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Erica Dambach Cultivating High-Level, Values-Based Culture Within Penn State Women’s Soccer Program

Penn State women’s soccer claims one National Championship and another National Championship appearance, five College Cup trips, 28 NCAA Tournament displays, 20 regular-season championships, and nine conference tournament championships.

Erica Dambach, the leader of the perennial powerhouse, is the culture driver behind the program and quickly approaching her 17th season at the helm.

Dambach was heavily ingrained with U.S. Soccer throughout her coaching careers at Harvard and Penn State, including roles as the head coach of the U-17 U.S. Women’s National Team and assistant coaching gigs for the senior U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) in Olympic and World Cup years.

She’s developed Nittany Lions from the likes of Alyssa Naeher, Mallory Weber, Kaleigh Riehl, Rocky Rodriguez, and more recently, Sam Coffey, Kerry Abello, Ally Schlegel, and Penelope Hocking, all of whom roster within the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

Though she would never boast her accolades and quietly dominates the corner of University Drive and Park Avenue, Dambach is breeding professional female athletes through investment, consistency, humility, and passion.

“You come here and you know who Erica Dambach is,” Penn State women’s soccer captain and goalkeeper Katherine Asman said of Dambach. “That’s so much credit to her and who she is as a coach, and the credentials that she has, and what she’s earned. You don’t bring anybody into those Olympic teams or national teams and put them on staff if they aren’t worth it, and she’s so far beyond worth it.”

Though she’s been out of USWNT coaching circles since 2020, Dambach remains firmly fixed as one of women’s soccer’s best. Particularly, within women’s college soccer, Dambach is often compared to the sport’s greats, like North Carolina’s Anson Dorrance, Virginia’s Steve Swanson, and Santa Clara’s Jerry Smith.

Now, with Penn State’s biggest test of the season coming in its season opener against Dorrance and the No. 2-ranked Tar Heels, Dambach and her team’s mentality is hardly shaken.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s UNC on a Thursday or it’s whoever else that we play at whatever time,” Asman said. “We get amped up because it’s a moment that we get to go and we get to play on Jeffrey and that means so much to us individually. We understand what it is to put on this jersey, what it is to step on Jeffrey Field, and we don’t take it for granted no matter who our opponent is and what day it is.”

Asman, a graduate goaltender, has bought into Dambach’s “play for those who came before us” mindset and has deep beliefs that playing for Penn State women’s soccer is about more than wins and losses. It’s about honor and humility. However, there are far more wins than losses.

“It’s not just in our tactics or in the technical pieces of how she coaches. It’s our standards,” Asman said. “It’s how she teaches us to follow. It’s how she teaches use to leave. We’re all about servant leadership here. She’s seen that at the highest level and she brings that back and embed that into our culture.”

Dambach’s standards are seeping through the NWSL by way of 14 Nittany Lions in the American professional league. Every Penn State alumna in the NWSL was coached, at one point, by Dambach, excluding Krieger. Most recently, the Nittany Lions sent two stars to the league in the 2023 NWSL Draft as the No. 15 and No. 16 Penn State alumnae selected to grace the NWSL.

Hocking and Schlegel were both drafted by the Chicago Red Stars with the No. 7 and No. 23 selections overall and served as program-defining recruits for Dambach.

The two fresh graduates still remain close friends with many on the current blue and white squad and further instill Dambach’s philosophy to play for those who came before you and those after you by inspiring the next round of Nittany Lions preparing for the 2024 NWSL Draft.

“Everybody’s heart exploded when we saw Ally get drafted to the Red Stars with Penelope and the moment that they shared on that stage when it happened,” Asman said. “The love that’s behind that friendship and the fact that they get to be out there doing that together, it’s like a dream come true.”

Another legendary Penn State women’s soccer alumna, Alyssa Naeher, just concluded her third World Cup with the USWNT. When she isn’t serving as the starting goalkeeper for the current No. 1 team in the world, Naeher is back in Chicago on the pitch with Hocking, Schlegel, and the Red Stars.

“I thought Alyssa had just a fantastic World Cup,” Dambach said. “I think that her mentality is elite, best in the world to be honest, and when Alyssa was here, it was more about just not screwing her up. She had a very solid foundation working with Tony DiCiccio. I think that all of us are in Alyssa’s corner and her biggest fans… I trust Alyssa over anything in the world.”

The team gathers for as many NWSL games as it can, many of which feature Penn State women’s soccer alumnae. Currently, there are Nittany Lions representing the North Carolina Courage, NY/NJ Gotham FC, Washington Spirit, Orlando Pride, Portland Thorns, Houston Dash, San Diego Wave, Kansas City Current, and Chicago Red Stars.

Back in Happy Valley, though, the players in the professional leagues paint the picture of Dambach’s significance at the college level.

For the 21st consecutive season, Penn State was selected as the preseason conference favorite ahead of the team’s first match on August 17. Still, rankings don’t matter too much to Dambach or the Nittany Lions. In the coach’s eyes, her current crew still has to “earn it” before celebrating any preseason polls, but she gives credit to the hard-working, committed 2022 roster.

“We respect how they rank us, but at the end of the day, those polls don’t matter to us,” Asman said. “It’s about what we go out and what we do. We respect every Big Ten team on that poll as much as we know that they respect us.”

While the statistics and polls rarely lie when it comes to Penn State women’s soccer’s success, Dambach’s influence is also demonstrated by the high-level athletes that choose to spend their final years of eligibility at Jeffrey Field. It’s easy to buy into a program as a 16-year-old commit and never leave, but harder to leave a career at a different university behind to play for a new coach. However, Dambach pulls in remarkable recruits nationwide to close out their years of college soccer.

Rebecca Cooke, the nation’s leading female Division I goal scorer announced her commitment to Penn State for her senior year, along with United States Youth National Team (USYNT) anchor Michela Agresti and top Big Ten midfielder Rowan Lapi.

“I think it’s part of the reason [players] come here,” Dambach said. “They want to be the best. They want to compete against the best, and they want to be challenged and stretched in every way possible.”

Cooke, Agresti, and Lapi will compete against the best shortly when the Nittany Lions challenge North Carolina in just one day. In a true “battle of the blues,” Dambach and Dorrance’s soccer savvy will be put to the test at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 17, at Jeffrey Field. Though one team will emerge victorious (or draw), the two historically dominant coaches can agree on one thing: coaching women’s college soccer doesn’t get old.

“I would say that it has gotten more and more enjoyable as time has passed,” Dambach said. “I always looked at Anson [Dorrance] and thought ‘Hey, does any of this ever get old?’ Now that I’m 17 years into it, I recognize that it only gets more enjoyable and you really start to understand what it means to teach and invest in these 18 to 22-year-olds.”

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About the Author

Keeley Lamm

Keeley is a junior journalism major from Richmond, Virginia, and is Onward State's managing editor. She also talks about random, fun stuff on our podcast, Podward State. Keeley is a lover of grilled cheese, naps, and Kevin Jonas. If you would like to share your thoughts on the superior Jonas Brother, feel free to contact her on Twitter @keeleylammm or send your best Spotify playlist to her email [email protected].

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