Rahway’s Brandao sisters find soccer success with Portuguese national team
by Colin Stephenson/The Star-Ledger
Friday April 10, 2009, 11:01 PM
Friday April 10, 2009, 11:01 PM
Lissette and Kimberly Brandao rose through the youth soccer ranks in Rahway and were skilled enough to play alongside Heather O’Reilly at the club level and Carli Lloyd at Rutgers.
But that’s where the road forked.
While O’Reilly and Lloyd took their places as U.S. national team members and eventual Olympic heroes, the Brandaos were stymied after college. That is until women soccer players of Portuguese heritage were invited to try out for that country’s national team.
“I was definitely excited,” Kim Brandao said. “We didn’t know much about it, first of all. We had so many questions. We didn’t know we were eligible for it.”
The practice of recruiting players from other countries to play for a national team has gone on for decades in the men’s game. Earnie Stewart and Thomas Dooley, for example, were the sons of American servicemen who had been raised and played professionally in Europe before the U.S. Soccer Federation recruited them to play in the 1994 World Cup.
And in the women’s game, the Mexican team that competed in the 1999 World Cup included several California-born American college players with Mexican heritage.
According to FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, a player need only have one grandparent born in a country to be eligible to play for that country — something Fernando Marcos figured could benefit Portugal.
“I knew that there are many women soccer players in America that are of a high quality that are not good enough for the U.S. national team — with all due respect,” said Marcos, a Portuguese-American who is president of the United Soccer Leagues, which oversees minor league, semi-professional and elite amateur soccer in America.
The Brandao sisters, whose parents were born in Portugal, were exactly the kind of candidates Marcos had in mind when he pitched his idea to the Portuguese soccer federation. The federation brought in Ze Agosto [José Augusto], then the Portugal women’s national team coach, to observe a special tryout for American players of Portuguese descent at New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2005.
Lisette Brandao impressed Agosto [Augusto] enough at that tryout — Kim was rehabbing a torn ACL and did not participate — that Agosto encouraged both sisters to apply for Portuguese citizenship.
That process took about two years, but the girls are now dual citizens of Portugal and the United States, and have become mainstays for Portugal’s defense. Kim, who turns 25 this month, has played every minute of every game for that country since her October 2007 debut. Lissette, 27, played her first game in December 2007 and usually starts alongside her sister on defense.
Their mother, Anna Borges, saw her daughters play for Portugal for the first time last month, watching the prestigious Algarve Cup online. Portugal played in a lower division in the tournament — Sweden beat the U.S. for the top-tier title — and won three of its four games. That helped raise Portugal’s world ranking from 45 to 41.
“It makes me feel so proud, and I think it’s amazing that I don’t just have one daughter playing for my birth country, but two,” Borges wrote in an e-mail.
Even though they don’t speak Portuguese, the sisters say they’ve been accepted by their teammates. And their international experience is opening doors.
Lissette, who won the New Jersey Girls Soccer Coaches’ Association Coach of the Year honors after leading Johnson Regional High School to a 15-3-2 record last fall in her first season as coach, recently got an opportunity to play professionally in Australia. She decided to pass, preferring to concentrate on furthering her teaching and coaching career.
Kim, who has played professionally in Sweden and Spain, signed last week to play with the expansion Buffalo Flash of the W-League. She had hoped to play in the start-up American pro league, Women’s Professional Soccer, but the local entry, Sky Blue FC, told her if she played in the Algarve Cup she wouldn’t be considered for the team’s roster since she would miss too much of the preseason. She briefly considered skipping the tournament, she said, but in the end, decided to play.
“I would never say no to my national team, because to me, I think that comes first,” Kim said. “There shouldn’t be any strikes against me because I played for my national team.”
For the Brandaos, that national team is Portugal from here on in. FIFA rules say once you play for a country, you can never play for another. But that doesn’t mean the Brandaos aren’t still interested in the U.S. team.
While watching the Algarve Cup final with her Portuguese teammates, Lissette came out of her seat when the U.S. tied the game late in regulation.
“I was like the only one who cheered,” she said with an embarrassed giggle. “I got up, and everyone else was quiet around me, and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I shouldn’t celebrate that loud.’”