Outsiders first discovered Alaska in 1741 when Danish explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering sighted it on a voyage from Siberia. Carly Butcher’s trip to Los Angles for the Women’s Nike Friendlies was not nearly as perilous, but it’s definitely historic.
Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go. Carly Butcher is not an Eskimo and she does not live in an igloo. She doesn’t get to school via dogsled and doesn’t know how to ice fish. She has never shot a moose, and despite her name, has never skinned and chopped up said moose, then lugged it out of the back country so her family could have food for the winter.
That said, Carly is from Alaska – Anchorage, to be exact -- and in the world of U.S. Women’s National Team soccer, that fact makes her unique. When she was named to the U.S. Under-17 Women’s National Team roster for the 2006 Women’s Nike Friendlies, she became what is believed to be the first-ever player from the 49th state to play for a U.S. youth women’s national team.
In many ways, Butcher is a typical teenager. She has an iPod packed with tunes, watches “Laguna Beach” on MTV and loves hanging out with her friends and going to movies. Still, a women’s soccer player coming out of Alaska faces numerous obstacles in reaching the highest levels of her sport.
First, there is the geography, as the phrase “travel team” takes on a whole new meaning when you are from a state that has more glaciers (100,000, in fact) than soccer fields, at 586,400 square miles is twice the size of Texas, and features the highest peak in the United States (Mt. McKinley, which is 20,320 feet above sea level). Then, there is the small number of female players, meaning the level of competition suffers.
It’s really hard to get a good pickup game when your state averages 1.1 people for every square mile, making it the most sparsely populated state in the nation.
The best competition Alaskan girls get is usually at Western Regionals for club soccer and ODP, or on the occasional trip to big tournaments like the Surf Cup in San Diego. Butcher’s U-18 Alaska Rush team easily won the state championship this past year, perhaps more easily than any team in the nation. They were the only team entered in that age group.
Things may be starting to change in Alaska, though, as dedicated coaches and administrators are helping the most talented players reach their loftiest goals. With the exception of a match against Colorado, Alaska won all its games at the most recent ODP Western Regionals, and soccer is growing there. There is no better example of the growth in Alaskan soccer than Carly Butcher.
“I had the opportunity to see her play last March with her club team and that put her on our radar,” said U.S. U-17 WNT head coach Erica Walsh. “I have been tracking her for a while and have been astounded by her marked improvement in just a few short months. The Region IV coaches rated her as the top player in the camp this summer, which, in combination with the other evaluations, ultimately led to her invitation. She has shown that she can be a dangerous attacking player with both her club and the regional team and now deserves an opportunity to be tested at the highest level.”
The call-up certainly surprised Butcher.
“I didn’t really think I had a chance to make anything beyond a state team, because no one in Alaska ever did,” said the 5-foot-5 midfielder. “A lot of people in Alaska think ODP is a waste of time because no one ever gets picked, so going into the experience, I thought the same thing. Now, maybe people will think a bit different because it shows that girls from Alaska do have a chance.”
Butcher will join 23 other girls on the U.S. U-17s for the Women’s Nike Friendlies at The Home Depot Center, most from the fertile soccer hotbeds of California, Texas, Florida and the Northeast. She knows that she will be somewhat of an oddity, but she is used to the outrageous questions from girls who hail from the Lower 48.
No, she does not have a pet polar bear. The only one she’s ever seen was in a zoo.
No, she does not play year-round in the snow.
Yes, it does get dark early for half the year, but she’s so used to it that she doesn’t really notice it.
While the nerves will definitely be there in her first-ever National Team event, Butcher is also proud of her role as a pioneer of sorts for her state. She is considering universities on both coasts of the United States and will soon make her choice, taking her far from Anchorage for her college soccer, and in the process, blazing new trails for younger Alaskans.
“It’s a really big honor,” said Butcher of the National Team call-up. “It’s awesome. I never thought it would happen. I know you go to ODP to compete for something like this, but it was a big surprise. I am proud to represent my state as well, because soccer is growing in Alaska and hopefully people will see that there are some good players there.”
It’s not to say that Butcher isn’t ready for the big city and bright lights of Los Angeles during her first National Team experience, but she does enjoy the scenic beauty and slower pace of Anchorage, a city of 250,000. She is still an Alaskan girl and enjoys clam digging on the beach at Clam Gulch or in the small town of Ninilchik, both outside of Anchorage. During the right season, there are black bears in her backyard, and she sees moose roaming around like Los Angelenos see stray cats.
There is now a Costco in Anchorage, and the bigger, more well-known retail outlets are starting to move in as well. Perhaps it’s time for Butcher to leave the nest…and what better place to start than the Women’s Nike Friendlies?
“I think it will be fun, but I am really nervous,” she said. “I don’t know if I am more excited or nervous, but it’s definitely a combination of both. I do know it will be a great learning experience. I am sure all the other girls will be questioning how a girl from Alaska could make it to the National Team, but hopefully I can play well and show that I belong.”
By even making it to California, she’s shown that she already does. The state motto of Alaska is “North to the Future.” Butcher has actually headed south to pursue her soccer dreams, but really, she couldn’t go much farther north. They don’t play soccer at the North Pole.
Ok, that was the last Alaska joke, we promise.