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16 U.S. soccer players find a home in Switzerland — and in the Champions League

FF Lugano's Kaela Dickerman (21), from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the University of Louisville, attempts to push the ball past the AC Milan goalkeeper in a preseason friendly. (FF Lugano) (Claudia CAMPANA/FF Lugano)
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The largest concentration of U.S. soccer players in Europe resides in an Instagram-worthy setting at the Swiss-Italian border, surrounded by glassy lakes, snow-topped peaks and the sport they cannot quit.

Sixteen American women — about two-thirds of Swiss club FF Lugano’s roster — arrived from university programs ranging from Sonoma State to Syracuse.

“It almost has that college feel to it,” said Samie Scaffidi, a forward from Silver Spring, Md., and St. John’s University.

About 200 Americans play overseas, some with decorated men’s clubs such as Chelsea and Ajax. But many are finding their way with smaller organizations, such as Lugano, an amateur side that attracts a few dozen spectators for league matches and features a team president who operates a wine wholesaler in the D.C. suburbs.

Few U.S. players have had the opportunity to play in European soccer’s premier club competition, the UEFA Champions League. U.S.-dominated Lugano, however, is about to step from the obscurity of the Swiss circuit into the continental spotlight by playing English power (and fully professional) Manchester City in the women’s tournament’s round of 32.

The first leg is Thursday in Switzerland, the second Sept. 25 in Manchester.

“It’s a huge moment for the club and for the region,” said Emanuele Gaiarin, Lugano’s president since 2015 and an Italian-born U.S. citizen who lives most of the year in Alexandria, Va., operating Siema Wines. “Now we go face to face with the big clubs.”

How did the Lugano project come about?

Gaiarin, 61, had coached at the youth and college levels (as a George Mason assistant) in the Washington area and, frustrated by the developmental ceiling for most players, set out to blend the elite skill set of American women with the sophistication of European coaching amid a traditional soccer culture.

Furthermore, Gaiarin wanted to integrate education into the program, with the idea of someday drawing college-aged players for semesters or years at a time.

“With the level of the athletes in the States and the level of coaching in Switzerland,” he said, “there is so much potential to grow.”

FF Lugano, which had operated with limited success since 1976, offered the platform. The U.S. players, all of whom have played NCAA soccer, arrive on tourist and student visas.

Apartments on Lake Lugano are provided at no charge. The players take Italian classes paid for by the club and, if they wish, pay their own way for undergraduate or graduate programs at Franklin University Switzerland.

Most are also drawn to the European lifestyle.

“I love playing here,” said midfielder-defender Lauren Curtin, 27, a native of Northern California entering her fourth season. “It’s beautiful, and we are able to go to school and play soccer at the same time.”

Curtin’s twin sister, Cara, used the Lugano experience as a springboard to a pro contract; this summer, she signed with Valencia in Spain. Fordham’s Kristina Maksuti passed through Lugano before signing with Duisburg in Germany.

The Swiss league is well below the quality of the National Women’s Soccer League, the nine-team U.S. circuit that features all 23 players from the World Cup champion U.S. roster and several foreign stars. Most of Lugano’s players would have had a difficult time earning an NWSL contract.

Switzerland provided an appealing alternative.

“I knew I wanted to go overseas to experience a whole different lifestyle,” Scaffidi said. “One of my favorite things to do is learn, and this opportunity was to learn Italian while playing. It was optimal.”

Two players are from Ashburn, Va.: Lina Granados, a Briar Woods High and Vanderbilt graduate who was a member of Colombia’s 2015 World Cup squad, and Ashley Herndon (Stone Bridge High, James Madison University).

Scaffidi started playing for Lugano during breaks in the spring semester this year, then returned for good this summer.

She and Curtin noted the difference between U.S. and European coaching.

“There is a greater focus here,” Curtin said, “on the technical and tactical.”

Lugano’s U.S. players carry a sense of responsibility in representing American soccer, the women’s pacesetter globally for more than 25 years. In a recent match against Servette, “they didn’t really like us because we were Americans,” Curtin said. “It was like the United States vs. Switzerland.”

Gaiarin and the players hope Lugano’s program will help inspire local girls; women’s soccer has been slow to catch on in male-dominated playing regions of Italy and Switzerland. FC Lugano, a first-tier men’s program, boasts 111 years of history.

FF Lugano (0-2-1 this season) qualified for the Women’s Champions League round of 32 for the first time by finishing second last season in Nationalliga A, Switzerland’s top flight.

Manchester City, featuring 11 players in the English national team’s player pool, is heavily favored.

Ahead of the first leg, Lugano players have been distributing fliers. A billboard went up.

“It’s definitely something we are using to bring more awareness to the league itself, and I really think it’s sparking interest,” Scaffidi said. “We want to let people know there is a women’s team. We’re pretty good, so come support us."

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