The wait is almost over: Lane United FC’s new women’s soccer team is set to play its home opener May 19 at Civic Park. The 10-game inaugural season marks the beginning of Lane United’s venture into pre-professional soccer — and a growth in opportunities for women’s soccer players across the country.
“We started the men’s team 10 years ago,” says Dave Galas, the managing director of Lane United and one of the club’s cofounders. “This year, being able to start fresh on the women’s side is kind of fun, to be able to say this is our inaugural season. What are we doing for our jerseys? What are we going to be able to do that’s special that we haven’t been able to do for 10 years on the men’s side?”
For Briana Kubli, a Eugene native who plays collegiately at Western Oregon University and is set to join Lane United after her school’s spring season, the new team is tremendous for the local women’s soccer landscape. She’d sometimes go to games at the University of Oregon growing up, but a lot of the time, “when I would watch women’s soccer, I would typically watch the U.S. women’s national team,” she says. “So my role models were more far away.” Currently, the nearest opportunity to watch non-collegiate soccer is the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns, a two-hour drive north.
Still, women’s soccer in Eugene isn’t a new phenomenon. From the University of Oregon team to Eugene Metro Fútbol Club’s former women’s team — which played in the amateur Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) — the city is not without opportunities for competitive soccer. But the United Soccer League (USL), which the Lane United women will be playing in, stands out as a league that has an especially “fleshed out” pre-professional pathway, Lis Schendel says. Schendel is a content creator for Protagonist Soccer who also works for the California Storm, a Sacramento-based women’s soccer team that plays in both WPSL and the USL W League.
“It’s a really great opportunity for players to get in more touches, get into a competitive environment over the summer before they enter into their falls with college. Keeps them fresh, keeps them active,” Schendel says of the USL W League. “There’s a lot of pathways for men in the USA. The country has invested in men more over the years. So women’s soccer is still growing, and USL is still building their pathway.”
The new Lane United team also coincides with the growth of USL’s women’s division, which played its first season with 44 teams in 2022. (Lane United’s men’s team also plays under the USL umbrella in the USL League Two.) Sixty-five USL W teams are set to take the field in 2023, with Lane United joining the league’s new Northwest Division.
“It is really a consequence of the growth of girls soccer, and women’s soccer in general, that now translates into more leagues that hopefully, over time, will provide more opportunities for women to play at the adult level,” says Jürgen Ruckaberle, the head coach for Lane United’s women’s team, “because I think that’s the one level where America is behind other countries.” While the professional NWSL currently features 12 teams — with plans to expand to 14 in 2024 — the country lacks in pre-professional development opportunities for women’s players outside the college game, Ruckaberle says.
He wants to extend that growth in opportunities to the coaching level. Ruckaberle will lead the team through its 2023 season. He previously coached Eugene Metro’s WPSL side, so his involvement leads to an easy transition to Lane United, he says. But he’s in the process of hiring a coach who is a woman as well, with the intent that she will take over his position ahead of 2024.
“The USL W now is another opportunity for college players to remain playing while they’re going to college,” Ruckaberle says, without having to forgo their education to play professionally. In other cases, players like NWSL stars Trinity Rodman and Alyssa Thompson have made use of development academy systems to show that they are good enough to play professionally without first joining an NCAA team, Schendel says. She says the USL W League creates even more pipelines for players to hone their talents against high-caliber opponents at a young age.
Ruckaberle says the league provides meaningful opportunities for young players to get scouted by coaches. But it’s also an arena where college players can maintain their fitness during the summer and where those who have aged out of the NCAA system but still want to play high-level soccer can contribute to competitive matches.
“It’s nice to incorporate other playing styles and learn from those other players,” Kubli says. “It makes me excited to continue to develop as a player. So when I go into my full season, I’m at another level.”
Galas says he’s excited “to provide the women’s game at a high level in our community,” especially as role models for young girls in the Eugene area.
“We are absolutely treating our women’s team as if they are equal with our men’s team,” he says — an ethos that manifests itself from training facilities to ticket prices. The gameday experience is especially important, Galas says, because Lane United “starts and ends with the fans.”
“We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fans,” he says. “To be able to provide that gameday experience for the fans means that we have a viable product. The league both supporting us and demanding those standards [is] very important. Wherever we go, we know that the players are going to be treated right, the fans are going to be treated right and everyone is acting as professionally as possible.”