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South Jersey native Brittany Ratcliffe continues to find joy in her NWSL career

Today will mark a homecoming for Williamstown, New Jersey’s Brittany Ratcliffe when the North Carolina Courage visit Gotham FC at Red Bull Arena

NWSL: Washington Spirit at North Carolina Courage Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Today will mark a homecoming for Williamstown, New Jersey’s Brittany Ratcliffe when the North Carolina Courage visit Gotham FC at Red Bull Arena (Kickoff 5 p.m. / Paramount+).

The seven-year NWSL veteran and former NSCAA youth All-American out of Paul VI High School will venture north as the Courage (4-7-4 16 points) hope to close a ten-point gap for the final playoff spot with seven games remaining in the regular season.

For Ratcliffe, the trip brings a much anticipated return to her roots, shaped by a path that took her to the University of Virginia before a pro career that led her to Boston, Kansas City, and Utah, eventually landing in Carolina where she’s spent the last two seasons. And though not Philly, it’s close enough for soccer fans to see one of Philly’s top players on the big stage.

“It’s obviously not Williamstown, New Jersey,” Ratcliffe said during an interview with Brotherly Game this week, “but any part of New Jersey is home to me. We go to DC, but there’s just something about coming to New Jersey. It’s the people there. It’s the energy that the fans bring. Even just the people walking on the street. You can feel a sense of being back in the Northeast. And it’s nice when I get to see my parents and they don’t have to drive eight hours to North Carolina.”

NWSL Archive: North Carolina Courage v Kansas City Amy Kontras/ via Imagn

Previously scheduled for May, the game between Gotham and the Courage had been postponed due to multiple players being ruled out from Covid-19 protocols, so Ratcliffe hasn’t been this close to home since the two sides met in April during the Challenge Cup. Returning to the area remains special for the forward, who grew up playing for the PA Strikers and Baltimore Bays, in large part because of the connections she established as a young player with her idols.

Though she’s drawn inspiration from Wayne Rooney and Abby Wambach, her deepest impressions lie closer.

“When I was growing up, I would go to the Philadelphia Charge games all the time,” she said. “I was so young, I just sat in the back and Mom and Dad drove, but I was part of their fan club so I would go to every single game.”

Playing home games at Villanova Stadium, the Charge lasted from 2000 to 2003 in the Women’s United Soccer Association, and Ratcliffe remembers attending open training sessions and even walking on the field pre-game.

“That was the first glimpse I got that’s like I want to be like them. I want to be just like Heather Mitts. It was just such a fun experience.”

And now Ratcliffe has become an idol for young players, a role she embraces. “The game is great, scoring goals is great, getting shutouts is great. We go there to play the game and win the game. But for me the best part is just seeing the kids after the game and they’re so excited.”

Whether she plays or not, Ratcliffe believes that building relationships with the young fanbase in person has been a key contributor to the stability of the NWSL and the future of the game. “I would stay up till midnight if I had to and just sign autographs because I know being on the other end of it how important that is to just say hello.”

Getting to the top of women’s professional soccer and staying there has taken years of determination and dedication. A two-time All-ACC performer at Virginia, Ratcliffe was drafted 17th in 2016 by the Boston Breakers, where she made 15 appearances her rookie season before moving to Kansas City for the 2017 season under current USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski. She made 22 appearances, scoring two goals and adding one assist, but Kansas City folded at the end of the season, and she once again moved, this time to the expansion Utah Royals where she scored 2 goals in 10 appearances. Ratcliffe’s goal against her current team in June 2018 was named NWSL Goal of the Week and represents her willingness to succeed.

The following pre-season, however, Ratcliffe’s career stalled when she tore her ACL, sidelining her for the entire season, only to come back to the Covid shutdown. When she did make her competitive return over a year and half later, she played every game of the 2020 Challenge Cup and Fall Series before the Royals ceased operations at the end of the season. When asked about the tumultuous journey from the injury until Carolina, Ratcliffe admitted she hadn’t thought much about it.

“I had torn my ACL when I was in high school. I think I was 16 or something, and it was really hard on me. But when you’re 16, you’re kind of fearless in a way, so for me when I tore my ACL in 2019, I remember vividly when I felt the pop…I remember looking up at the sky like, oh my god, this is my job.”

Faced with a lengthy, intense rehab, Ratcliffe buckled down, never losing her focus. “I think it’s important when you go through things like that, you have to remember why you’re doing it. The whole time in my recovery, I’m like why am I recovering? Why am I doing the extra squat? It’s because I want to come back. I want to play in the NWSL.”

And while the sporting world waited for leagues to resume during the shutdowns, finding solutions from the bubble to closed stadiums to salvage seasons, the players used the extra time to fine-tune their skills. “As tough as Covid was, in hindsight it was good because we didn’t just jump right into games. We had a lot of time on the field to play and get touches.”

Arriving for preseason in March, eager to get back to her pre-surgery levels, Ratcliffe and the rest of the league’s players had to wait four months until the Challenge Cup, which was NWSL’s bubble-style tournament held near Salt Lake City, Utah. The Royals played their opener June 30th and went 1-1-2 in the competition, bowing out in the quarterfinals July 17th . “The hardest part about Covid was the unknown. We literally woke up every single day and did not know if we were going to play.”

NWSL continued with the Fall Series, where each team was placed in a three-team regional pod, playing a home and away game against the other two teams. Matched with Portland and OL Reign, Utah went 0-2-2, and Ratcliffe started every game again and in her words was able to shake off the rust. But even she admitted while the pandemic took its toll, and the bubble restricted contact with teammates, visitors, and much of the outside world, it only strengthened her resolve.

“In terms of all those difficult things happening back to back, it’s just about why are you doing this? And we do it because we love it. We don’t do it for the money.

We don’t do it for the fame. We do it because we love soccer and we love the people we play with.” The challenges in succession also brought clarity and perhaps inspired the joy with which she plays with on the field. “When stuff like that happens you have a very clear image of do you love it or not love it? Covid showed that in a lot of us we love this because we’re willing to run every day not knowing if it’s even going to matter.”

Prior to the 2021 NWSL season, Ratcliffe returned home to train with Derek Antonini, who was playing for Vereinigung Erzgebirge and also missing a competitive season that cost his team a place in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Antonini brought Ratcliffe and her friend, Marissa Sheva, now with the Washington Spirit, to play pick up on the VE turf. “I’m thinking they’re going to be like high school kids just messing around. There were 40 year-olds, there were 16 year-olds, and they were good. They were getting into tackles.”

And though she’d had her sights on a new team and a full season, she enjoyed the free-flowing nature of the games. “I remember it was freezing and I had cleats on. The turf was icy, and I was like I might get hurt out here, but I think it’s going to be worth it because this is a really good level of soccer.”

The benefits of unstructured play carried over from the Covid year for Ratcliffe.

“I love soccer. Games are fun, practice is fun, but there’s something to be said about just playing pickup. There’s no rules. Yeah, you keep score because we’re all competitive in one way, but at the end of the day, the score doesn’t really matter.” And that lack of pressure from playing pick-up allowed Ratcliffe to enter the new season fresh. “You’re literally just playing soccer, and that kind of makes you feel like a kid again.”

NWSL: Challenge Cup Final-Washington Spirit vs North Carolina Courage Lewis Gettier-USA TODAY Sports

With the Courage, Ratcliffe appeared in 20 games over the last two seasons, scoring three goals. In this season’s Challenge Cup, the Courage went 3-0-3 in the preliminary round, advancing to the knockout round. From there, North Carolina beat Kansas City 2-1 in the semifinals before topping Washington by the same score in the final, adding another trophy to a club that won the Shield and Cup double in 2018 and 2019.

Ratcliffe scored her first goal of the season, a poacher’s goal, in the 2-2 draw against Chicago Red Stars.

Her second goal came two weeks later against the Spirit, this one a forceful run through the heart of the defense.

When Ratcliffe scores, there’s no pre-planned routine, no song and dance. Her reaction is genuine, a burst of emotion, beaming smile, jumping into her teammates’ arms, a scream that can be heard over the cheers.

“There’s nothing like scoring a goal,” she said. “It’s the highest of highs. Making a team, making a clean pass, hitting a really good tackle, those are all things that get you amped in the game. But when you score a goal, knowing the other team is doing everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. And when you finally score, there’s just nothing better.”

Though she admits her teammates laugh at her celebrations, one can only wonder how much these single moments reflect the years of grinding and the joys of being a professional player.

“My celebration is—I just black out. I see the ball hit the net, I go black, and all I know is I always lose my voice when I score because I’m always yelling so much. For me, as a forward, it’s what they put you on the field to do, so when you actually do it, it’s like oh my god, I did my job.”

Ratcliffe’s career will hopefully continue for years, and though she doesn’t gaze into what’s to come, she knows she’ll still be involved in the game down the line. “I really love individual training. If you talk to a lot of NWSL players, that’s kind of our side hustle. We do a lot of individual sessions. I did it in Boston. I did it in Kansas and Utah. I just love seeing the progression of people getting better.” And wherever that path leads her, whether it’s in Carolina, back in New Jersey, or somewhere else, she’s very aware of how these contributions elevate the women’s game.

“It’s something I might not have had when I was growing up. I didn’t have Instagram and all these videos. I didn’t have trainers and strength coaches. I didn’t have nutritionists. I just literally went out in the backyard and kicked the ball up in the air and then brought it back down. But now soccer is going in a direction where you have trainers and you have all these things that can help you, so I definitely think there’s a market for me to help in that, maybe start my own business.”

But not yet.

“I’m very in the moment. I wish I thought more about the future, but I just love playing and I love where I’m at right now. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

For now, the bridge leads Ratcliffe over the Passaic River to Red Bull Arena. And while Philly fans remain patient for professional women’s soccer to return to the tri-state area, we can be thankful there are still players like Ratcliffe inspiring the next generation.