“There’s no place like home.”
While this household phrase was made famous by “The Wizard of Oz” as Dorothy clapped her shiny ruby slippers together, members of the Elm City Express echoed this same mantra while clapping their soccer cleats together when the team’s birth was announced earlier this year.
For several Elm City players, the new team in the National Premier Soccer League meant more than just another place to play professional soccer. It was a chance to play again in their own backyard.
“I was very excited about it,” Connecticut native and Elm City forward Kevin Ipina said of the news of the Express’s arrival to his home state. “After being in Germany and Poland for almost 2 years, I was excited to be back in Connecticut to continue my career where it all started.”
Ipina has played Connecticut soccer since his youth days in Danbury. He later played collegiate soccer at Post University in Waterbury, where he was twice selected as an All-American. Who was his coach during his college years? That would be Ted Haley, current head coach of the Elm City Express.
The relationship between Haley and Ipina is hardly unique on the Elm City sidelines. Up and down the roster you can find former teammates or adversaries who have been competing on the pitch together for years. The wealth of playing experience with each other has helped heighten team chemistry this season, which has aided their undefeated start.
“It definitely has been to our advantage to have the majority of our players within our team from Connecticut,” forward Chris Carneiro says. “We have played against each other in previous years, whether it was high school, college, or just for fun, so we know what to expect from one another. It’s exciting to now be on the same team together and no longer seeing them as enemies, but as teammates.”
Carneiro has played organized soccer in Connecticut since he was five years old, including his college years at Sacred Heart. His lifelong workload in the Connecticut area helped him arrive to Elm City’s first practice and already have a working relationship with most of his teammates.
“Connecticut is a soccer state, so there are always opportunities to play, whether it’s just pick up or organized leagues.” Carneiro says of his home state. “These leagues within Connecticut led to me meeting most of my teammates before joining Elm City.”
Echoing that experience is Ipina, who is not only playing with former teammates, but with some of his closest friends.
“It’s always a blessing to step on the field with teammates who are some of my best friends, including Miguel Carneiro and Ani Lekaj, whom I’ve played with for years,” Ipina says of his early experience with Elm City. “In fact, Ani and I both played together since our U15/16 days.”
Ipina’s close friend Miguel Carneiro shares no blood relation with fellow Elm City player Chris Carneiro, but they do share a common Connecticut bond, like most of the team does. According to goalkeeper and Sacred Heart product Matt Jones, 90 percent of the Express roster is a Connecticut product, with nine different in-state colleges or universities represented by the team.
The team is new, but the relationships are anything but. It is a club entrenched in local pride, a sentiment not lost on Ipina.
“Because I am from Connecticut, I get to play in front of my family and friends as well as defend my hometown and state.” Ipina says. So far, the 3-0-1 Express have done a good job of defending their turf.
For many members of the Express, walking into the locker room is like coming home. And unlike Dorothy’s case, ruby cleats have played no part in the homecoming process.