Professional soccer players often travel the globe, seeing different cultures through the lens of the world’s game. When Harvard University’s Women’s Soccer program had the opportunity to visit one of the bel paese’s most storied clubs, AC Milan, they jumped at the chance.
“It’s such a great opportunity to immerse the team in a new culture and train in preparation of the scrimmage,” Harvard Women’s Soccer Head Coach Chris Hamblin told AllForXI. “It’s a wonderful opportunity in our off-season during our spring break to blend a high level of soccer experience and a cultural experience, and see a part of the world most of our team have never seen before. It’s a really nice way to help bond the group.”
For Harvard defender Jade Rose, who also plays for the Canadian Women’s National Team, the trip to Milan offered her and her teammates a once in a lifetime experience to go behind the scenes of AC Milan’s operations, tour their facilities, and experience Italian culture through day trips to Milan and Lake Como.
“I get to travel the world and play soccer in these amazing places. To add Italy to the list is really exciting,” Rose told AllForXI. “I want to play pro and play at the next level, and to play a pro team here and see where we match up against the rest of the world is an incredible opportunity.”
Every four years, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) allows programs to take an international trip, and Harvard capitalized on the opportunity to visit the Rossonere for a day of seminars capped off with a scrimmage at the PUMA House of Football on Monday, March 13th.
“The day we spent together with Harvard University was amazing. During the morning we had meetings where some of our coaches explained how we prepare for games in terms of strategy,” Elisabet Spina, Head of Women’s Football at AC Milan told AllForXI. “Then, our [team psychologists] worked together with the group on team building and discussed the importance of clear communication.”
For Rose, getting to see the behind-the-scenes aspects of a pro team was an eye-opening experience, especially since so many players at Harvard share her aspirations to one day play professionally.
“Usually as a spectator, you just get to see what happens on the field and you don’t see all the behind the scenes work. There are so many aspects of the game we don’t always think about,” Rose said. “We did some team bonding and worked with their team psychologists. Things like that people tend not to think about but have a massive effect on the game.”
After the morning sessions, the two sides played a friendly scrimmage which included players from AC Milan’s primavera team. “I think the level of the game was really high,” Spina said. “Every time we have the opportunity to play against a team that’s from the United States is always a pleasure. We always have something to learn.”
According to Hamblin, the experience of playing against AC Milan proved invaluable for his players. “Just the style of play that Milan plays is so much fun to watch. They keep the ball so well. It’s very different from a college game. Our players really enjoyed the experience,” he said. “AC Milan could not have treated us better. We’ve had first class treatment from start to finish, including going to the San Siro for a meal and a Serie A game.”
The opportunity to participate in this cultural exchange was mutually beneficial to the growth of the individual programs and women’s soccer internationally. For Milan midfielder Christy Grimshaw, who played collegiately at Barry University in Florida before turning pro, the trip provided the Harvard students a unique opportunity to see what European football can offer.
“When I studied in America, there were not a lot of American students who had the opportunity to go overseas or even look at the standards of European football. It’s really good that Harvard offers this for their students,” the Scottish midfielder told AllForXI. “European soccer games are completely different to American soccer games, and there’s even a big difference between Italy and Scotland. They’re so passionate here. From that perspective, it’s good for the Harvard players to see that. You see a different culture and it’s good for the human experience.”
Continuing success for Harvard’s women’s soccer program
As women’s soccer grows both domestically and internationally, Harvard University is positioning themselves as a consistent contender in the NCAA. The school currently competes in the Ivy League Conference and has already produced top talent including the U.S. Women’s National Team and Gotham FC forward Margaret “Midge” Purce.
“We’re very fortunate the Harvard brand has an incredible pull around the world. About 50% of our roster is international right now. This past international window we had Jade Rose with Canada, Josefine Hasbro with the Danish national team, Áslaug Gunnlaugsdóttir with Iceland, and Hannah Bebar with the U.S. U23 team. Those four individuals play at a very, very high level,” Hamblin said. “In addition to that we’ve got a number of other players that are very competitive. We finished in the top 25 in NCAA final rankings last year. It’s the first time we’ve been able to make that step in the top 25 in just over a decade. The program is in a good place.”
For Hamblin, Purce’s success coming out of Harvard continues to be a big part of the growth the program has achieved since she graduated in 2017. “We as coaches at Harvard know you can succeed academically and play at the highest level. Now we have evidence, we proved that with Midge. She broke a barrier and opened that door for us with recruiting and helping us have players that are undoubtedly going to be pro in the next few,” he said. “This year in the NWSL Draft, Sophie Hirst was drafted in the second round from Harvard to the Houston Dash and Lara Schenk signed with a pro team [Club YLA] in Belgium. It’s an exciting time. The Ivy League is getting better and better.”
As a student athlete, Rose selected Harvard for the exact reason of pursuing a high level education while continuing to play soccer in hopes of one day turning pro. She balances this endeavor with call ups to the Canadian National Team and is supported by her college staff every step of the way.
“It’s difficult, I can’t sit here and say it’s easy to do both, but I chose Harvard so I could pursue my soccer career and my education both at the highest level. I knew what I was signing myself up for,” Rose explained. “It takes a lot of time management and organization skills. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m working with Harvard athletics and the Canadian coaching staff who are incredible at helping the younger players who are pursuing their education. They understand we still have that educational demand while we’re still in camp. I’ve had a lot of support.”
Although a smaller number of athletes from the Ivy League go pro when compared to other universities around the country, Rose and her teammates are undeterred. Right now, Harvard has multiple players in the program aspiring to go pro upon graduation.
“Looking at the team we’ve built at Harvard and the environment we’ve been able to create, even looking at the schools that we compete with, the level in the Ivy League is on the up and up,” Rose said. “We need to change the narrative that Ivy League soccer isn’t the best. We can compete with the rest of the country and other programs. We can have the same number of players that go pro!”
The best moments from @Harvard_WSoccer's visit to the Puma House of Football ️❤️— AC Milan (@acmilan) March 17, 2023
#FollowTheRossonere #SempreMilan pic.twitter.com/omyE6wmZzH
The collegiate soccer system is unique in the United States as a stepping stone to turning professional. For Grimshaw, the opportunity to play while pursuing an education prepared her to turn pro in a way she did not expect coming from Scotland. Grimshaw managed to get her masters degree while playing at Barry University, which included training every day and two games a week.
“For me, it was the best thing I ever did. Coming from Scotland, I was thinking about studying but there was no full option to study and play at a high level at the same time in Europe where the programs are fully linked,” she said. “In the United States [college system], there are high standards of leagues and programs where you can play almost at a professional level with professional facilities and get a degree at the same time.”
Now that Serie A femminile has turned professional this season, attracting top talent has never been more important. For Grimshaw, who has played for the Rossonere since 2020, AC Milan has always pushed the level even before the professional designation. “Now [that we are a fully professional league], the standards are rising. At the same time, it’s important to have that label so we can attract international players,” Grimshaw said. “This season there’s been a lot of movement. Big names are attracted to the Italian league now because we’ve got that professional label. It raises the standards.”
For the Harvard players, the experience to work with AC Milan’s staff, coaches, and players may have laid the groundwork for the students to one day decide to play the beautiful game in the bel paese. But for now, the students are grateful to bring this experience back for their upcoming season at Harvard.
“I want to give a big thank you to AC Milan for taking us on and providing us with this opportunity,” Rose said. “It’s not every day you get to play against a team of that caliber.”