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Monday, May 30, 2011
WPS players feel close to home

By Karen E. Wall

"It's the girls versus the boys," Nicole Kavetski announced as she shed her shoes and began dribbling the ball around.

"C'mon, Barb, you gotta play, too," Kia McNeill said, and Brendan and Andrew joined in the chorus, entreating their mother to join the fray.

A lacrosse net guarded by Ed Kavetski and a small portable soccer goal soon transformed the Kavetskis' freshly mowed front yard into a soccer field.

To an onlooker, it would have looked like any other family horsing around on the lawn on a Friday night. And if you ask McNeill, that's exactly what it is: a comfortable family environment.

McNeill, a defender for the Philadelphia Independence of the Women's Professional Soccer league, admits she was a little nervous at first. She lives with Ed and Barbara Kavetski and their three children, Nicole, 12, Brendan, 10 and Andrew, 6.

"I was a little bit tentative about living with a host family because I wasn't sure what it entailed," McNeill said. "But they've been so welcoming. The kids had a huge sign for me when I arrived. It's been great getting to know them."

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Barbara Kavetski, left, and Kia McNeill chat over pizza in the Kavetskis' kitchen.

Placing players with host families has long been employed by low-level minor league baseball teams as a means of providing housing that won't absorb every penny of their salaries.

That's also part of the motivation for teams in the WPS. Host families apply and are selected through a process that includes in-home visits by the teams. Families hosting players receive season tickets to the team's home games plus VIP treatment at the team's special events, such as player meet-and-greets. They do not receive any monetary compensation.

"For the players, they get to walk into a living situation with all the creature comforts of home, and it's free," said T. Fitz Johnson, owner of the Atlanta Beat. "Anytime you can have an employee who's happy when they come to training, it's a good thing."

The WPS teams work with host families to varying degrees. The Boston Breakers have 19 players living with host families, the most of the league's six teams. The Western New York Flash, in Buffalo, N.Y., have all of their players housed in an apartment complex, with three players sharing each apartment. International players, for the most part, are housed in apartments rather than with host families.

The living situations in the host families vary, as well. McNeill, from Avon, Conn., has a separate living area with its own entrance in the Kavetskis' home in Downingtown, Pa., about 20 minutes from the facility where the Philadelphia Independence practice.

"She only shares the laundry room," Ed Kavetski said.

Michelle Wenino, a defender with Sky Blue who hails from Aurora, Colo., lives with the Cuneos in Freehold, N.J., about an hour from Sky Blue's training site. She has a separate bedroom and bathroom, "and has the run of the house," Liz Cuneo said, including an open invitation to join them for dinner.

"I hang out with them a lot," Wenino said. "We like to watch 'Pretty Little Liars.'"

Bianca D'Agostino, 22, a midfielder for the Beat, was one of the last players to join the Beat this year. Her situation is a bit different than most. While McNeill and Wenino live with families with younger children, D'Agostino, of Longview, Mass., lives with a woman and her 23-year-old daughter, and the daughter is a Beat employee.

"At first I was a little skeptical," D'Agostino said, noting she was living on her own during her playing days at Wake Forest. "To come into someone's house, you obviously want to be respectful."

Like McNeill, she has her own space and is on her own schedule, but she does sometimes have meals with them, she said.

"It's nice to have a family atmosphere to ease the transition to a new place," D'Agostino said.

Wenino, 24, who spent a year playing for SC Freiburg in Germany, said the host family experience has been great both times she's been in it. Last season, she played for the Pali Blues of the USL W-League and lived with a host family in Malibu. Her parents like the situation as well. "It's nice for them to know there's someone to be around," she said.

Liz Cuneo said having Wenino living with them is a great influence for her daughter, Susie. "They're great role models," she said. "Even when they're not practicing, they're practicing."

"We wanted [McNeill] to be an inspiration for our kids," Barbara Kavetski said. "This healthy, strong woman playing this sport and look at what she's done."

For the girls in the host households, "it's kind of nice having an older sister," said Susie Cuneo, 13, who plays for the Old Bridge (N.J.) Soccer Club and aspires to play for the women's national team. "We talk about girl stuff."

"It's cool to have her here if I need to talk about anything about soccer," said Nicole Kavetski, who plays for the West Chester (Pa.) United Soccer Club and wants to play soccer in college.

"Kia came upstairs one day and said she had to run to the mall for 20 minutes and asked 'Hey, can I take Nicole?'" Ed Kavetski said. "Four hours later they came home with bags of stuff," he said with a chuckle.

McNeill spends a fair amount of time with the Kavetskis when she's not practicing or playing for the Independence -- whether it's jumping on the trampoline with the kids, playing Wii soccer or even watching one of her games on the DVR.

She said the most difficult part of staying with a host family is the relationships that develop, not only with the family but with the team's fans as well.

"This is my third team in three years. It's hard leaving each of those areas," McNeill said. "When you've trained someone's little kids or their daughter and you have to leave, it's not easy to say goodbye. They still write me on Facebook."