COLONIE — Practicing together Friday morning, on an Afrim’s Sports Park outdoor turf field as a light rain fell, were soccer players with ties to this Capital Region college and that one, and so many of the area’s high schools.
“It’s great competition here,” said Olivia Piraino, a former Niskayuna High School standout who is a rising sophomore at UAlbany coming off a freshman season that saw her receive both America East second-team and all-rookie selections. “It gets us fit and keeps us sharp over the summer.”
More than 50 soccer players, from ages 17 to 29, are members of this summer’s Albany Rush program that fields a team in both the United Women’s Soccer League’s East Conference and the United Women’s Soccer League Two’s New England Conference, with the former conference having no age maximum for competitor while the latter is for U23 competition. Part of the international Rush Soccer organization that includes tens of thousands of players of all ages, Albany Rush was formed in 2016. United Women’s Soccer-level teams are new this year for the Albany Rush organization, and Brian Gordon — who once played at UAlbany and later helped coach the school’s women’s team — coaches both first-year teams.
Some players, too, play for both teams — sometimes, on the same day. Liv Raucci, a Mohonasen High School graduate who is a rising sophomore at SUNY Geneseo, is one of those players who sometimes competes twice in one day, and she’s grateful for the chance to compete this summer in the pro/am league since her college team didn’t play any games during the 2020-21 academic year because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“My first game with the Rush was my first game since November of 2019,” said Raucci, who helped lead Mohonasen to the state quarterfinals as a senior.
Nearly every Capital Region college program has at least one of its players competing for the Albany Rush this summer, and the majority of the players played for Section II programs in high school. The Albany Rush plays its home games at Lansingburgh High School, and both of its United Women’s Soccer-level teams will play home games next weekend. This weekend, only the program’s top team — the one in the East Conference — plays, as the club will travel for an afternoon game Saturday in Pennsylvania against the Lancaster Inferno. The East Conference includes teams from several states, and the Albany Rush currently is in fourth place with two games to go in the regular season.
“It’s quick,” Raucci said of the level of play in the league. “There’s so much talent.”
“We play against other teams with college players, but there’s also some older girls who have played pro,” said Kendra Harbinger, a former Shenendehowa High School star who completed her senior year at UAlbany this past spring and has one year remaining of collegiate playing eligibility.
At 22 years old, Harbinger is one of the Albany Rush’s older players. Gordon — who is the general manager of New York Rush, of which the Albany group is a chapter — said that while the age range is a dozen years for the program’s players, most are right around 20 years old. Harbinger said it’s been enjoyable to play with some of the Capital Region’s stars that were a couple years younger than her.
“That’s been fun because I’ve followed their careers,” Harbinger said.
“The soccer world is a small world,” Raucci said, “so we all knew each other.”
Gordon said it’s a “goal” of the Albany Rush to offer a similar pro/am-style team in the future for male players. A large number of players, though, is needed to make it work; while the two women’s teams have 53 total players on them, the combination of summer jobs, internships and vacations for the primarily college-age competitors makes it so that Gordon’s game-day rosters and practice field are always manageable. On Friday, Gordon’s practice included approximately 25 players.
“We still can get in a good practice even if some people can’t come,” Raucci said.
“This is helping me a lot,” Piraino said, “both with my running and staying sharp with the ball.”
In the East Conference, the Albany Rush is 4-3-1 after starting the season with losses in three of its first four games. In fourth place, the Rush currently possess the last playoff spot in the league with a couple games left in its regular season.
“We’re in a really good spot right now, especially with the way we’re playing,” said Gordon, a native of Scotland who now lives in Scotia.
“At this point, we’ve all jelled,” Raucci said, “and you can see that in our game results.”
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