PISCATAWAY, NJ - For Rutgers’ Carli Lloyd (Delran, NJ) and Zoe Avner (Paris, France), it has been a busy offseason.
Lloyd and Avner, two key components to the Scarlet Knights’ run to the 2003 NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament second round, have spent part of their springs competing with their respective Under-21 National Teams.
For Lloyd, the trips to the U-21 Camps have become an annual event. This marks the junior All-American midfielder’s third spring training with the team, and she hopes that her hard work will culminate in a third consecutive trip to the Nordic Cup, the top international competition for the Under-21 age group.
“This year, I started off really well,” Lloyd said. “My confidence has been so much better this year. I worked a lot during break, and have been starting and scoring in every scrimmage. I knew I could play at that level last year, but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. This year, at the end of the last camp, the coach told me that I was one of the top five players.”
Lloyd has already been to two training camps with the U-21s this year, and will travel to China March 17-29 with the squad to train and play several friendlies, including a match against the full Chinese National Team. Following the China trip, there will be another camp in California, then a trip to Brazil. All of these camps are building towards the Nordic Cup, which will be held in Iceland this July.
“The great news for Carli is that her evaluations from the head coach have improved after each camp,” said fourth-year Rutgers head coach Glenn Crooks. “There was a coaching change after 2002. The previous coach, Jerry Smith (Portland head coach), was very fond of Carli. When Chris Petrucelli (Texas head coach) became the coach last year, there were some things he needed her to do in order for her to be a part of the team. She got a great opportunity last summer, when the U-21s were training here in New Jersey at PDA. At the last minute, one of the forwards was not going to be able to go, and less than 48 hours before they left for the Nordic Cup, they added Carli. She assisted on the game-winning goal in the first round, and she started showing Chris that she belonged.”
Even though Lloyd is 21 years old, she can still compete for the U-21 Team, as each country is allowed to field four exempted players. Lloyd is competing with five other candidates for the four spots. Not only is a bid to the Nordic Cup on the line, but a potential invite to the full National Team camp could also be in the offing.
“Every time she trains with the U-21s, she improves her chances of getting a chance to train with the National Team,” explained Crooks. “If she gets invited to the April U-21 Camp, the full National Team will also be training there, and those coaches will be watching and evaluating. I think that everyone on the national staff knows about Carli. We’ll see if they like her enough to bring her to the national camp.”
While Lloyd has been busy with the U.S. program, Avner had a chance to return home and train with the French U-21 Team. This February, she was a part of a camp that included matches against Norway’s U-21 and full National Teams.
“It was the first time that I had played against Norway, and it was a great experience,” said the sophomore midfielder. “It was a good test. The game was faster and more physical. Tactically, it was at a different level.”
“What she did at the last camp was tremendous for Zoe,” said Crooks. “The speed of the game and the skill level were tremendous for her development. I’m happy for her. She is a player who has really improved during her time here, and she’s someone who I never see peaking, just because she’s not the type to ever stop working.”
The French U-21 program is not as active as its American counterpart, and primarily engages in training and playing friendlies, as opposed to participating in large international tournaments such as the Nordic Cup. Instead of going back to France this summer, Avner has decided to play with the Boston Renegades, a W-League team.
“We have several players who play for two of the W-League teams in this area, but we thought it would be great for Zoe to go and play in Boston,” Crooks stated. “That way, she gets to experience something different while she’s over here. She’ll train with the team four times a week and play on the weekends, and she’ll work some camps as well.”
Avner has had a whirlwind year, moving to the United States, enrolling at Rutgers, adjusting to American university life and American soccer, and helping guide the Scarlet Knights to their second NCAA bid in the last three years. For most 20-year-olds, the experience would be a bit overwhelming. Avner credits the RU coaching staff with making the process manageable.
“The coaches have been so helpful,” she said. “They made me feel very welcome. They’ve helped me adjust and improve.”
For Crooks, Avner’s quick progression doesn’t come as a surprise.
“Zoe probably has the most professional approach, day in and day out, of any athlete I’ve coached,” he said. “One of the reasons she has done so well is because she always goes the extra step. This winter, we split time with the men’s team at Livingston. Every time she had the chance, she would come early and play with the men. She does it all out of passion for the game, and a desire to keep improving.”
As valuable as the U-21 experiences have been for Lloyd and Avner as individual players, they hope that the dividends will result in the Scarlet Knights reaching unprecedented heights next fall.
“The camps are really helping me get ready for next year,” Lloyd explained. “We want to make a statement next year. My goal is to help the team play well the entire season. We’d really like to win the BIG EAST championship, and to do even better than the Sweet Sixteen finish we had in the NCAA Tournament my freshman season.”