This piece is in honor of a particular type of player. I have names and faces in mind, but more generally, it is a group defined by a certain professionalism that I believe is nearly unparalleled in any other work environment. This is my tribute to a group of women who have dedicated years of passionate work and pride to their trade, often in a world that is unable to fully reward them. This is a piece celebrating women’s soccer and those who are the backbone of sustaining it. A lot of people have sacrificed and are sacrificing a great deal for there to be a women’s professional league in the U.S. This is a tribute to the players who have made life work within the real parameters of our profession. I am incredibly proud of this group. I am proud that we love the game, and that we are still playing. I am proud that we step on the field every day with the confidence to know that we are world-class level athletes, but have the humility to persevere even when times are tough. That is ultimate love. Instead of moving on to careers that would make more sense for us logistically or financially, we stick around. We write blogs, interact with youth players, speak up to lobby for change when things need to be better, and show up with our best effort day in and day out.
Personally, I have gotten a taste of different worlds. I have experienced the National Team, the pride that accompanies representing my country and the meaning that training with and against the best in the world infuses into the process. I have seen how this level of participation affects endorsement opportunities, attention on social media, appearance requests, and most drastically, the bank account.
It is true that women's professional sports have a lot of room to grow across the board. It is also true that there is a huge gulf in this country between a National Team player and a National Team-caliber player who may never have fully broken into consistent involvement at the international level. There is a huge gulf in financial status, opportunity, visibility, and media exposure. This discrepancy does not necessarily correlate to hours put in, sacrifices made, or passionate dedication to one’s trade. It’s just that space at the top and resources are limited.
This is not meant to take anything away from those women who have taken full advantage of National Team opportunities and have represented our country with superb skill, unbelievable athletic prowess, and unwavering commitment. My aim is simply to draw attention to a group of veteran players who do not have the same platform on which to display their immense talent and commitment to the sport. Some of us have had caps, have even been on and off of National Team contracts, while others have never gotten a look in a training camp. We are seasoned professionals, NWSL team captains, international globetrotters. I am writing on behalf of this group. These players deserve to be honored, too.
We should enthusiastically celebrate the heroines who don the red, white, and blue in the Women's World Cup this summer. But we should also celebrate those women who have challenged them for spots along the way, and continue to create competition on their NWSL teams to help them prepare. We should recognize those women who make the NWSL a quality league when the National Team players are away at camp. We should appreciate that in the U.S., perhaps more than almost any other country in the world, we have an incredibly deep pool of quality female players who have never competed internationally.
My hope is that eventually the women’s game will develop enough so that playing professionally will be a route to a stable and fulfilling lifestyle. Playing in a World Cup or Olympics will always be unparalleled in its honor and be every serious player’s dream, but hopefully one day not being on the National Team will not be a complete game-changer in terms of a player’s quality of life.
This is a tribute to a group perhaps defined more by what we are not than by what we are. We are not National Team stars, but we are heroines in our own right. We are not on NIKE ads, but we are players to whom young girls can also relate. We are no longer all young professionals, but we still play with the love and hunger of those just starting along their journey.
This is a tribute to those of us who have reservations about the expression "living the dream" because while we have accomplished our childhood goals, the reality of our struggles is often not so dreamy. We have had this dream tear our hearts out again and again, yet we continue to live it all the same. We have had to believe in ourselves when no one else would, tell ourselves over and over again that the sacrifice is worth it. We have had to be creative to find ways for this lifestyle to work while scraping by. We have had to move homes every six months and spend off-seasons fine-tuning our ability while finding work or coaching to supplement our income. We have lived at home with our parents well beyond the time in which that is an appropriate life choice, only because we may have no idea where we will need to move next. We have sacrificed relationships and lived away from children and significant others. We have trekked across the world and back to keep playing and keep our careers alive. And we are proud to do this because we love this sport and love the future of this sport in our country.
Of course, my goal is still to be a member of the U.S. Women's National Team. I train and play every day with that standard in mind. But I am very proud of the group that I currently fall into. I am honored to look around my team and the NWSL and see these women who, while they may have never played in a World Cup or Olympics, are absolutely world-class nonetheless. I am honored to be surrounded by consummate professionals in a world that is not yet quite ready to recognize the full scope of their professionalism.
This is a tribute to them, to us.