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LI girls get ready for soccer's Gothia Cup

NOGA Long Island Under 13 team member Uma

NOGA Long Island Under 13 team member Uma Bhatt, right, scrimmages against teammate Kate Christiansen during team practice at Hofstra University. (July 12, 2010) Photo Credit: James A. Escher

The international amateur soccer players congregated at the Hofstra indoor athletic complex commonly known as "the Bubble" twitter around excitedly when presented with their upcoming trip to England and then Sweden for the 2010 Gothia Cup.

There's Uma Bhatt of Syosset, the effervescent speedster who's been doing this soccer thing since around the time she fully mastered the ability to run, Gillian Stapler of Merrick, the tough-as-nails keeper who joined the squad despite recently breaking her collarbone, and Katie DeVore, the even-keeled center-midfielder who oversees the situation with all the dignity behooving an elder statesman.

The squad is in the middle of workouts a little over a week before leaving for England. It's a lot of work, said DeVore, but, at 12 years old, she's seen her share of drills and grinding practice sessions. Today is, well, kid stuff.

"I guess [coach Ben Foster] is really nice," said DeVore, of Westchester. "He really doesn't work us that hard."

Welcome to Team NOGA and the eight girls - ages 9-12 - chosen from a pool of dozens to bring an international soccer title to the United States. There are three NOGA teams going to the Gothia Cup, and, with seven local girls, this one is pretty much all Long Island's.

Team NOGA-Long Island went 2-2 in the tournament. The team qualified and was seeded 16th but lost in the first round of the playoffs to top seed Boo FF, 3-0, this past Wednesday.

"It's going to be a challenge," Bhatt said before leaving for the tournament. "But I'm really excited to play against all these skilled girls."

The World Youth Gothia Cup is the largest international youth soccer tournament and attracts about 1,500 players from 60 nations. Team NOGA-Long Island participated in the girls' under-12 division. The squad left for England last Wednesday to play a series of scrimmages and was in Sweden for the opening ceremonies Monday. Group play began the same day with Team NOGA kicking off their campaign against Spånga Is Fotbollsklubb, a Swedish club.

After group play, went to single-elimination quarterfinals and semifinals, ending in the Gothia Cup final Saturday at the Gamla Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg, home to the women's national team.

NOGA, a West Hempstead-based club, is also sending two squads from Connecticut, which has won the Cup twice.

"I think we're going to be good," said Kate Christiansen, 11, of West Babylon said prior to the tournament. With Band-Aids on both her soccer-torn knees, the midfielder/forward lacked no gumption. "I think we'll win this tournament."

Managed by Foster, the group includes girls from all over the Island - from Roslyn to Bellport. The youngest member is Jill Mapely, a spritely midfielder who practiced with blue streaks in her hair and an oversized tie-dye T-shirt with her name emblazoned on the front. Mapely, who turned 10 on July 14, is teammates with Selena Fortich, 11, on LIFC, their travel team.

Fortich, Mapely said, is cool for many reasons, but mostly because she can slide tackle.

"You do?" one of the girls yells out. Fortich nods. Cue the chorus of "cool!"

Tryouts for the team were in November, but school and travel team schedules have made it difficult to play together.

Mikayla Licciardi, 11, said getting to know the other players is one of the best parts. The Bellport forward added that "the best is getting to travel with the team and getting to travel to other countries."

U.S. girls players tend to be more technical in their pursuits, while their European counterparts are more physical. Michael Todd, NOGA coordinator, put it less diplomatically. "They're not quite as nasty," he said, laughing.

That may be so, but Olivia Levy, 10, whose goggles make her look particularly intense on the pitch, said before the tournament that her teammates had no intention of wilting.

Levy plays on Merrick Force with Stapler, the keeper with the fire-red gloves who broke her collarbone after tripping while playing football (the American kind). Despite being cleared to play only two weeks prior, Stapler shrugged off the injury and takes up the goal like she owns it.

"She's feisty in the net," said Levy, smirking. "If Gilly gets mad, they're going down."

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