TAMPA — The game was quicker than Kiley Williams remembered, the players faster and stronger. The 32-year-old said she sometimes arrived at practice flustered after balancing her work as a personal trainer and health coach with raising her two young children.
When she walked into the locker room to suit up for Tampa Bay United’s team in the USL W League, though, Williams felt like she aged backward. “I’m in my early 20s,” she said of her “alter ego.” “Let’s do this.”
Williams, who played her first competitive soccer since her college days last summer, played this year for United in its inaugural season in the top U.S. amateur league, which is primarily for elite college athletes, and was one of its leading scorers.
It was not lost on Williams that she was graduating from high school in Pennsylvania when goalie Sonoma Kasica, United’s youngest player to feature in the league this season, was born. Kasica, who plays at Shorecrest Prep, turned 16 Thursday.
Williams said many of her teammates were shocked by her age, telling her they couldn’t believe her athleticism and ability after having kids. Williams accepted the compliments, to a point.
“Yeah, being in your 30s is not a death sentence,” she said, laughing.
Williams and team captain Madison Cox, who played at Cambridge Christian, became good friends playing in a local co-ed league. After Cox, 26, told her last year that the Tampa Bay United Soccer Club — which offers teams and other development programs for kids through adults — was fielding a team in the USL W League, Williams reached out to club administrator Alex Delgado.
“It was me wanting almost that final shot that I felt like I didn’t take for myself when I was younger,” Williams said.
Williams played her college soccer at Francis Marion University near Florence, South Carolina, before transferring to San Francisco State, playing in the old Pro-Am W League ahead of her senior season. Just as she was leaving school, however, the Women’s Professional Soccer league canceled its season and eventually folded in 2012.
If she wanted a pro career, Williams needed to go to Europe. Instead, she chose to move to Florida with her now-husband, Kyle Clinton, who played for the Rowdies from 2013-14.
Ahead of this summer, with Tampa Bay United joining the W League, Williams asked Delgado if she could return as a coach.
“Wait, are you hanging up your boots?” Delgado said.
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Williams said she hadn’t even considered playing.
“Yeah, just be a player for us,” Delgado said.
A new era
Williams said she felt a touch slower than the “younger girls,” but she was top five on the team in minutes played (536). Cox was first with 675 minutes in nine games.
Center back Kelly Hastings is a rising junior at UNC Charlotte. Hastings, from Weston, said this summer has primed her for a larger leadership role with the 49ers.
“It gives me an idea of how to treat the younger underclassmen that are coming in at my school,” Hastings said. “Just like how Madison would treat our younger back line.”
Cox said the age gap was apparent when younger players were in control of the locker room music but she and Williams enjoyed how they were respected as veterans without being treated as ancient. “You would never know that we weren’t together all the time,” Williams said of the squad. “Everyone is very comfortable with one another.”
Hastings played on United’s summer team last year to stay in shape, but she said the W League attracts more athletes with pro aspirations.
“I think it’s a good way to see if this is the right fit for you,” she said. “Because I feel like at such a young age, you need to know what it takes to be at such a high level.”
In Weston, Hastings played periodically under United head coach Tricia Taliaferro. She decided to follow the “best coach” she has had for summer ball.
Taliaferro, a longtime youth national team coach, led the United States to victory in the inaugural Women’s Para World Cup in May. She said the W League is a “mandatory” development for college players to keep up with their European counterparts embarking on pro careers.
“I think it’s just mainly putting players on the radar,” Taliaferro said, “and it’s challenging them in an environment that is respected.”
A last dance
Tampa Bay United played its final game of the regular season Friday, falling 1-0 to Miami City at the Tournament Sportsplex of Tampa Bay in Tampa to end United’s hopes of making the playoffs.
Williams’ children — 5-year-old Zinny (named for former French star Zinedine Zidane) and 2-year-old Winnie (middle name Thierry, as in former French star Thierry Henry) — cheered on their mom from the sideline.
Williams said this season was likely her last competitively. She played knowing it wasn’t “life or death.”
“If I could go back and tell myself that,” she said, “I absolutely would.”
Contact Greg McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @McKennaGregjed.