Stephanie McCaffrey didn’t have to look far to find a summer team to play for after her junior year of college. Choosing to play with the Boston Breakers College Academy was an easy decision for the Winchester, Mass., native and Boston College standout.
“Everyone needs a summer team to play with in between college seasons, and I think mostly it was that I had a huge amount of respect for the organization,” McCaffrey said. “I thought that as an organization I ultimately wanted to play pro with, the best way to have success with their professional team eventually was to be in their program from the earliest age possible.”
The Breakers College Academy was founded in 2013 with the intention of providing college players a place to train and develop. It also provides the Breakers staff an opportunity to get a look at college players, and seeing how they train and grow. The team plays in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, an amateur league where players retain NCAA eligibility. Players train two to three times a week using the Breakers’ facility and coaching staff.
In 2014, McCaffrey was the club’s leading scorer, scoring seven goals and providing one assist in 10 games. And as the team gained from her, McCaffrey learned valuable lessons as well.
“I’ve become more of a well rounded soccer player,” McCaffrey said. “I think that when I was younger I relied heavily on speed and even I think early in my college years I was more of a raw athlete I would say. I think playing with the Breakers has helped teach me the technical and tactical skills needed to get to the highest level.”
This helped McCaffrey when she trained with the senior U.S. Women’s National team in January.
“The biggest adjustment was that on the youth national teams there are players that are really athletic and also players that are really technical,” she said, “but it’s clear on the senior level every player is an athlete with amazing technique. There’s kind of that hybrid player that’s more rare in the youth levels.”
Just after her call-up to the national team training camp, the Breakers traded for McCaffrey at the draft. It was an additional benefit to being involved in the Breakers’ development system.
“We just kind of had each other in good faith that I wanted to be there and they would do what they could to get me.” McCaffrey said.
Breakers head coach Tom Durkin called it a no-brainer.
“You have some qualities that no other forwards in the draft have, at a position where we obviously want to add depth,” Durkin said. “There’s some other pieces of game tactically she needs to improve on but I think she’s not going to have any problems adjusting to professional soccer in her first year whatsoever.”
The transition has, in part, been made easier by McCaffrey’s local ties, which has allowed her to remain in a familiar area.
“It’s a huge transition to becoming a pro athlete but being able to do that around my family and friends in an environment where it is home. I feel so comfortable which eases that transition and helps me play better.” said McCaffrey, whose hometown of Winchester is seven miles from the Breakers’ home stadium.
The Breakers have had a tradition of drafting local players. Three of the club’s picks at the 2015 draft had local ties. Defender Bianca Calderone is a Massachusetts native who played for Northeastern and Samantha Lofton’s extended family is based in Massachusetts.
The Breakers’ staff values these local connections at both the field and in the front office.
“I think that’s a plus whenever you can bring a player in the market who has ties to the area. It’s good for the fan base. It’s also really good for the player.” Durkin said.
General manager Lee Billiard said that the local connections help with marketing.
“From a marketing standpoint a lot of them, Kristie Mewis, [and] Steph McCaffrey are local girls and are names in our market,” he said. “Kristie is obviously going to be known for the U.S. Women’s National Team, so she’s probably known nationally. Stephanie is getting to that phase, but both are known very well in our market. So while they may not be the so-called marquee player, in Boston or in Massachusetts they are.”
Billiard also thinks this is especially important given the players’ salaries.
“I think the key thing with the league’s infancy where we don’t pay the players a tremendous amount of money is to be able to keep local players local and in their home basically,” Billiard said. “They don’t have to uproot and move to the other side of the country, they don’t have to go to the west coast and earn minimum wage and live with a host family or someone that they’re not really familiar with.”
“So I think it’s a good idea for the homegrown talent to come here and they’re able to stay connected to their families. It’s easy for them to settle down their first year as professional soccer players.”
Another element to McCaffrey’s smooth transition has been her experience in the Breakers College Academy.
While playing for the team, she got to train with the professional team twice a week and learned many Breakers principles and tactics in the academy sessions.
“What makes the Breakers organization so great and different from any other organization or team in the NWSL is its organization [where the] foundation and principles are integrated through the pro team all the way to the camps and clinics that under 10 year olds participate in,” McCaffrey explained. “So it’s an easy transition, say for the college team we played in a 4-3-3, we wanted to play a possession style but we also want to counter as soon as we win it. That stays true from the college to the pros.”
Many players are coming up to the Breakers’ professional team through the reserve team and, like McCaffrey, through the college team. Four players on the Breakers current roster started the 2014 season on the reserve team.
Durkin says it gives the professional team an advantage.
“The advantage is that at this point last year in preseason there was a lot of teaching going on, three, four months into the season we had to teach a lot,” he said. “Now a lot of the girls know the rhythm of practices, they understand the rhythm, and they understand the exercises and the functionality of the exercises. So it’s easier to bring the other players along since they already know our mentality and understand our philosophy.”
Durkin also believes the college academy will help the team to do better in the NWSL draft. Four of the Breakers’ ten draft picks from 2013 and 2014 never played over ten minutes.
“At the end of the day I think there’s going to be a homegrown rule that comes into effect,” Durkin said. “I’d rather rely on our system of building players than the college draft and recruiting and scouting.”
“It’s all essential but you still don’t know a lot of the times until the player comes into preseason how they’re going to cope with the rigors of professional soccer. It’s a big jump from college to pro, so the more we can tie the reserve team to U-23 team to the ECNL team, the easier the transition is going to be for players moving up the ladder.”
McCaffrey also spoke of the Breakers’ integrated development has helped her transition to the professional level.
“It was awesome to see the parallels between the way the college academy sessions were run and the way the professional team practices are held now,” she said. “It’s a really highly integrated organization. Obviously it’s a higher level, the players are better but as far as the manner of the practices and the professionalism of the practices are and the goals of the practices they’re the same.”
“I think the Breakers want to play a style of soccer not just for the professional team, but that runs through the entire organization, so those principles are enforced regardless of the level even though the pro team has more talented players.”