It's playoff time for the inaugural season of the new, nationwide USL W women's soccer league. And one of those initial playoff matches will take place Wednesday in the Twin Cities.
That's because the Minnesota Aurora finished the regular season undefeated, and with more points than any of the more than 40 other teams in the league.
It's safe to say the Aurora are shining brightly in their first season — and are aiming for even greater success in the postseason.
"I knew, and I think everyone else knew, that we were going to make it great no matter what —and game by game we've proven our talent and we have proven that we are something to be seen and heard and talked about, and it's exciting to take this next opportunity into the playoffs," said Aurora defender Rachel Preston.
Preston and the rest of the team were practicing Monday morning at their home field — TCO Stadium in Eagan. It's where the Minnesota Vikings train.
The Aurora have state-of-the-art facilities for practices, and a big venue to host fans for matches.
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Star goalkeeper Sarah Fuller says hosting a first-round playoff match in this first season should break in favor of the Aurora, one of three teams in the USL W League to finish the regular season undefeated.
"It means a lot, and I think it's intense if you're coming in and playing us and everybody's rooting for us," Fuller said of the Aurora's game-day atmosphere. "So it's definitely a good thing to have."
Twenty-eight players — unpaid women ages 17 to 25 — make up the Aurora. A dozen have Minnesota ties, while others come from other states — even other countries.
Aurora co-founder and President Andrea Yoch says the new league is "pre-professional" — offering previously unavailable opportunities for older girls and young women to play high-level soccer. Yoch compares the new league to options older boys and young men who play baseball have had for decades.
"There are summer leagues, there's American Legion leagues. There are so many places for guys to play baseball if they want to," Yoch said. "And maybe they're not good enough to be on the Minnesota Twins, but they don't want their career to be done. Women's soccer hasn't had that level yet. And now there's so many more chances for them to keep playing."
Yoch says some members of her team aspire to play professionally. Many others, she says, just want to get out on the field.
Preston is from Lakeville, Minn., and is working toward a nursing degree at South Dakota State University while playing soccer for the Jackrabbits.
Aurora defender Elizabeth Rapp is from Evergreen, Colo., and will be entering the University of Oklahoma this fall. She thinks her time with the Aurora will give her a jump on her foray into women's college soccer.
"For me specifically, going into college never having experienced that, preparing myself for the college environment by playing against college-level athletes or out-of-college-level athletes and playing with them on my team. Getting that experience is very nice for me," Rapp said.
Yoch said the Aurora franchise has already, in just a couple of months, proven a success — not just by providing playing opportunities, or in its undefeated record, but also in community support.
"We lead the league in attendance by a lot, Yoch said. "We actually have some of the top attendance of any women's soccer in the United States. So Minnesota has resoundingly accepted and is excited about this team."
There are four quarterfinal playoff games scheduled for Wednesday — including the Aurora hosting the Indy Eleven from Indianapolis at 7 p.m. If Minnesota wins, the Aurora will host a semifinal match this weekend — with a berth in the league's inaugural championship match on the line.
Correction (July 12, 2022): A previous version of this story misidentified Tylar Sayles in a photo caption. The story has been updated.