Washington Spirit midfielder Diana Matheson was sure Canadian Women's National Team teammate Robin Gayle was joking back in March when she told her the two would be sharing an apartment in Rockville's Ingleside at King Farm retirement community during the spring and summer's inaugural National Women's Soccer League season.
“I found out about two weeks before we were coming here. We were with the [Canadian] National Team at the time and Robin told me we were going to be living in a retirement home. I didn't think she was being serious,” Matheson said.
It seemed the two young professional soccer players — Matheson is 29 and Gayle is 27 — would have little if anything in common with their neighbors, whose average age is 81 according to Ingleside at King Farm Executive Director Marilyn Leist.
But Matheson and Gayle immersed themselves in their new community — they're currently learning to play bridge — and in turn, have opened the fledging Washington Spirit to an entirely new demographic.
“This whole team wouldn't exist without community support and I think this is another facet to get a different demographic involved that probably otherwise wouldn't have been. The situation for us so far has been fantastic. We've met some amazing people there and I know a lot of people there are getting involved with the team, people have been interested all [season],” Matheson said.
Like the Spirit's leading scorer, Leist said she was wary of the setup when it was first proposed to her by Steve Gurney, the publisher of “Guide to Retirement Living SourceBook.” Gurney knew of a story out of Cleveland where an assisted living community hosted a male baseball player for a season. When Gurney became aware that the Washington Spirit was looking for temporary housing accommodations for some of its players, he presented the idea to Leist, she said.
“When the request first came to me, I was dumbfounded. I didn't know whether it would be a good idea or not,” Lesit said. “Then Steve came and showed me a video on the Cleveland [baseball player]. Once I saw that video I decided that we would go ahead and do it. A lot of times [young people] today don't have contact with elderly people and don't have any idea that these people are still pretty vibrant and knowledgeable.”
Matheson, Gayle and as of June 18, German Women's National Team striker Conny Pohlers, whom the Spirit acquired last month on loan, share in a symbiotic relationship with the Ingleside residents.
The Ingleside community has become extremely invested in the team — about 20 residents are taken by bus to the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds for every home game. Matheson said she and her teammates have learned from their neighbors' life experience.
Ingleside is sponsoring tonight's home game against the Chicago Red Stars. Two hundred staff members, residents and family members plan on attending the contest, scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., Leist said.
Matheson's penalty kick in the 87th minute of Washington's 1-1 tie against visiting FC Kansas City on July 3, her team-high fifth goal, snapped the Spirit's five-game scoring drought dating back to the team's first and only NWSL win, a 4-2 decision in Seattle May 16.
Though Washington (1-8-4) fell, 1-0, to the league's top team, Sky Blue FC out of New Jersey/New York Saturday, the team seems headed in the right direction under newly hired coach Mark Parsons — the team announced July 1 that after a rough first half of the season it was parting ways with former coach Mike Jorden, who had coached the D.C. United Women for two seasons at the SoccerPlex.
Parsons said becoming a more offensive-minded team is the goal. In his first two contests — against Kansas City and the Sky Blue — Washington has employed a 4-3-3 formation. The Spirit played more aggressive possession soccer and had Sky Blue under pressure for much of Saturday's contest, but gave up a late goal.
Perhaps 200 members of its most unlikely, but extremely invested fan base from Ingleside will help propel Washington to its first win in two months.
“I know we've learned a lot from [the Ingleside residents],” Matheson said. “We've met some amazing people with some really cool stories. A lot of them have so much life experience and knowledge. And I think we've given them another outlet into the community, another way of being involved in the community, something to follow.”