From elite facilities and intense training to developing model pros, Ali Rampling finds out why so many top prospects are tempted stateside.
When Ele Catchpole was playing Sunday league for Bacton United in 2016 she never imagined she would one day be living the dream in the United States. On the lowest rung of the football ladder, you’ll often see hungover centre-halves, half-time cigarettes, and reluctant subs running the line but she left all that behind to become a model pro on a scholarship in Iowa.
By August that year, the defender was following in the footsteps of icons of the English game — Kelly Smith, Lucy Bronze, and Jess Bhamra from Bend It Like Beckham — by jetting off to the United States to play college football on a sports scholarship.
Catchpole had gone from training once a week and playing on the boggiest pitches East Anglia had to offer, to training every day, having a personalised strength and conditioning programme, and travelling across midwestern America for fixtures in a whirlwind four months.
“I clicked on an ad on Facebook by accident,” said the 22-year-old from Bury St Edmunds, explaining how the prospect of going to the States had arisen. “I filled out the form because I was bored and didn’t want to study. And they [a US scholarship agency] invited me to a trial game in Northampton.”
Catchpole had been intending to go to university in the UK and, as luck would have it, the University of Northampton was pencilled in as her insurance option.
Killing two birds with one stone, she attended the trial game out of mere curiosity. She then visited the University of Northampton for an open day — but by that point she had already been sold the American dream.
“I went and looked around Northampton the next day and the whole time I was like, ‘No, I’m going to America,’” she recalled.
Despite the trial consisting predominantly of academy calibre players, Catchpole held her own and went on to earn a scholarship to Grand View University in Iowa. She is one of hundreds of British and Irish female footballers who journey across the pond every year because of the sophisticated college system that allows players to participate in elite-level sport and simultaneously study for a degree.
“Women’s football’s absolutely huge in America,” explained Liam Barrett, managing director at U.S Sports Scholarships. “It’s just an unbelievable opportunity to carry on playing at such a high level and get a degree in the process. It’s a shame they don’t do similar sport-incentivised scholarships to the same degree here in the UK.”
Loughborough University — the UK’s most prestigious sporting educational institution — only classified women’s football as an elite ‘performance sport’ ahead of the 2020/21 academic year. A handful of players receive scholarships, and training is rarely more than twice a week.
Criteria for women’s football scholarships at UK universities often demand that prospective players have participated at international, national, or academy level. In the States, top Sunday league players have the ability to earn full scholarships and have a more intense football experience.
“You’re basically treated like a professional,” said Catchpole. “I think girls are seeing going to the States as the opportunity to have that pro experience but also get a degree at the same time and build for a life after football.”
It was this professionalism, women’s footballing culture, and increased playing time that really struck Brighton and Republic of Ireland striker Rianna Jarrett. The forward was turning out for Irish National League side Wexford Youths in 2014 when she was scouted by the head coach of the UT Martin Skyhawks and earned a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin.
Jarrett finished as the team’s top scorer and won the Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the season during her debut campaign. However, her time in the States was restricted to just a single season after she suffered an ACL injury in January 2015 and opted to remain in Ireland for her recovery.
“I loved every minute of it, from the minute I stepped foot on the college campus,” Jarrett recalled. “I was living with team-mates, we were training three or four times a week, we were playing two games a week. It was a lot more football on a daily, weekly basis than I was exposed to back home in Ireland. I got fitter, I got stronger — I really enjoyed my few months that I was out there.”
While Jarrett was scouted and Catchpole went through a scholarship agency, Molly Hall negotiated everything for herself.
The striker was playing for Ipswich Town Women in 2016 and, having initially gone through a US scholarship agency, received eight offers and was poised to go to a university in Mississippi in the summer.
However, with her outward journey on the horizon, she was informed that the university did not have the paperwork to accept international students.
Hall had to wait until January 2017 before eventually flying out. By this point she had taken matters into her own hands and had single-handedly organised her own scholarship at Campbellsville University, Kentucky.
“I actually asked the company for a refund,” she said. “They taught me how to do it but then I made my own video and sent it out to loads of different coaches. I ended up getting about 50 offers back from across the States — so I did better than them!”
Female football opportunities for young adults have improved in the UK in the four years since Hall moved to Kentucky. Six months after the striker left for the States, her former side Ipswich was chosen as the home for the FA Women’s U21 East Region Academy — an elite training and development programme with an additional focus on education. Despite this, Hall believes given the choice today she would still go to the States because of the whole package on offer beyond the sport.
“I do think I would have still always come out to America,” she said. “The football side is huge, but the whole experience and the life lessons I’ve gained from being here is worth more than just playing some games.”
While a scholarship can ease the financial concerns that university naturally brings, going to the USA comes with its own unique set of considerations to weigh up. It involves travelling halfway across the world, leaving friends and family, and moving to an alien country for the sake of chasing a dream.
For Jarrett, the prospect of leaving her family meant that at first she rejected the offer when the UT Martin Skyhawks came calling. The Brighton forward was living in Ireland with her 19-year-old twin brother at the time, while the rest of her immediate family had moved to England.
“I did take a bit of convincing,” Jarrett admitted. “When this opportunity came around I was kind of reluctant to leave my twin brother by himself. I initially said no but then they came back with the same offer again. When they came back again, I decided I needed to speak to my family and they basically told me I’d be stupid to let the opportunity pass.”
However, it is not the distance from home, the long months without seeing loved ones, or the acclimatisation to a new culture that Jarrett, Hall, or Catchpole found the hardest.
The real challenge? The style of play.
“It’s more fitness-based,” said Jarrett. “Players are a lot fitter; it’s all about the distance you cover and covering that distance at a certain speed. And the colleges have a lot of international players coming through the ranks as well, which tend to bring the more technical side of the game.”
Hall explained: “Back home it’s very technical but here it’s fitness, fitness, fitness,” explained Hall. “It took a lot of adjusting. My first year I struggled a little bit, but from then I took it in my stride and worked out how to play their game.”
“They’re all athletes,” Catchpole added. “Athletes first and footballers second. That’s what I really struggled with to start with. In terms of my football brain and my technical ability I was up there, but in terms of being an athlete I was right at the bottom. Yeah, very different from Sunday league.”
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