DARIEN — As the Darien High School soccer team was defeating Greenwich last week, its assistant coach roamed the sideline, studying the play and occasionally shouting out some words of encouragement.
To those who know Linda Velaj, her relative silence was likely surprising, a stark contrast to her mercurial personality when she was the star of Westhill’s girls soccer team.
And to those who have not followed the Blue Wave this season, seeing a female working with male players might have been equally eye-opening.
But the pairing was hardly a whim by Darien’s head coach, Jon Bradley, and Velaj arrived not as an unfamiliar curiosity. By all accounts, she has been a huge asset to a team that has never won an FCIAC title. The Blue Wave begin the playoffs on Thursday as the No. 2 seed, with a home game against Staples.
“I’ve known her for a while and she really knows her stuff,” said Darien goaltender Liam Rischmann, whose sister Kasey played against Velaj in high school. “She adds more of an attacking mindset to our team we were missing. We are scoring more.”
Velaj has been a coach for Blue Wave Kickers, a youth soccer program owned by Bradley, working at a variety of levels with different age groups. Velaj trained with the Blue Wave before the start of last season and there was a discussion of making her a full-time assistant, but the schedules didn’t work out. Velaj approached Bradley before the beginning of this season and she has been able to spend a majority of her time with the team.
“It has been great,” Velaj said. “I love coaching high school guys a lot. Not only do they know the game well but they are very competitive. When I am coaching at the youth level it is more for fun.”
Bradley said Velaj’s presence has been a factor to Darien’s 10-1-5 record; it finished with the fewest losses of any team in the league. He said having a female coaching males, which is starting to become slightly more common at the collegiate and even professional level of sports, was never an issue that needed to be discussed.
“Some of the idea of her being here even came from the kids,” Bradley said. “I think they realize how good and knowledgable she is. The kids are benefiting from her experience. I’m benefiting from someone who knows soccer and I can bounce ideas off of.”
Velaj was one of the players most responsible for building the Westhill program into a perennial contender. The Vikings had never made the postseason before she arrived, and qualified for the state tournament each of her four years. She set team scoring records and got to play with her younger sister Furtuna, who is currently a midfielder for the Albanian national team. A third sister, Aulona, also starred for the Vikings and went on to play in college.
Velaj ended up at the University of Bridgeport, where she was conference Rookie of the Year, a second team All-American and, like with Westhill, led the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a freshman and each of the three years after.
“She’s got a soccer mindset and IQ,” Rischmann said. “We’re so comfortable with her. If she doesn’t like something she says something. She is someone we respect.”
Thursday’s game is a match between burgeoning rivals. Darien eliminated Staples in the state playoffs last year, and three weeks ago forged a 2-2 tie on an equalizing goal with five seconds left. The Wreckers are one of the most talented lower seeds ever, a squad quite capable of winning the league title.
“I’m excited about the game,” said Velaj, who was absent for the first meeting this year. “This has been so much fun. The guys are great to be around. I think they have listened to me because they respect Jon, and he brought me in. He wouldn’t just bring anyone in. It is the best group of guys I’ve been around.”