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Rhode Island Rogues: Teacher Funded WPSL Side’s Selflessness Has Them on Doorstep of League Championship
How a 33-year-old physical education teacher transformed a team into a family that’s defied all odds
In 2017, Shannen Pelletier Kennawi and her teammates on the Rhode Island Reds WPSL team had one month before the start of their summer season. The WPSL — the longest running women’s professional or semi-professional soccer league in the United States — plays a summer schedule that allows amateur, offseason professionals, collegiate and former college players the chance to continue to play the game they love.
Then it all came crashing down.
The Rhode Island Reds ceased operations on their women’s team while continuing their men’s side in the NPSL. It left many athletes with nowhere to continue playing at a highly competitive level.
For most people, that meant their time was up, and it was either back to rec league soccer or stepping away from the game altogether. Pelletier went the road less traveled.
“If I want it so bad, why can’t I do it?” recalled Pelletier.
After three years of playing as a Red, and with a group of team-less teammates, Pelletier emailed the head of the WPSL. In January 2018, the Rhode Island Rogues were born.
If you’re a soccer fan in New England, the Rogues, and their story are likely new to you. After all, the WPSL plays a two-and-a-half-month season each summer, with Major League Soccer dominating the attention of fans in the region.
There’s no media rights deal on your favorite streaming service. Nike isn’t making theatrical trailers for WPSL matches. It’s as close to local, grassroots, soccer as a fan can get.
Despite the lack of press, five years later the Rogues are still here and on the field, they’re thriving in what sounds cliché but is no better described as a miracle run. After five years of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication, Rhode Island’s lone women’s soccer team is on the doorstep of the WPSL National Championship game, and the road to get there is even more miraculous.
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For Me, It’s About the Girls. It’s About the Team
Pelletier graduated from Mitchell College in 2012, following a two-sport collegiate career playing softball and midfield for the Mitchell Mariners. The NECC All-Tournament and All-Academic Team captain left Mitchell following her studies of physical education, landing a position as a physical education teacher in the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
It was in this role that Pelletier decided to go from being a WPSL soccer player to not only a WPSL owner but a WPSL player-owner.
For the next four seasons — which would’ve been five if not for the 2020 season’s cancellation due to COVID-19 — Pelletier suited up for the Rogues every match. Averaging around 10 matches per season. Here’s how an average match-day went for the player-owner.
Pelletier didn’t show up and have a team dinner and take time to meditate and center herself. The team owner showed up three hours prior to the match to set up. Followed that up by playing a full 90 minutes and then ended her weekend summer nights tearing down what she set up for the next two hours.
Also, playing in the WPSL isn’t free, with annual entry fees in the thousands. So, not only did Pelletier work on sweat equity, but needed actual equity too. In other words, money. Not an easy task on a teacher’s salary.
“I was working four jobs to keep the team afloat,” said Pelletier. “We have one sponsor to help us and have one fundraiser a year to help me.”
Rhode Island Rogues, a registered 501(c)3 non-profit, had a strong group of volunteers helping with time and whatever they could give, especially around Pelletier. The midfielder credits her mom and husband especially for physical and moral support. Both crucial in keeping an important avenue for local soccer players to keep their careers going.
There were also donations of tents and flags from a local company to help give a more legitimate look to the club. Even the head coach for the first three years gave his time, Pelletier’s former college coach Damian Houlden.
In the United States, where pay-to-play dominates youth soccer, having a coach work for free is a far cry from the competition. Rhode Island Rogues didn’t have a youth team to take dues from and this season, Pelletier didn’t even charge the players to play, instead opting for team fundraising. Both rarities at the Rogues’ level.
With all of those responsibilities plus recruiting, keeping the non-profit status, and working up to four jobs, Pelletier kept the team going even when she had what to most would be an easy escape.
After the 2021 season, Pelletier needed to find a new coach with Houlden moving into a new role. Part of being an owner is finding a new coach so Pelletier searched postings for the next Rogues on-field leader. In that search, someone reached out as an interested buyer of the club. Pelletier’s response was unexpected, especially if you’ve never heard her talk about what this club means to her.
“I said ‘absolutely not,’” said Pelletier. “This is my baby.”
From the beginning, Rhode Island Rogues hasn’t been an avenue to make profits through dues or become a fully professional sports team. It’s always been about the players in the locker room.
“For me, it’s about the girls. It’s about the team,” said Pelletier. “I’m not trying to get anything out of this.”
For the team’s first four seasons on the field, Pelletier did get the privilege to continue playing the game she loved. In 2023, after years of sacrificing time and money, Pelletier sacrificed her time on the soccer field.
It’s Not Just About Me Anymore
At 33 years old, Pelletier still has plenty of soccer left to play. While the WPSL is full of teams stacked with college and high school standouts, and Rhode Island is included in having impressive talent from the NCAA ranks, the Rogues also have a contingent of more experienced players.
WPSL teams based on youth programs will turnover rosters every few years but Rhode Island’s kept a core group, with a few still with the side from the old Rhode Island Reds side. That meant when Pelletier told her squad she was hanging up her WPSL boots, there was genuine shock.
Teammates asked, pleaded, why Pelletier wasn’t going to compete for the 2023 season. Some even speculated if the player-owner was pregnant, which was a big no. Pelletier left the field to help the squad.
“If I’m on the field and I’m worrying about off the field,” said Pelletier. “If I can focus more about spreading the word about them and getting more funds in, I can help them and future athletes. I needed to become selfless. It was a hard reality check but I know it’s not just about me anymore.”
What made the move especially difficult is that the Rogues were improving on the field. In its first two seasons, Rhode Island sat in the bottom half of the Northeastern Conference table. Following the cancelled 2020 though, things looked up.
In 2021, the Rogues finished in third place out of eight teams, holding a positive goal differential and earning 12 points in eight matches. The next season, with a new head coach in place, the positive goal differential increased, only losing one point in the standings but still holding firm in third place.
This season, Rhode Island jumped to 21 points in only two more matches, good enough for second place in the conference. That’s due in part to the new coach, who shares the same selflessness as Pelletier.
Of Pelletier’s four jobs, one is youth academy coach for the New England Revolution. It was a friendship made in that role that brought Brandon Iannelli into the Rogues family, with a friendly warning.
“’I know he’s young,’” recalls Pelletier. “’But he lives the sport of soccer but he wants to help grow.’”
Unlike coach Houlden, Iannelli does get paid, albeit not much. Alongside Rhode Island’s coach are three assistants, all coaching for free. Even with a lack of compensation, the staff isn’t phoning it in.
For each match, the assistants put together presentations to show Pelletier and the team. Also, the players go through film sessions, something that isn’t the norm across the world of amateur semi-pro soccer. Pelletier will even get phone calls throughout the day from Iannelli, even when during the school year when she’s teaching. It’s a dedication to a club that’s more than the word dedication does justice. It’s a commitment.
“He’s such a hard worker and puts the girls before everything,” said Pelletier. “He’s nothing but class. He’s very respectful, getting all his licenses, his masters in coaching.”
If It Wasn’t For You, I Don’t Know Where I’d Be Right Now
It doesn’t take a master’s in coaching to see the impact that the Rogues owner, coach, and support group have on the players themselves. On the 30-player roster — with Pelletier still listed in case the team is in need of an emergency player — only eight are current college players. It’s another characteristic that justifies the Rogues name.
The rest of the club is comprised of Reds and Rogues alumni and a 15-year-old high school goalkeeper. Each player having their own reasons and goals for why they’re playing.
Some are former youth internationals from the US Soccer system, still looking to play to keep fit in case Europe or American soccer leagues come calling. Others are the more traditional WPSL players looking at the summer league as a chance to stay match fit.
Regardless of the motivation, the group’s gelled on and off the field. For off the field, mental health is a popular topic. After all, college players dealing with the stress of collegiate athletics, school, and moving into the next stage in life comes with its pressures just as much as everyday life as a working adult.
“Players have told me ‘this is my healing. This is where I can go and kind of focus on myself and do what I need to do to get through,’” said Pelletier. “‘If it wasn’t for you, I don’t know where I’d be right now.’”
Trying out athletes and putting a team together is key for on-field success, but Pelletier sees it differently. The group of players chose her.
“I’m so lucky and blessed to have the girls who decided to stick with us,” said Pelletier. “The biggest thing is not me choosing them but them choosing to believe in me.”
How Am I Going to Afford This?
Knowing the story of this tight-knit group, led by a selfless owner, creates a stronger appreciation for what’s happening with the WPSL side on the field. Which is a big deal.
The Rogues play in the Northeastern Conference, against teams mostly from New York, aside from themselves and their rivals: The Vermont Fusion.
Although the Fusion are technically the furthest team from Rhode Island in their conference, the New England connection has linked the two sides, even though on the field it hasn’t been much of a rivalry.
Since the Fusion joined the WPSL in 2021, they’ve had the Rogues number. Rhode Island never beat its northerly neighbors. This season, in the second match of the regular season, the Rogues were ecstatic to earn their first-ever draw against the Vermont side.
Even so, after the regular season, Rhode Island was the better side in the standings. Following a nine-match campaign, the Rogues sat three points clear of Vermont, firmly in second place behind Clarkstown Soccer Club, who won the conference and a spot in the WPSL Playoffs.
While missing out on the conference title, Rhode Island’s season wasn’t over. Because of their strong showing, the Rogues earned a spot in a wildcard playoff play-in match against, you guessed it, the Vermont Fusion.
Because of a stronger regular season showing, Vermont had to make the four-hour drive to Bristol, Rhode Island to try to continue their unbeaten run against their “rivals.” Rhode Island didn’t waste much time in changing that narrative and smashing the streak.
It was one of the college kids, West Virginia forward Jaydah Bedoya one-timing a shot into the back of the net for a 1-0 victory. Following basically an entire match of defense, and with Rhode Island’s first-ever spot in the playoffs secured, Pelletier didn’t know what to do.
“I was completely speechless. We have never beat them,” said Pelletier. “I was crying, a hot mess.”
Making the WPSL Playoffs is one thing. Moving forward in it is another.
There are 130 teams in the WPSL, split into four different regions. The playoffs bring the best teams from all around the country into neutral site regional playoffs, followed by semifinals and a championship game in Oklahoma, the birthplace of the league.
Sometimes making the playoffs itself can be a blessing and a curse, even for teams supported by youth system payments and player dues. Teams have folded following playoff runs because of the cost of flights, hotels, food, and all the hidden expenses that goes into traveling. Multiply that for 25 to 30 people and it can get out of hand.
For Rhode Island, who Pelletier’s used her savings account to keep alive, they weren’t going to miss the opportunity to compete in the regional playoffs.
Since the sites are split regionally, the Rogues didn’t have a far drive for the potential back-to-back match weekend, a grueling concept in the heat of the summer. Rhode Island had Reading United AC up first, a club from Pennsylvania. Rhode Island won confidently 3-1, moving into the East regional final. Their opponent was another familiar side: Clarkstown Soccer Club.
Similar to the Rogues, Clarkstown Soccer Club’s improved over the years, enough to jump Rhode Island for the conference title. In the regular season, after earning a point against the eventual champs, Pelletier’s side lost 3-1 in the second match-up.
That defeat, plus having to play for a second day in a row, created nervousness within the team. It showed on the field for the first half. Rhode Island looked like a side afraid to lose. Clarkstown had their chances but Rhode Island goalkeeper Jessica Kasacek single-handedly kept the Rogues in the match.
“In that game, there’s some shots I’m mind blown that she could even get her hand on and save,” said Pelletier. “Not even just saves with her hands but she has a foot on her. She’s so accurate, she can feed balls over the top. She’s an extra defender in a way with her footwork.”
At halftime, the match was tied without a goal between the two teams. Usually, this is when the team captain on the field Pelletier would fire up the side for the second half.
That’s the old Pelletier. While dressed for the match to jump in if needed, the player-owner watched the first half from the sideline. Instead, it was second-year midfielder Paige Forster. The England native’s taken on a role on the field to communicate and calm the players around her.
Pelletier describes her as direct but not a field general who will yell and scream at teammates for making mistakes. Instead, Forster motivates with facts and straightforward feedback. Forster took the halftime talk assignment.
‘”Listen the way we’re playing is complete crap,’” recalls Pelletier about the team talk. “’We’re better than that. We just need to go out there and give it our all.’ That got the girls pumped up to go out there and give it our best.”
After 12 minutes, the Rogues best was good enough to get on the scoreboard. Forward Katelyn Vieira stole the ball away at midfield and raced towards goal, beating the keeper to go ahead 1-0. Unlike Vermont, Rhode Island didn’t have to defend a lead for over 90 minutes, but in 2023 Clarkstown is a different side.
Following strong recruiting in the offseason, a Clarkstown side that normally finished near the bottom of the conference was a goalscoring force. Their 32 regular season goals were 14 more than second-place Rhode Island.
In the 91st minute, Clarkstown showed why they’re so dangerous, leveling the match at 1-1, in what felt destined to be an extra-time thriller. Pelletier was ready to enter after her team played 180 minutes of soccer in two days in the summer sun.
The owner’s extra time services weren’t needed, because Rhode Island continued the Cinderella story cinematically. Off a corner, defender Brady Kelly stood near the back post. On a well-placed cross, Brady got on the end of the ball but it deflected off the Clarkstown defense. With the ball knocked into the air, Brady stayed with it, heading in the second chance ball.
Pelletier’s response was different than the Vermont win.
“Once the whistle blew, I was freaking out,” said Pelletier. “I said ’how am I going to able to afford this?’”
Worry About the Girls
Pelletier and the Rogues made their way to Oklahoma, but it isn’t easy. The lone fundraiser, the single team sponsor and teacher's salary doesn’t give much allowance for plane fare, hotel accommodations or even a bus. The Rogues are doing what many would do in this situation, and they’re asking for donations on Facebook and Instagram. The team’s website also has a donation button for people to give directly to the non-profit club.
As of writing, the fundraiser’s reached $11,000 of a $20,000 goal. An impressive fundraiser despite a lack of media coverage for the WPSL side.
They’re donations that not only allow a deserving team to continue their dream run but make it so Rhode Island returns for more seasons to come.
Pelletier is doing everything with her power, and savings account, to ensure the team gets out there, including the unpaid assistant coaches. The selflessness of the team’s owner resonates from top to bottom in the Rogues organization.
“I wanted more than anything to get all of them tickets,” said Pelletier about the coaching staff. “They replied “‘don’t worry about us right now, worry about the girls.’”
Also, Pelletier herself still isn’t going to throw herself into the starting roster simply because the team is making club, and frankly league, history. Pelletier isn’t going to take a spot from a more deserving player.
Rhode Island is hoping that the character trait that got the team this far on the field will also get them there financially. It’s the team’s heart.
“They’ve gotten to where they’ve gotten because they believe in themselves,” said Pelletier. That’s one game away for a chance at a second trophy this season: The WPSL Championship.
The Rogues face the Charlotte Eagles, a consistently top side in the WPSL, for one of the two spots in the championship game. The match will stream free on Eleven Sports, with a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff on Saturday, July 22. Win and the Rogues will face the winner of SC Del Sol vs. Salvo SC Sunday at 8:00 p.m. ET.