By Thomas Regan
All-time assist leader of the Rider women’s soccer team, Abi Cottam, ’12, returned to England with professional aspirations after leading the Rider women’s soccer team to its first three winning seasons since 2004.
Cottam, who is also third all-time in goals scored, with 26, and points, with 78, was working with retail store M and M Direct in information technology when she received a contract on to play for Aston Villa of the Women’s Super League 2 (WSL2) — a new extension to the Women’s Super League. The signing was announced by the team on Jan. 24.
Her desire to play professionally was sown at a young age when she was told that the sport was a man’s game.
“I have always wanted to play professional soccer,” Cottam said in an e-mail. “When I was 7, the boys at my school told me, ‘Girls can’t play football.’ From that moment on, it was all I wanted to do. And I like to think I’ve proved them wrong now.”
Despite her childhood motivation to pursue soccer as a profession, her trip home across the Atlantic was filled with more practical considerations.
“When I returned to England, it was always my goal to play at the top level,” Cottam said. “When I first got back, I had to consider other things such as work. I had been away a long time, so I essentially had to rebuild my life. But once I was settled, I knew I wanted to push my soccer career, so I worked hard and hoped that I would get the opportunity to show I was ready. Thanks to Aston Villa, I’ve been given that opportunity.”
Upon returning to her roots, Cottam rejoined The New Saints football club, the team she played with before Rider, where she recorded 21 goals in the 2014 season.
Now that she received a contract with Aston Villa, most of her days include working for M and M Direct while also maintaining her new club’s offseason training program.
“A typical day for me involves a full [work] day,” Cottam said. “My evening is an hour and a half journey to practice, three times a week, then games on the weekends. Currently we’re in preseason, so there’s lots of fitness and friendlies, which keeps us busy.”
Cottam is excited to face the competition of the WSL2, while showing that she is at the top of her game.
“Personally, my goals at Aston Villa are to play the best football I ever have,” Cottam said. “I want to improve every game and do all I can to help my team win. We are playing against some of the biggest names in women’s football, so every game brings huge challenges that I am relishing. I can’t wait for the season to start.”
Rider Head Coach Drayson Hounsome believes the potential is limitless once she adjusts to the new level of play, but cautions it may take time for her to get there.
“When she was at the top of her game, no one could really stop her,” Hounsome said. “I think her speed of play will probably improve once she’s playing at that higher pace, and when it does, there’s no reason why she can’t take over games because she has the natural ability to do it. She’s not just a passer and a dribbler. She does have that speed and that athleticism, and the higher the level you go up, the more important that becomes.”
Cottam credits most of her growth as a player to her Bronc career and believes she must continue to develop her game.
“You never stop improving,” Cottam said. “There are so many things I’ve learned, and I wouldn’t be the player I am if it wasn’t for Rider. But right now, I’m focusing on scoring goals, beating players 1-on-1, and quick decision-making. At this level, you don’t have time to think; you have to have made your decision before you receive the ball.”
Her time at Rider gave her a plethora of memories. Cottam specifically recalls a game against Siena when the score was tied 1-1. With just under a minute to go, she had the opportunity to win the game, but missed the shot.
“I was devastated, but [shortly after] the ball was back at my feet with six seconds to go. I had one more chance, so I shot and scored. I don’t remember much after that except Jenn Nichols [the goalkeeper] lifting me onto her shoulders with the whole team around us celebrating. It was the highlight of my Bronc career.”
Outside of her soccer skill, Cottam’s work ethic served as an example for some of the younger players at Rider. Rider’s junior forward, Tara Ballay, who played with Cottam as a freshman, explains that competing with Cottam in practice helped her become a stronger player.
“I think the greatest way Abi helped me as a younger player was having her as someone to look up to,” Ballay said. “Striving to stop Abi on defense or keep up with her play on offense definitely helped me and others improve each and every day.”
The way in which Cottam carried herself and helped win games aided Hounsome in quickly rebuilding the women’s soccer program.
“For a few years, we were kind of bubbling just below the surface. Then that allowed us to bring in stronger recruits and build off of each season with the experience that the previous year [brought],” Hounsome said. “So definitely, those teams, 2010 through 2012, were an important period for the program. Getting Abi was huge. She and the rest of that class (nine of them in that class) were very important to the rapid improvement in the program.”
Though signing with a professional club will present plenty of obstacles, Cottam is eager to play for her new team and prove she can have the same impact in England that she had at Rider.
“The biggest change I will face with Aston Villa is, from a technical point of view, the pace of the game,” Cottam said. “This is the highest standard I’ve ever played at and it’s a fantastic experience so far. The other change is the commitment — I’m always busy and don’t have much free time — but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”