Pensacola FC celebrates winning the 2019 WPSL Championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma. [KT King]
Winning a championship in any sport is an incredibly impressive feat – one that usually requires a great coach, a winning culture, and a plethora of on-field talent.
For Pensacola FC and coach David Kemp, the sheer star power of the roster was unmatched throughout the 2019 WPSL campaign. Now, almost a year removed from winning the 2019 WPSL Championship, Pensacola FC has provided a blueprint for other WPSL clubs on how to compete for a championship and develop players into professional athletes.
After hoisting the championship trophy, Kemp worked relentlessly to help facilitate the next step in his star players’ careers, which led to professional contracts for five players: Uchenna Kanu, Hannah Godfrey, Heidi Ruth, Celine Rumpf, and Silvia Leonessi.
Kanu, a dynamic forward for the Nigerian National Team, signed with Sevilla FC, one of the top clubs in the Spanish first division. Leonessi signed with Empoli FC in Italy’s first division. Rumpf is moving to Iceland to join Keflavik FC, which is favored to regain promotion to the first division during the upcoming season.
The three recently spoke about their experiences with their new club as well as their memories playing for Pensacola FC.
Tell us about your new club and how excited you were to join it?
Celine Rumpf: I will be joining Keflavik FC in June 2020, and I am super excited to start this new chapter of my life. I really like the philosophy of the club and the coaches. They have a great set up with amazing facilities and conditions to focus on my game and the team.
Uchenna Kanu: Transitioning from college to professional soccer was a dream come true. Sevilla is one of the best teams in Spain. I was super excited and at the same time nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. Compared to college, it is a different game, more competitive and more demanding in all aspects. My team is well organized, has good management from the staff down to the players. Everyone is professional and committed to their jobs.
Silvia Leonessi: Signing professionally has always been a dream but something I knew required a lot of hard work and sacrifices. I love the hard work, and I’m excited to keep working hard and do what I love. The sacrifices are a part of it, and I’ve always known that. I’m lucky to have a family that always supports me and my dreams, which has also made it easier for me to make those sacrifices. At the end of the day, it has been worth it. Today I’m happy I made those sacrifices.
What emotions did you experience as you signed your first professional contract?
Rumpf: It was an amazing feeling. This was something I have been working toward since I started playing this game, and finally getting the opportunity to sign a contract to get to do what you love is unreal. I am grateful to have been given the chance and am looking forward to leaving everything out on the field.
Kanu: Signing the contract, I was anxious considering all the expectations from the club, family, friends, and everyone I’m surrounded by. That was one of the biggest decisions I have ever made, and it felt like I was under pressure, even though I wasn’t.
Leonessi: Signing for a club in Italy has always been a dream for me ever since I was little. I can’t really describe what I felt when I committed – it’s like I haven’t really realized it yet. The club I’m signing for, Empoli from Serie A in Italy, is in the middle of the league right now. Empoli is close to Florence, which is perfect for me since I have family from Italy that lives in that area.
What type of role on the field did your new coaching staff expect you to play when you arrived?
Rumpf: The club got relegated into the second league and wants to move back up. This is the plan for the upcoming season, and I am excited to help and especially receive the trust, not only from the club but my coach as well. I am looking forward to the new challenge and experience.
Kanu: Obviously they knew what position I’m capable of playing before offering me the opportunity. However, they also played me from the center forward as well, maybe to see what best fits their style of play or if I’m able to perform better on any one of the forward positions.
Leonessi: I’m going to start playing in the beginning of July if everything goes as planned, and as of right now they expect to play me as either a left or right wing.
How are you staying fit and practicing technique during this uncertain time around the globe?
Rumpf: I have been running and biking to stay fit. I have a plan from my strength coach, which really helped me out. Besides that, I am doing a lot of technical drills on the street in front of our house, given the fact that all the sports facilities are closed due to COVID-19. There are a lot of drills you can do in small areas, which are a lot of fun.
Kanu: The team provided us with an online platform to train together as well as other team-bonding activities to keep us both mentally and physically fit. Also, my roommates and I do our own workouts in addition to my team workouts.
Leonessi: I haven’t been able to touch a ball much during the pandemic, but I’ve done my best to stay fit by running and working out almost everyday. I’ve been lucky to stay at a place here in the U.S. where I’ve had access to a home gym, where I’ve been doing weights, and then I’ve been following a cardio and workout plan designed for soccer players.
How did your experience winning a championship with Pensacola FC help prepare you for life as a professional player?
Rumpf: Winning the championship was an absolutely amazing feeling, especially since we lost it in the last minute the past two years. It is a great feeling to see that all the hard work you as an individual and the team as a whole put in to make it that far. I think it is a great way to improve your game aside from the college sport. You not only get to play in different settings but also with far more experienced players that really helped me to grow individually. The more experience you have, the better you are prepared for the next step. Playing for multiple reserve teams over the past years was a great experience that helped a lot as well.
Kanu: My experience with Pensacola FC was amazing. Both the coaching crew and the players were welcoming and hardworking. The training sessions helped prepare me for this course. We worked together as a family and supported each other both on- and off-the-field until the final game and beyond. I really had fun with Pensacola FC.
Leonessi: Winning the national championship with Pensacola FC was an amazing experience, and playing for them definitely also helped me prepare myself for what’s coming up. The constant high intensity, hard work, and the level of competition is a step up from college, and it was something I really enjoyed. Having to perform and always give everything you have, even on the practice field, is something I learned during my time in Pensacola.
If you could say one thing to coach David Kemp and the rest of the Pensacola staff, what would it be?
Rumpf: The whole Pensacola staff is doing a great job with the set up and especially the practice. Coach Kemp and the rest of the staff create a great environment for each one of us to learn and most of all to have fun. The only thing I can say is keep it up and thank you for your great work. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the club.
Kanu: Thank you to my teammates for the friendships, long-lasting memories, and the love I experienced with them. I miss all the good times we shared, and I hope to see everyone someday. Thank you, Coach Kemp, for giving me the opportunity to represent your team and for all your incredible support. Thank you Coach Provi (Jason Providence) and Coach (Dean) Logan for making me laugh. I appreciate each and every member of the Pensacola FC family.
Leonessi: I wanna say thank you to Coach Kemp, Provi and Dean for giving me the opportunity to play for Pensacola FC, for taking care of me during my time in Pensacola and giving me an experience I will never forget. I’ve learned a lot both on- and off-the-field, and my time in Pensacola has definitely prepared me both mentally and physically.