outdoors in Zaragoza, Spain. Then she went on to play in the semi-pro WPSL for Beach FC, finishing with an unbeaten season and a National Championship in 2014. In 2021 Lauren played for Capo FC, winning the league for the amateur Women's UPSL [United Premier Soccer League] Spring season.

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Lauren Leslie, a U.S. women's national beach soccer team forward, in action. Photo courtesy: Triton Times.

Leslie explained that there are beach soccer leagues in different countries throughout the world, with Spain having the largest league, with some of the players being paid. Portugal, Poland and Holland have leagues as well. She is playing in the Euro Winners tournament in Portugal in a month's time, in which a number of European Teams come together and play [last year 11 teams competed] explaining that, "I don't live in Europe but you can have three foreigners per team and that's how American girls get to play. I will play with a Team from Belgium—New Team—I played with them last year as well."

In the U.S., a league in California was held last year, known as Beach Soccer L.A., over three weekends. FIFA stages a men's Beach World Cup, holding 11 editions since 2005, but none have been staged on the women's side to date. Leslie said, "It's hard to get it [Beach Soccer in the U.S.] going. The big barrier is we don't have a Beach Soccer stadium. We are working on one for Great Park in Irvine." Great Park is a 1,300-acre site in Orange County, California, south of Los Angeles, and includes softball, soccer (and a soccer stadium), tennis, volleyball and other sports facilities for the public, as well as other recreational activities. She continued, "It would be a perfect place to build a Beach Soccer stadium. We have never had any international games here and never invited any countries here because we don't have a stadium to play in. If we could get a stadium going and host some international games and have people see what beach soccer is—because it is such a fun game to watch—it would spark more popularity and there would be more want and need for amateur leagues. The youth tournaments are popular [but] people just don't know that it is a real thing [and] you can go get paid in Europe; people don't know it is out there. Getting a stadium would be a really big first step for people to take it seriously but the movement has started. That's my next goal."

She said that there will be a U.S. national women's Beach Soccer team camp this summer and the team hopes to play in 2-3 more tournaments abroad. The team is coached by Morgan Church, who is now a technical director for women's football at Jacksonville FC after six years with the U.S. Soccer Federation in a role identifying talent in the Southeast for U.S. youth national teams. She also coached at North Florida University, Gonzaga University and Florida State University.

Leslie talked about what drew her to Beach Soccer and felt that it is a viable avenue for others to pursue: "I would never have made the grass national team but I was really good at juggling when I was younger and [for] Beach Soccer, you need that skill, so it clicked and worked for me; other kids may love soccer but gravitate to Beach Soccer more and I want that opportunity for boys and girls."

This writer leaned a lot about the growth of women's Beach Soccer from Lauren Leslie and will endeavor to follow it in future columns, with the hope that FIFA will one day start a women's Beach Soccer World Cup.

At the most recent tournament in El Salvador, Daria Adderley was the coach for Bahamas' team, which consisted of the following players: Gabriell Murphy, Hadassah Knowles, Angel Williams, Rondrica Paul, Gina Stubbs, Janeka Edey, Nia Hall, Brianna Capron, Jada Thelamour and Jade Thelamour.

Bahamas' Women's National Beach Soccer Team for the April 2021 Tournament in El Salvador, with the hosts, the U.S. and Argentina. Photo courtesy Bahamas Football Federation.

Australia A-League Women News

After the A-League women 2021/22 season that ended with the Grand Final on March 27, there have been some moves abroad by league players.

Melina Ayers joins Briedablik of Iceland

Forward Melina Ayers (23), a member of the last two league title winners at Melbourne Victory, has moved to powerhouse Briedablik in Iceland's top tier league Best-deild kvenna, and played 52 minutes as a first half substitute in her sides' league opening win at home over Thor (4-1) on April 27, her first time playing abroad. She had two goals in her third game in a 3-0 home win over Stjarnan on May 9. She has one more year on a three-year contract that she signed with Victory ahead of the 2020/21 season and is on loan to Breidablik. She missed virtually all of the regular season with the Victory through injury but came good in the playoffs, with a goal in the semifinal win over Adelaide United (2-1) and Preliminary Final victory over Melbourne City (3-1). She debuted in the Australian league with Melbourne City in 2015/16 and has played five seasons with the Victory side. Her new club Breiðablik have won the league 18 times, winning its last title two seasons ago. They finished second last year and clinched a play-off position for this year's UEFA Women's Champions League First Round later this summer.

Chelsea Dawber moves from Adelaide to the Chicago Red Stars

Chelsea Dawber is now one of four Australians signed with NWSL clubs for the 2022 season, with Emily van Egmond at the San Diego Wave FC, injured Chloe Logarzo with the Kansas City Current and Alex Chidiac, who joined Racing Louisville for the 2022 season with an option for 2023 as well (see: The Week in Women's Football: Sh'Nia Gordon interview; Ukraine update; NWSL Challenge Cup - Tribal Football).

Dawber was a revelation alongside Liberty A-League Golden Boot winner Fiona Worts in Adelaide's attack last season, scoring 10 goals and supplying three assists, helping the Reds finish third in the 2021/22 A-League Women campaign to make the post-season for the first time in their 14-year history. Dawber (22) joined Chicago on a two-year deal, with an option for a third season. Dawber's move from Adelaide United to the Red Stars is a strategy to break into the Matildas squad ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup, for which she has yet to receive a full international cap. She explained, "It's a new adventure for me and one that I'm really excited about. I want to thank Adelaide United and all the coaching staff I've worked with for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to play for this amazing club. My goal has always been to play for the Matildas and I believe playing overseas in a tough league will give me a better chance of a call-up to the national team. I'm definitely not ruling out coming back to Adelaide after the NWSL season. Approaching a World Cup year, it's vital to be playing as many games as possible and give myself the best path for success."

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New Chicago Red Stars signing Chelsea Dawber in action for Adelaide United in the A-League Women (Photo Courtesy Adelaide United/A-League Women).

Dawber made her debut with Adelaide in the 2017/2018 season, when she played in nine matches. In 2020/2021 Dawber won the team's Golden Boot award, scoring five goals in eight games.

Remy Siemsen joins AEK in Stockholm for the 2022 Swedish league season

Sydney FC forward and Matilda Remy Siemsen (22) has moved from the harbor city club to AEK of Stockholm in the Swedish Damallsvenskan. She trained with a club in Denmark in 2021 after a national team match against Ireland, explaining that, "I had a taste test in Europe…and I loved it." Siemsen, a two-time premiership [regular-season] winner with Sydney, has been the club's top goal scorer in four of her five seasons with the Sky Blues and is hopeful of returning to the club for the 2022/23 ALW campaign. She explained the rationale for her move, again citing the Women's World Cup coming in just over a year, "It's important to be playing matches and getting game time in the lead up to the World Cup and, if the season finishes in time for me to come back, then I'd definitely be looking to and play some more games in Sky Blue."

Brisbane Roar defender Annie Haffenden is also moving to Sweden

Young Brisbane Roar defender Annie Haffenden (20) is also heading to Sweden to join Vaxjo DFF in the Swedish second division Elitettan after her first campaign in the A-League. Along with Haffenden and Siemsen, Brisbane Roar midfielder Katrina Gorry is set to play with Vittsjo GIK (joining Roar and Matilda teammate Clare Polkinghorne) while Melbourne Victory pair Kyra Cooney-Cross and Courtney Nevin are joining Hammarby following the team's consecutive Grand Final triumph at home (Nevin's first after joining from Western Sydney Wanderers following the 2020/21 campaign).

Catherine Cannuli leaves Western Sydney Wanderers as head coach; Tom Sermanni joins as Head of Women's Football in the Front Office and brings in Kat Smith as head coach.

Western Sydney Wanderers head coach Catherine Cannuli has resigned as women's team head coach in early May. She coached the club as the lead manager just last season, finishing with a 1-4-9 (W-D-L) record for 7 points, joint-bottom with expansion franchise Wellington Phoenix. Scoring was the major issue for WSW as they only scored 7 times in 14 games, by far the worst scoring record in the league, as Wellington scored 13 times and Newcastle finished with 15 goals. She said, "I love this club and have had a wonderful time working here over the years, first as a player and since 2017, as a coach. While it is time for me to take a step-back for now, I will still be around in my role in the Southern Districts Association and working with the club in the community."

Wanderers Head of Women's Football, Tom Sermanni, led the recruitment of the club's new Liberty A-League women's head coach. Sermanni was hired by the Wanderers in late March. Sermanni was the New Zealand women's national team coach at last summer's Tokyo Olympics and at the 2019 Women's World Cup in France and coached the Matildas on two occasions (1994-1997 and 2005-2012). Sermanni said about his new appointment, "I'm excited, I look forward to be back involved in the game again. This is a great opportunity to try and build up and contribute to the women's element of the club. Western Sydney is a hotbed for football and hopefully we can really build a strong women's space here. I've been talking to people at the club for a while and the club is very ambitious. It is very ambitious to build its women's program from the A-League Women all the way down and it really wants to make the women's program a significant part of the club."

Sermanni will oversee the Wanderers' Liberty A-League side, development programs like the Future Wander Women program, and develop the club's recruitment strategy. One effort he particularly wants to work on is the club's academy set-up, "Hopefully, we get our club set-up in the women's space the same as the men's space, where there is an Academy and pathway for young girls in Western Sydney to come all the way through from a young age, to actually then play in the A-League Women's team and hopefully then go on to play for the Matildas."

Sermanni, one of the truce iconic figures and visionaries in the women's game, is an excellent appointment for a club that has struggled on the field and only made the playoffs once (in 2019/20) in ten seasons in the league.

On May 18, the club named Kat Smith to replace Cannuli, signing her for two years. Smith was formerly the assistant coach at Melbourne Victory, winning a league title in her first year at the club in 2013/14, and was named the 2018 Female Coach of the Year and was called up to join the Matildas technical staff as a scout for the FIFA 2019 Women's World Cup in France. More recently, Smith has been balancing her time between an analyst and assistant role with the Junior Matildas (Australia's U-17's squad) as well as being the head coach of Alamein FC, one of the eight inaugural teams in the Victorian Women's National Premier League.

Jeff Hopkins coaches Afghanistan exiled women's national team in Victoria state league this offseason

Melbourne Victory has aided the Afghanistan women's national team by supporting its football operations since many of the team members are in exile in Australia and located in the Melbourne area, fleeing after the Taliban took over the country last year. Australia helped dozens of Afghan national women's team players and their relatives to escape when the Taliban swept back to power eight months ago. Four-time A-League Women champion head coach Jeff Hopkins is now coaching the Afghanistan women's national team, saying that, "I'm incredibly humbled to be working with this inspirational group of players who have showed determination and a willingness to stand up for what they believe in. To play a minor role in getting them ready for the upcoming season is very special. The power of football has well and truly come full circle and we're incredibly proud as a club to be able to support the team in their journey back to the pitch. I'm looking forward to the progress they will make as footballers and on their own personal journeys throughout the season."

Afghanistan women players make football debut in Australia

Melbourne Victory Afghan women's team player Manozh (second right) and teammates celebrate a goal which was disallowed during their first match in a local league against ETA Buffalo SC in Melbourne on Sunday. Photo Courtesy of AFP.

The team has started the season in a Melbourne area amateur league, in the Football Victoria State League 4 West competition. A few days ahead of their first match, Melbourne Victory presented the Afghan Women's Team with their new predominantly red kit, complete with shirts showing off the Afghan national flag. The shirts are marked with numbers but no names for the safety of the players' relatives still in Afghanistan. In their first game, they tied ETA Buffalo SC in Melbourne on April 24 (0-0), though Afghanistan had a goal waived off for offsides. ETA Buffalo SC was started in 1982 by friends who had immigrated from East Timor. Afghanistan WNT captain Nilab [the team members do not give out their family names to protect relatives still at home] said, "The game showed that the Taliban could not stop the players. We still continue our fight and our combat just to play for the Afghanistan people. We fled the country but we are still thinking of our country and we are still working for our victory for our country."

Goalkeeper Fatima said people who had seen social media images of Afghanistan after the Taliban's return could understand something of the courage required by players to leave their homes, "They can understand how hard and how challenging that was for all of us to be in that situation. Today, we are playing as a team and together and powerful. It's incredible."

The Afghanistan Women's National Team, sponsored by Melbourne Victory, and playing in a local state league this season. Photo courtesy A-League Women

After the game, Hopkins said, "These young women, all they want to do is to be given the chance to just be treated equally, to be able to play the game they love. That obviously wasn't happening for them in Afghanistan—they were being persecuted for it."

Somotillo wins women's league title in Nicaragua

Somotillo FC was crowned undefeated national champion of the professional women's league in Nicaragua in late March thanks to Honduran import Riccy Hernandez. In the first leg in Somotillo, they drew 0-0 against Universidad de Managua, the most successful team in women's football. In the second leg, in the capital of Managua, they drew again 0-0. Somotillo won 3-1 on penalty kicks with Hernandez scoring the winning penalty kick goal, winning their first league title in Nicaraguan women's football. Hernandez dedicated the trophy to Honduras' U-17 national team, who attended the second match at the National Stadium in Managua, where the Honduran women's U-17 were in town for friendly matches.

Honduran Riccy Hernández scored the winning penalty kick in the title decider for her club Somotillo of Nicaragua in March, 2022. Photo Courtesy of FC Somotillo.

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get yours copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

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