River Hill grad earns spot on national soccer team

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

February 24, 2002

IN SCARCELY two breathtaking years, Natalie Klisas has gone from winning two Maryland soccer titles at River Hill High School, to starting in Division I college ball as a freshman, to national team starter.

Thirteen months ago, Klisas said, she hadn't given world-level soccer more than a passing thought. About 11 months ago, she player her first international match.

Today, at 19, the college sophomore can hardly believe she has competed in Russia, Bulgaria, England, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. And, she said, she's learning Greek fast.

That's because her national team isn't that of the United States. It's the national team of Greece, just getting started in international women's soccer.

Because her father was born in Greece, the United States-born Klisas carries dual citizenship in the eyes of international soccer's governing body, making her eligible to play for either the United States or Greece.

Invited to show her skills in Greece at the club level a year ago, Klisas quickly found herself recommended to the national-team coach. Thus, she has become, at Greek expense, a frequent flyer between home and Athens, having made the 10 1/2 -hour, one-way flight 14 times. She's skipping a call-up to play in Finland next month in favor of studies, but she'll be gone again in June and July for national team training.

Klisas is one of a number of quality American women players with dual citizenship opting to play abroad. More than half of Mexico's women's team in the last Women's World Cup, for example, was U.S.-born, as was one of Denmark's rising stars, a Santa Clara University alumna.

Klisas said her father, Glenelg High boys soccer coach Pete Klisas, suggested offhandedly one day that she look into playing for Greece, and she did.

She got frustrated, she said, in the U.S. Olympic Development Program, from which national-pool players are selected. It's a very competitive, and, some say, political process.

"It just stopped being fun," she said, although the young, still-learning Greek team has had to cope with some serious scoring deficits in European play.

Klisas quickly become one of two Americans to make the Greek team, as that nation - one of many where soccer is king - tries to build a women's team in time for the 2004 Olympics in Greece. The other player, she said, is University of Connecticut goalkeeper Maria Yatrakis.

The international game, said Klisas, the next-to-youngest player on Greece's roster, is faster than the college game but not as skilled as what she has been used to.

"They're very aggressive with the ball," said the Towson University physical education major, who would like to follow her father into coaching. "The game in this country is more technical, more passing."

Added to the language ("I've got the soccer stuff down, pretty much, but I need maybe a month of living there to get comfortable with everyday things"), Klisas is learning a new position. The Greeks are playing her on the left side of midfield, not on the back line, where she is used to playing. At River Hill, she played sweeper. At Towson, she has played marking back or central defender.

National-team status also has meant she finds herself paying more attention to the Winter Olympics than is typical for those her age.

"I look at those ceremonies on TV, and I'm thinking, maybe in 2004 that could be me," she said. "The timing - it's so amazing."

ISO good soccer fields

Sept. 11 ramifications that shuttered once-amiable and accessible Fort Meade to the general public mean the Anne Arundel County base's parade grounds will be off-limits for this Memorial Day weekend's Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament.

Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County leaders are scurrying to find substitute fields for the event, which for nearly a decade has been a showcase venue for older players, particularly those being scouted by colleges.

"We need eight fields to replace what we had at Fort Meade," said Jim Carlan, SAC/HC's operations chief, who said that negotiations for at least three within 20 minutes of Columbia seem positive.

The requirement is eight good fields - level, with relatively sound turf and decent parking. Carlan said has the organization is looking into Carroll County and as far west as Frederick.

The SoccerPlex in Germantown also is off-limits, because the Potomac Soccer Club has that booked for its Memorial Day tournament.

"We've got to limp through this year, and it's not easy," said Carlan, who with other club members still has fingers crossed that the club's new, 10-field Covenant Park, off Centennial Lane, will be ready for kickoff on Memorial Day weekend 2003.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or address e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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