I’m sticking our flag in the ground: 2024 is our year.

Everywhere you look, women’s sports are going up. 

This year, Deloitte predicts women’s sports will generate $1.3 billion in revenue. That’s up 300% from just 2021. 

Records are falling left and right. From 92,000 fans watching a Nebraska volleyball match to 9.9 million watching last year’s March Madness Final. 

WNBA viewership is the highest it’s been in 20 years, and the NWSL just signed a $240 million TV deal. 

This didn’t just happen overnight. Instead, it’s been years of slow and steady growth now leading to exponential leaps. 

The unsung hero of the story? Digital media. 

Because you see, while everything else has been going up, the share of TV broadcasts dedicated to women’s sports basically hasn’t budged in a decade. What’s exploded in the meantime is everything else: social media, and YouTube, and newsletters and podcasts.

I started Just Women’s Sports because it was obvious to me that there was a massive and growing fanbase whose needs weren’t being served. I could already see what was coming: the broken records in viewership, attendance, investment, and more. None of it has surprised me.

Four years ago, people needed convincing that women’s sports could be big. Now, the numbers speak for themselves.

At JWS, we’ve spent these past four years stacking up wins.

  • We’ve partnered with blue chip brands like AT&T, Nike, Visa, Adobe, and more
  • We’ve grown our owned audience to 3 million fans, and our monthly reach to 80 million
  • We’ve sold out of merch, launched #1 podcasts, hosted live events, and held in-studio shows
  • We’ve worked with the biggest athletes, teams and brands in women’s sports

So what’s coming next in 2024?

At JWS, our goal is simple: This is the year we make women’s sports year-round entertainment. 24/7, 365.

What do I mean?

In men’s sports, there’s always a new conversation to join, a new trending athlete to meet, a new debate to jump into. Men’s sports never turn off. Before, during and after big events, there’s an endless supply of content to engage both casual and die-hard fans.

That’s what we need on the women’s side. That’s what we’re building with Just Women’s Sports.

In 2024, that means new shows, expanded programming, and doubling down on our news coverage. It means meeting fans where they are, every single day, so we can convert passing fans into casual fans, and bring casuals into the core.

To help make this happen, Just Women’s Sports has welcomed Ryan Sports Ventures and several strategic individuals to our team of investors. These are industry veterans who recognize the opportunity, understand our vision, and are ready to help us win.

They join a roster that includes Blue Pool Capital, Will Ventures, Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s 35 Ventures, and many more VC firms, angel investors, and athletes.

We were ahead of the curve in 2020. We both saw and helped fuel the growth in women’s sports.

This year, we’re not wasting any more time convincing people on women’s sports. Instead, we’re setting out to own this space and cement ourselves as THE digital media platform that ties it all together.

See you at the finish line. LFG.

March Madness is officially here, and for the first time ever, it includes the women’s tournament. 

After last year’s weight-room debacle, the NCAA finally caught up with the times and expanded its March Madness branding beyond the men’s contest, making this year’s women’s tournament a first-of-its-kind. 

Some may say the new name is merely a cosmetic fix-up, a way to paper over the NCAA’s past missteps. I’d argue it’s the start of a new era in women’s college basketball, one in which we move away from treating the sport like a charity at best and an afterthought at worst, and instead realize the massive potential that’s waiting to be seized.

@sedonerrr it’s 2021 and we are still fighting for bits and pieces of equality. #ncaa #inequality #fightforchange ♬ original sound - Sedona Prince

Last year, the NCAA was rightfully put on blast by players, coaches, journalists and fans for the egregious inequalities between its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The men had a full multi-station weight room in their bubble. The women had a single rack of hand weights. The women’s food and swag bags were likewise inferior. 

The most outrageous part of the entire situation was the NCAA’s inability to foresee the backlash. They somehow thought it wouldn’t be an issue. The governing body of college sports didn’t care about the women’s tournament, and they assumed most fans wouldn’t either.

But these fans proved them wrong, not only in voicing their universal outrage, but by consistently showing up for the games themselves. 

Last year’s championship game between Arizona and Stanford averaged 4.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched finals since 2014. As the final buzzer approached, nearly 6 million viewers watched the top-seeded Cardinal squeak by the Wildcats. The semifinal games were likewise up 20 percent over 2019 as part of the most-watched Final Four weekend since 2012. 

These numbers point to a larger issue, one that goes beyond puny weight rooms and lackluster swag bags. While we certainly have to hold the NCAA accountable when it fails to do the bare minimum, the bigger problem has always been its failure to grasp the business opportunity presented by women’s sports.

In the aftermath of last year’s controversies, media rights experts estimated that the women’s basketball tournament could be worth $100 million a year in media-rights fees alone starting in 2025 (when its current deal expires). The NCAA, instead, has bundled the women’s tournament with 28 other sports championships and sold them to ESPN in a package deal worth about $34 million a year.

The weight room garnered the headlines, but it’s this systematic undervaluing of women’s sports that really needs to change.

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Stanford’s Haley Jones celebrates during the 2021 championship game against Arizona. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Last year, every game of the women’s tournament was aired nationally for the first time ever. ESPN also put the Final Four games on ESPN instead of ESPN2. Massive viewership followed. 

That upward trend continued this year, with the season opener between South Carolina and NC State drawing nearly 700,000 viewers, making it the most-viewed opening game since 2013. A February contest between South Carolina and Tennessee later drew 876,000 viewers, and that same week, ESPN announced it had already sold out of its ad inventory for this year’s tournament. 

These companies aren’t buying ads out of the goodness of their hearts. They understand the present value and the future potential of women’s basketball, and they want in on the action. 

We’ve come a long way since Sedona Prince’s viral TikTok blew the lid off of things last year. But in order to keep the momentum going, all of us — from the media, to brands, to athletic institutions — need to start talking about women’s basketball not as a charity in need of baseline support, but as a historically undervalued asset that is ripe for investment. 

The NCAA might have only expanded its March Madness branding as a way to move past last year’s blunders. But whether the governing body of college sports realizes it or not, we’ve entered a new era in women’s sports. Fans and brands know it, and athletes are cashing in. From NIL deals for current college basketball players to million-dollar contracts for future NWSL stars, it’s clear the tide is starting to turn. 

March Madness is officially here. And with it, women’s sports is officially entering the era of big business. 

See you at tipoff.

Haley Rosen is the CEO and founder of Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @RosenHaley.

Of everything I’ve felt since The Athletic first broke the Paul Riley story, the overwhelming feeling has been exhaustion. 

The details of the situation, from Riley’s predatory behavior to the NWSL’s apparent disinterest in investigating the claims, may shock the average fan. But the general pattern is chillingly familiar to those of us who have spent our lives in women’s sports. 

Over the last week, I’ve talked with many of my former teammates and friends within the soccer community. Everyone was shocked but not surprised by what they read. The simple, terrible truth is that we all had seen similar stories play out, of an all-powerful coach whose behavior crossed a line. 

We’ve all grown up watching movies about inspirational coaches and underdog teams overcoming the odds to win some elusive trophy. But anyone who has played a sport at an elite level knows that usually isn’t how it works. The culture of insecurity that Riley created, the artificial environment in which he was a god-like figure, isn’t unique to him. And while the vast majority of coaches are not sexual predators, you’d be shocked by how many of them crave this level of control, how many of them oscillate between excessive anger and praise, leaving their players chasing their approval.

I played club soccer, college soccer, and professional soccer both in America and abroad, and I’ve seen these dynamics at every level. It’s not just abusive men, even if their cases are more numerous, particularly in the NWSL. I’ve been around female coaches who were just as manipulative, and whose comments also veered into uncomfortable personal territory. It’s left me convinced that we simply live in a culture that’s obsessed with women’s bodies and is relentless in subjecting them to judgment and control.

This is only amplified in sports, where coaches have a professional excuse to care about their players’ fitness. Abuse can hide itself more easily in this space, but we all know it’s pervasive across the fabric of society. It’s the same in the workplace, and I know, because I’ve seen it. It’s an older man stopping a meeting to tell you he’d date you if he was younger. It’s investors telling you to do more on-camera stuff because they like the way you look on Zoom. It’s being told right before you’re about to pitch your company alone to a room of men that you look cute that day. 

But again, it’s women too: I can’t tell you how many female VCs have lectured me on how I dress or do my hair. I’ve been told that I look too girly and that I look too masculine. That I need to dress more sporty but also more professionally. That I should and should not wear makeup to meetings. That I have to wear sneakers. That I have to wear heels. 

I don’t want to sound petty. I’m just exhausted. I’m tired of being the only woman in the room, and then hearing men praise themselves because they let a woman in the room. I’m tired of hearing my athlete friends whisper about the shady comments their coaches have made. I’m tired of reading stories like the one in The Athletic

All these things happen because people in power assume no one will speak up. They depend on the inequities which create and reinforce a culture of silence, in which victims of both sexual harassment and offhand comments are forced to choose between their dignity and their dreams. 

As the saying goes: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the world of women’s sports, absolute power is often concentrated in a handful of coaches and executives. It’s they who determine whether you make the team, whether you play, whether you get called into the national program, or whether you get cut without a moment’s notice. They are the gatekeepers of each player’s dream.

In some ways, leagues like the NWSL are a beacon of progress and change. They’re a place where talented, outspoken, pink-haired and LGBTQ players take the field, take up space, and make their voices and ambitions heard. They win, lose, compete and make mistakes, and revel in the glory of athletic expression. 

At the same time, they struggle: side jobs are necessary, housing insecurity is rampant, and abusive coaches are tolerated because they could cut you at any minute.

This must change. And it starts with players like Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim refusing to be silenced, no matter how many times they’re told to go away. Players shouldn’t have to be heroes in order to be protected. But the bravery of these women is changing the game, as is the work of journalists like Meg Linehan, Katie Strang and so many other reporters who are committed to giving light to these stories. 

I started Just Women’s Sports for all the aspirational reasons you can imagine, but also because I was genuinely upset. I was tired of seeing this space being held back by those on the outside who refused to give it a chance, and those on the inside who only used it for power. 

Beneath the weight of this past week, I still haven’t lost hope. As heartbreaking and depressing as everything has been, it’s impossible to ignore the swift and overwhelming response from fellow athletes, journalists and fans. There are too many people speaking up for this to quietly go away. There are too many players taking a stand for the NWSL to go back to business as usual. 

Statements and resignations and investigations are just the start. But replacing the people running the machine won’t fix the machine. Real, systemic change will require everyone in women’s sports to rethink their role. 

Protecting the players has to be the bare minimum. That means establishing protocols and procedures for reporting and investigating abuse. That means requiring teams to be honest about when they’re firing coaches for misconduct. That means delivering a CBA that protects players from being cut without warning or compensation. 

All of that can be done in the immediate future. In the long term, our focus has to be on building the space. Growth is more than an economic necessity — it’s a moral imperative for women’s sports because of the inequities that continue to persist and jeopardize players’ safety and careers. We need more fans, more dollars and more sponsors. We need players who are secure in their livelihoods so that they can speak truth to power and chase their dreams. 

That’s the future we’re trying to help build with Just Women’s Sports. As difficult as this past week has been, it has the chance to be a turning point in women’s sports. 

Now is the time to get to work, with a renewed sense of vision and purpose. 

Haley Rosen is the Founder and CEO of Just Women’s Sports. She is also a former pro soccer player and was an All-Pac-12 midfielder at Stanford. 

For 24 hours a few weeks ago, possibly for the first time in history, the eyes of the entire world were on the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. You know why. 

It wasn’t because of Aliyah Boston or Paige Bueckers, Baylor’s title defense or Stanford’s dominant run through the Pac-12 tournament. 

It was because of the “training facilities” the NCAA had set up for its female athletes, which paled in comparison to those it supplied the men. The outrage was swift, fierce, and absolutely justified. 

But now here we are, a week and a half later. The Women’s Final Four is shaping up to be must-see TV. Yet how many outlets are talking about the contrast of style in play between South Carolina and Stanford? Why aren’t Aari McDonald or Evina Westbrook household names all across the country? 

After Oregon forward Sedona Prince posted that now-infamous video of the women’s weight room and the backlash began, every single media outlet jumped on the bandwagon. They shared photos and videos taken by players, critical statements from coaches and analytics, all while soaking in the likes, shares and retweets for as long as the topic was trending. For 24 hours, everyone agreed that the women deserved to be treated as equals, rather than second-class citizens. 

But since then, have any of those same media outlets increased their coverage of the women’s tournament? Did anyone assign additional reporters to cover the games? Are highlights being shared more widely? How many podcasts and debate shows are talking about the women’s tournament at all, let alone with any regularity? 

The answer is not much. According to data from sports analytics firm, Zoomph, between March 15-30, the biggest sports media outlets sent out more than 5,000 organic posts across their social media channels, yet only 98 of them revolved around the Women’s NCAA Tournament (less than 2%!). And nearly half of those posts surrounded the weight room situation. By comparison, the men’s tournament has seen more than double the number of posts from those same outlets, with the focus overwhelmingly on the games. 

The NCAA deserves all the criticism it got this past month. But piling on the NCAA is easy. 

How many of us in the media industry have looked in the mirror since then and asked ourselves what we’ve done — and continue to do — to help enable and perpetuate this disparity? The NCAA clearly undervalues its female basketball players. But how many media outlets have implicitly told them this is OK, given that they, too, underinvest in covering the women’s game? 

It was precisely this disparity in media coverage that led me to create Just Women’s Sports. Just 4% of sports media coverage is devoted to women’s sports, and so long as men’s sports remain the bread and butter of mainstream platforms, these outlets will continue to sideline women, or only give them coverage when a story of inequity breaks into the mainstream. 

It’s long past time for women’s sports to have its own spotlight. By building a platform that exclusively invests in women’s sports and gives them the space and attention they deserve, we can build a superior experience for current fans while also creating the content necessary to attract a new audience. It’s our genuine belief that every sports fan is a potential women’s sports fan — but they need to see more stories than just those highlighting inequity. They need to understand that this is a dynamic space full of dynamic individuals with incredible stories. 

It’s fair to say that there has been slightly more coverage of the women’s tournament this year than in years past, but it still pales in comparison to the level of attention given to the men’s tournament. Interestingly, that data from Zoomph also showed that social media posts about the women’s tournament have garnered more engagements, impressions, and a higher engagement rate from fewer posts. If anything, seeing Paige Bueckers and UConn trending on Twitter multiple times in recent days is further proof that the audience for women’s sports exists. It just isn’t being fully served on a regular basis. 

A world in which women’s sports are only given token verticals on websites and irregular media coverage is the same world in which these women are given dumbbells and a yoga mat while their male counterparts receive a fully-equipped weight room. So long as women continue to receive inferior coverage, they will continue to receive inferior treatment.

Since launching last year, we’ve already proven that an audience for this content exists, and that it’s passionate and hungry for more. We’re not the only ones trying to change the game, but I can promise you the game is being changed. 

Haley Rosen founded Just Women’s Sports in 2020. A former professional soccer player, Rosen was named to the All-Pac-12 team while playing at Stanford. 

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on January 29th, three days after Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other victims perished in a helicopter crash on January 26th, 2020.

NOW, CHAMPIONSHIPS COME AND GO. THERE’S GOING TO BE ANOTHER TEAM THAT WINS ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP, ANOTHER PLAYER THAT WINS ANOTHER MVP AWARD. BUT IF YOU REALLY WANT TO CREATE SOMETHING THAT LAST GENERATIONS, YOU HAVE TO HELP INSPIRE THE NEXT GENERATION... THAT’S WHEN YOU CREATE SOMETHING FOREVER. AND THAT’S WHAT’S MOST BEAUTIFUL. — KOBE BRYANT (1978-2020)

The last few days have been unlike any I can recall in my time as a sports fan. Like many, I’ve now spent hours staring at the internet in a state of shock, pouring over every highlight and tribute I can find, and I still find it hard to believe that Kobe Bryant is gone. Seeing “1978-2020” next to his name just doesn’t make any sense. I doubt it ever will.

To be honest, words seem painfully cheap at the moment. But as someone from Los Angeles who grew up cheering for Kobe and the Lakers, I feel compelled to try and articulate what he meant to my hometown, how he inspired LA, myself, and so many other fans and athletes around the world.

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CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

I was 3 years old when Kobe was drafted. For the next 20 years, I had the privilege of growing up in the audience of an athlete mastering his craft, night in and night out. I can still remember crowding around the TV with the rest of my family during his 81-point game. I remember watching him sink two free throws with a ruptured achilles as though it were only a blister. There were so many nights when I threw my homework aside to catch the 4th quarter of a game, knowing it was Mamba time. And I can’t tell you how many times I watched the replay of Kobe refusing to flinch when Matt Barnes pump-faked in his face.

Even in a sport full of larger-than-life personalities, and in a city overcrowded with celebrities, Kobe stood apart. His commitment to basketball was both incomparable and utterly infectious. It didn’t matter that I was a young girl playing soccer. He was still a role model, someone who taught me and many others that if you want to be great, there’s no such thing as doing too much.

As the tributes have begun to pour in over the last few days, it’s been astonishing to note the extent of Kobe’s influence. First there were the NBA games that followed on Sunday. For someone whose unapologetic competitiveness famously alienated so many of his teammates, Kobe was idolized by his peers in a way few athletes have ever been. He wasn’t just an inspiration, but a mentor to many, in and beyond the basketball world.

I’ve frankly never seen an athlete with a platform like Kobe’s give as much as he did to women’s sports. He cheered for the USWNT, he cheered for the WNBA, he cheered for women’s tennis, he cheered for women’s college basketball. And he didn’t just use his celebrity to bring these sports attention. He made real, lasting relationships with numerous female athletes, from Sabrina Ionescu to Naomi Osaka, Sydney Leroux to Elena Delle Donne. He built facilities where he invited them to train and learn from him. He coached his daughter’s basketball team. He believed in these athletes, and he made sure that they knew it. The outpouring of collective grief from the women’s sports world these last few days is entirely unprecedented. There’s no other athlete that meant this much to other athletes.

Kobe’s fanatic obsession with greatness slowly transformed into a drive to spread success as far as he could. Nowhere was this more evident than in his relationship with his daughter, Gianna. I’m gutted just thinking about the fact that they were on their way to play and coach together. My heart aches for the Bryant family and for every other family involved in the crash.

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ALLEN BEREZOVSKY/GETTY IMAGES

Gianna, or Gigi, was supposed to grow up, go to UConn, and carry the Bryant legacy into the WNBA. Only 13 years old, she already had the Mamba mentality. And of all of Kobe’s retirement endeavors, none, not even the Oscar, came close to matching the incredible joy he showed in coaching his daughter. It was beyond powerful to watch an all-time great, in real time, pass along his confidence, strength, and self-belief to his proclaimed Mambacita. The fact that the helicopter was on its way to a basketball game, and was carrying multiple players and their parents, only underlines the deep tragedy of the accident.

Inevitably, you can’t tell Kobe’s story without mentioning his rape accusation. Like so many, I find it nearly impossible to reconcile the Kobe of 2003 with the Kobe of 2020, father to four girls and mentor to countless female athletes. Being a fan of Kobe has always meant trying (and usually failing) to reconcile these seemingly disparate characters. In this matter, his death provides little to no clarity.

Ultimately, I think we have to be willing to hold complicated views of complicated people. No accomplishment on or off the court will make the details of Kobe’s case any less sickening. In the same vain, it’s impossible to stand witness to the endless stream of grief and tribute that’s engulfed the sports world over these last few days and not feel awed by the transformative impact one person can have on so many others.

Kobe’s death is a painful reminder of just how emotionally invested we are in sports — more so than most of us even understand. But our grief gives us away. And while on the surface it might seem almost silly to see so many grown adults, myself included, mourning the loss of an athlete we never personally knew, the reality is that we don’t need to meet our heroes for them to have an impact on our lives. We just need to see a glimmer of our own struggles embodied and magnified in theirs. We just need to be reminded as often as possible of the heights that human audacity can achieve.

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ELSA/GETTY IMAGES

And in the case of Kobe, his impact on our lives will continue through the profound influence he had on his fellow athletes, male and female, across all sports. More than the trophies, or the records, or his place on any “all-time” list, Kobe’s legacy will be defined by those athletes who continue to channel his spirit in their own pursuits of greatness.

Kobe first gained notoriety for his unapologetic obsession with being historically significant. But as he grew older, he clearly began to realize that it was his relationships rather than his records that would allow him to continue to change the game well after his playing days were through. Kobe still had so much more to give, and Gigi still had her entire life to turn his gifts into her own.

In memory of all those who were lost in the accident: Kobe and Gianna Bryant; John and Keri Altobelli, and their daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser; and Ara Zobayan.

Our many condolences to their friends and families.  

Anson Dorrance is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of sports. Under his direction, the University of North Carolina has won 21 of the 31 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championships. As coach of the USWNT, Dorrance won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Below, he spoke with Just Women’s Sports about his experience with the USWNT and his subsequent falling out with US Soccer. 

You coached the USWNT to the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. What was special about that team?

What was fabulous about the first Women’s World Cup is that we played a 3-4-3 line-up on the field. Out of the front seven girls, six were extraordinary one-on-one artists and only one of the players in that seven would rather pass the ball instead of dribble through you. The front line was amazing. It was so amazing that the Chinese press called them the ‘triple-edged sword.’ On the left, Carin Jennings would be slicing you up. In the middle was Michelle Akers and on the right was April Heinrichs — all of them extraordinary one-on-one artists.

Then, in the midfield, on the left side was Kristine Lilly and on the right side was Mia Hamm — both could go right through you. Julie Foudy was this wonderful galloping, center midfielder who loved to penetrate off the dribble. Then there was Shannon Higgins, the only girl who liked to pass the ball. She assisted both of Michelle Akers goals in the World Cup final, one off a set piece, one on a through ball. Our foundation was 1 v 1 play but Higgins’ assists were the margin of victory in the final.

Why did you step back from the National Team in 1994? 

When I was coaching the National Team, it was a part-time position. They wanted to make it a full-time position for me. I don’t know if you know anything about my history with the National Team, but what’s interesting about those positions is you spend most of your life pulling daggers out of your back. It’s just not that much fun.

Back then, so much of US Soccer was run by voting. You would be voted into this position, voted into that position, and you would politic your way up the ladders in administration. The dilemma with being a national coach back then was that it didn’t matter what roster you picked — you always ended up cutting star players under different state administrators and regional administrators. Immediately, since they are all politicians, they would have each other on speed dial, whining and complaining to US Soccer about all the players I picked. Part of it was very transparent. I picked a lot of UNC players. Why? Because we kicked everyone’s ass in those days. Most of the best players in the country were Tar Heels, but I would never pick a Tar Heel over a player who was better.

For me, coaching the national team was a political nightmare. I never enjoyed it. I also hated being reprimanded by my superiors for not picking the correct teams. I have so many wounds on the top of my back. It’s just one stabbing after another. On the other hand, I loved everything about the University of North Carolina, so that’s what I decided to dedicate my life to.

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DORRANCE WITH BRANDI CHASTAIN IN 1991 (GETTY IMAGES)
Was there one specific moment when you decided to leave the National Team? 

I was at war with US Soccer from the day I was hired. One year, it was so apparent that all of my critics were lined up against me. We were about to play Germany who, at the time, was the reigning World Champion on the men’s side. They were coming over to play us and all of the US Soccer leaders were so afraid that we were going to get humiliated by the Germans on our home soil that I was attacked by so many different people about the roster I had picked. The criticism I received was embarrassingly hollow. Of the 18 players on the National Team, nine were Tar Heels. Of course, you can see how they were screaming favoritism and blah, blah, blah.

Before we played Germany, there was an Olympic development program where the National Team, the Under-19 National Team and two other teams made up of the best players in the country competed in a tournament. We played round-robin and my National Team beat every one, but the team we had the most trouble with was the U-19 team — we only beat them two to zero. One girl said to me, “Anson, your first team is incredible, but at this point we’re not really competing for a position on the first 11. You have 18 players. What about the bottom seven?” And I thought, that’s completely legitimate criticism.

Now we are in the gold medal game playing the U-19 team again, but we’re starting our entire bench. The team that the starters only beat two to zero, the reserves are now beating nine to zero. I had a philosophy back then to never beat a team by more than nine, so I subbed the starters in and instructed them to just play possession. Well, April Heinrichs was a great captain for me and she knew all of the pressure and criticism I was under — and she wanted to make a statement. She went out and, on a corner kick, ran in from the top of the box and volleyed the ball into the back of the net.

Anyway, that is what’s going on. Now we’re about to play the Germans. We had just finished winning the game against the youth team 10 to zero and the Secretary General for US Soccer came into my locker room and said, “What’s this I hear that you haven’t picked the best team?” I’m thinking to myself, are you kidding me? Did you just watch that game? That was our reserve unit against a team the starters only beat two to zero. I was so mad at the guy.

We proceeded to beat Germany by a wide margin. All of a sudden, the same idiot who challenged me after the 10 to zero victory tried to give me a hug after the Germany game. I said, “Get the hell out of here.” Basically, that was it.

Tony DiCicco took over as head coach for the National Team after you left. How did you feel about that transition?

I don’t know if you’re aware of this but I planned my own successor, which of course, isn’t allowed. The US Soccer President is supposed to pick the National Team coach. I didn’t trust any of them to do that. Basically, I conspired with Tony. I said, “Tony, in this upcoming camp, I’m going to appoint you the National Team coach and tell the players I’m resigning. I’m going to move cones for you but you’re in charge and you’re playing them.” Of course, he was nervous because we weren’t following protocol, but I trusted him.

Here’s the other thing that a lot of people don’t understand. In 1991, going into that World Cup, I told my boss, “Just tell US Soccer at the end of this event, I’m resigning.” He told me, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Yes, I can. I am never going to give these people the satisfaction of firing me. I’m resigning now and I’m timing it for the last game. If we lose in group play, I resign. If we win the World Championship, I resign.”

I made that very clear to him and, after we won the whole thing, he begged me to stay. I stuck around for another two or three years. Then, Tony and I conspired and when I appointed him head coach, of course, US Soccer was mad as hell but I would never work for them.

They offered me a full-time job but there was no freaking way I was going to put my family in jeopardy by working for them full time. I tried to make a deal with Sunil Gulati [former President of the US Soccer Federation] where I wouldn’t talk to the press or tell them I appointed my own successor. In exchange, I asked him if I could be in charge of player development. I even offered to do it for free. I was afraid that all those political operatives would ruin what we started. He said okay, but then they banned me from US Soccer for 17 years.

Why did they ban you from US Soccer?

Because I appointed my successor.

Did they share that publicly? 

No. In fact, you can ask Jill Ellis about it. About 12 or 13 years into my ban, Jill brought me in to help her train the U-20 National Team for a week. So, I went to help and, while I was there, she got a call from Dan Flynn [CEO and Secretary General of US Soccer] chastising her for hiring me to work at the camp. Jill had no idea I had been banned.

Basically, Jill wasn’t allowed to bring me back to the camp anymore once she discovered that I was on the hit list. The irony is that I never threw US Soccer under the bus. I was good. I didn’t criticize any of the coaches they appointed at any level. In fact, I supported them on their mission. I always supported player development. And, obviously, I worked hard to make sure the collegiate game could be a feeding ground for US Soccer.

Were there any other unfortunate run-ins with US Soccer administrators over the years?

While I’m on this US Soccer hit list, I still have things to do. One of my favorite moments came out of the blue. Jürgen Klinsmann read one of my books and loved it. He called me and asked if I wanted to join him in Germany — he was coaching the German men’s national team at the time. I don’t want to pretend that I had anything to do with the German success on that run, but I was there at all the training sessions. I would have breakfast, lunch and dinner with Jürgen. Whenever he flew first class to a game, I was right there next to him. When we were watching Bayern Munich play, I was there in the VIP lounge, dropping caviar into my mouth after my lobster.

To make a long story short, the Germans played the US the week I was there with Jürgen and they beat us by a wide margin, but I’m not sitting in the US section. I’m sitting in the German section. Why? Because I’ve been banned by US Soccer.

I could see Sunil sitting in the US section and he was irate during the game because the Germans were beating the US team. Sunil thought I had something to do with it. I could tell he was angry with me, but I had no issues — every part of that trip for me was first class.

How were you eventually unbanned from US Soccer? 

One day, I finally called up Sunil. He wasn’t the one who banned me. Sunil is a friend of mine. He understood and I understood — I’m not allowed to appoint my successor. I didn’t have any issue with that, but I wanted to run player development. So, I called Sunil and asked, “Am I still on your hit list? Am I still banned from US Soccer?” He said, “No, no. We took you off that list a while ago. You’ve suffered enough.” Then, the next year, I won the Werner Fricker award, which is the highest award in US Soccer.

Given your history with US Soccer, what do you think about everything that’s going on now, especially in terms of equal pay initiatives? 

Cindy Parlow is the US Soccer President right now and she’s a former player of mine. You are never going to hear any criticism from me. Even when I was banned, all I have ever been critical of are the policies for player development. I think that’s the only area I can speak to because that’s my area of expertise.

I’m not going to speak to equal pay — I’m not qualified. I will certainly speak to player development. Here’s what I know. With Cindy Parlow as US Soccer President, there is no way that they are going to treat the women poorly. I think the direction we’re going to go in with Cindy as President is going to be a wonderful direction. Are we going to solve everything at once? Of course not, but we are going to go in the right direction for the men and the women.

Cindy is going to be a wonderful leader. Keep in mind the people that she has on speed dial — Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy. Her reference book of experts in this game is as long as my arm. I’m actually convinced she’s going to work herself to death. The best thing about Cindy being in this position is that she doesn’t even want it. She is the classic servant leader. I have all the confidence that she’s going to do a good job and that we’re going to go in the right direction.

You mention being critical of the player development policies. How do you think these policies could be changed? 

Here’s what drives me a little batshit crazy. We are a dynastic force in women’s soccer, but who is setting the template for player development in the United States? People from Holland. We are the reigning World Champions. We are four-time World Champions. We are four-time Olympic gold medalists. I think the Europeans should be looking to us on the women’s side for player development ideas.

What we really need are genuine leaders at the top who understand how to win the trust of all the people that work for them. The way you win trust is by being transparent and by bringing people into the room to discuss decisions.

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DORRANCE WITH UNC IN 1994 (DAVID MADISON/GETTY IMAGES)
Are there any player development policies you feel particularly strongly about?

Substitution. Here’s what’s happening right now, which is sort of interesting. FIFA is going to have a five substitution rule because they are going to have these crammed seasons and they don’t want people to get hurt. I saw an article where everyone was attacking this new rule, but one person said, “You know, once they go to five, they are not going to go back because they are going to discover the value of substitution.”

Obviously, it’s counter-intuitive to think that substitutions are good for player development. Most people think that the way you develop a great player is you put them out there in the field and you don’t substitute them. According to the culture of our game, when you sub someone out, they have to kick buckets and make it look like they’re really pissed — they turn into flaming idiots as they walk towards the bench, avoiding the coach’s handshake and kicking the first water bottle they see. They feel disrespected.

Here’s what is actually true about substitution. You should use substitution as another marker of competition so that you substitute at the point where a fatigued superior player is not as good as a fresh inferior player. The competition for the superior player is to win more time against her touchstone, her counterpart. That’s the competition. The counterpart’s challenge is to eat into the time of the starter.

If you want to motivate players to their potential, you use substitution as a cattle prod. It drives people to stay on the field longer. And, what qualifies you to stay on the field longer is certainly your fitness base. So, those both play into each other.

How have you put that philosophy into practice during your time at North Carolina? 

We’ve always done things differently at North Carolina. Of course, we suffer from all kinds of criticism because of the way we do things. I understand that you have to do that, especially if you’re recruiting against us. You have to pretend that substitution is bad for player development. You have to tell these great players that they are going to be subbed if they come to North Carolina.

Here’s the other thing that people don’t understand about these ridiculous substitution rules. Are you familiar with the birth month anomaly? On almost every national team’s roster, the players are born in January, February, March or April. Why? Because they are the oldest in their age group.

As a coach, you only have a certain amount of breath at a practice, so who do you coach? You coach the alphas. You don’t coach the betas. It’s human nature. You coach the ones that are going to help you win the most. It’s not like you dislike the other kids. Great coaches are tied in emotionally and spiritually with everyone on their roster. But if we have a game tomorrow and we’re playing Stanford and I’m talking strategy, I’m not talking to the kid who doesn’t even travel with us. I’m talking to the kids who I’m going to play. That’s human nature.

These players then become the starters. And when the national coaches are looking at players to bring in, they bring in the kids who are playing the most and who are invested in the most.

I can’t remember who I was having this debate with. Maybe it was Sunil or maybe it was one of his minions who thinks they are an expert in player development. On whatever roster I pulled up, the US Women’s National Team had a balance of players born in almost every month. Do you know why? Because in our culture, we substitute. A kid born in December is going to get subbed in and she is going to be hanging on by her freaking fingernails against the player born in January who is twice as big and twice as fast. That little wily kid born in December is going to have to develop a skill set to survive.

Substitution has a positive player development quality. Even Mia Hamm at UNC and Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini and Cindy Parlow were all subbed out. Did that interfere with their player development? Did that interfere with Tobin Heath’s player development or Crystal Dunn’s? Hell no.

One of the most wonderful comments made during this past World Cup came from someone who did the math and said, “You know, on the four World Championship US teams, one out of three players on all four rosters was a Tar Heel.”

Thank you. You know how we did it? We did it by substituting.

Lynn Williams is a forward for both the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL and the USWNT. With the Courage, Williams has won back-to-back NWSL Championships while becoming one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league. Below, Williams spoke with JWS about the ongoing Challenge Cup, the secret to the Courage’s success, and the NWSL’s role in supporting Black Lives Matter. 

You are a couple of games into the Challenge Cup. How are you feeling? How are you doing in Utah? 

Good. The hardest game stint has passed. We had so many games in such a small amount of time — our mode was just to survive and hope we end up on top. Now, we’re getting into the games that matter the most because it’s the knockout round. We have more time in between games, so we’re able to train a little bit more and work on things that we need to work on, versus just getting out there and performing. The NWSL has made a really safe bubble for us, which is really cool. At first, I think everyone was nervous, but everything is going really smoothly. I think the games have been exciting. And I’m just really excited to be playing soccer again safely.

How has it been getting tested for COVID so often? 

It’s good. Personally, I don’t really mind it. The swab is a little bit uncomfortable, but it just takes a second. And, if it’s going to keep everybody safe, then that’s a price we are willing to pay.

What precautions has the NWSL taken in terms of COVID-19 at the Challenge Cup? 

Basically, we go from the hotel to the stadium and the training grounds, and then back to the hotel. Honestly, I’m not that bored yet, but it is crazy to think that I’ve only seen three things this whole time. I actually feel much safer here than I do at home. We get tested all the time, we have to wear masks, we have to follow strict protocols.

If you think about what we were doing before the tournament, though, it was way worse. It was such an unknown. Every day you would try to go train and motivate yourself, thinking that there would be a season just for it to get pushed back. And then you would hear the season’s going to start up, so you would push yourself again just for it to get moved back again. It was such a rollercoaster of emotions. Now, that we’re actually doing something, I get excited to go to the field every day. I’m playing towards something. It might be unorthodox, but at least it’s something.

The Courage have been dominant for years, and are again showing up this tournament. How do you explain this sustained run of success? 

We get that question a lot. Honestly, I think that it goes back to 2015 and 2016 when we were in Western New York. There was a core group of us in 2015 in New York who weren’t having fun and who almost quit playing soccer. Then, in 2016, we had that same core group, but we started adding pieces. We added Paul and he brought the love of the game back into it.

We never talked about the championship or winning games. We were always talking about a growth mindset. And that has trickled along and become what we are today. We are never satisfied. I think we are one of the hardest working teams. We’ve taken that hardworking core and now we’re adding layers to it with Debinha and Sully [Denise O’Sullivan] and Sam [Mewis] and Crystal [Dunn]. With our core group, we’ve been together for five years now, so we understand each other on the field — we know each other’s tendencies.

On some teams, it seems like the national team players really run the club. On the Courage, there seems to be a clear philosophy: everyone gets in line, national team or not. Do you feel like that’s true? 

I can’t speak to other teams because I’m not on them. But I do think that here it is very clear and apparent that it’s not just our national team players who are driving us. Somebody is fighting for their spot every single day. You look at our bench and we’re stacked. We have all of these players and you could think, ‘Oh, it’s just the national team players, they’ll get it done.’ But, every day, I’m fighting for my spot and I think that’s something that drives us. At the same time, though, this team is so loving that you want your teammate to do well. So, it’s a culture that is loving, but at the same time so intense.

Do you think it’s hard to have that level of unity and intensity at such a high level? 

If Jess McDonald and Kristen Hamilton and McKenzie Meehan are all pushing me and being their best, it’s only going to make me better. And vice versa — if I’m being my best, it’s only going to make them better. We can’t have somebody who takes a day off because that’s a disservice to the team. That’s our driving force — we have a standard and we don’t let anybody fall below it.

Let’s go back in time for a second. You played college soccer at Pepperdine. What was that like? 

I knew I wanted to play soccer in college, but I wasn’t getting recruited. Pepperdine happened to be the only school who offered me a scholarship, so I went down to visit and I loved it. I ended up doing really well my freshman year. Up until that moment, I thought I could be good at soccer, but nobody was recruiting me. I thought I was seeing something that other people weren’t, or that I was delusional. So, when Pepperdine gave me a chance and I was Rookie of the Year, I realized, ‘You know what? I’m right. I need to believe in myself more. I can do this.’

If anybody can take anything away from my story, it’s that you have to believe in yourself. There are so many people who are going to say, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.’ But, if you believe in yourself and you have the determination and the skillset to do it, then you can do it.

You mentioned that after you were drafted to the NWSL in 2015, you were unhappy in Western New York. Why was that? 

Honestly, it was a shock to get drafted coming from a smaller school. But, like I said, I believed in myself. When I got to the professional level, the first year was awful. We were a losing team and a lot of us had just been drafted from winning teams. We were in Buffalo, New York, which was cold as hell and away from family. So many of us wanted to quit. I think we all convinced ourselves to come back the next year. And, like I said, Paul just saw something in us — something in me.

A couple of years ago, he said, “When I first saw you, you were an athlete trying to play soccer. And now you’re a soccer player who is also an athlete.” I think that’s the biggest compliment that he’s ever given me. I think I’ve been able to get where I am because, one, I started believing in myself and, two, I had somebody else who also believed in me. I owe a lot of my success to him.

What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and how the NWSL has taken a stand to show support during the Challenge Cup? 

I’m really proud that we were the first league back and that we are able to use our voices and our platform for change. We’ve been wearing the warm-up t-shirts and, while I can’t speak for everybody on why they kneel or stand during the national anthem, I know our team put out a statement saying that we are unified against police brutality and the social injustices that minorities in this country face. But it’s more than just a symbol, too. Our team has an auction going on for the National Black Justice Coalition and we are planning to start a foundation for underprivileged children and communities. I’m really happy with what our team is doing. It started with unity and a symbol, and now it’s action.

During the Challenge Cup, some players have knelt and other players have stood for the national anthem. It’s caused a lot of debate among fans. What’s your take on whether someone can still be an ally while standing for the flag? 

What I will say is that I don’t think you can be for the movement sometimes and not for it other times. I think you’re either all in or you’re all out. I do think it’s great when people say, ‘I want to help. I want to take action.’ Because, otherwise, kneeling for the flag is just performative — it’s just a publicity stunt.

I hear all the time that people stand for the flag because they have a military family or support the military. But, if you think about it, the flag doesn’t represent the military and its purpose is not to honor the military. The flag is to unite a nation under God — a nation with freedom and liberty and justice for all. If you can say that you think that everybody in this country has freedom, justice and liberty, then fine, stand. But I personally don’t believe that. I do love this country and this country has given me so much. I have been privileged in so many ways, but I can recognize that there are so many people who have not been privileged, and who don’t have the same liberties and the same freedoms as the majority.

Kiki Stokes was on the field playing for Scrap Yard Fast Pitch on June 22nd when the team’s GM, Connie May, tweeted at President Donald Trump, bragging that the whole team had stood for the anthem. That night, the entire team quit in protest of having been unwillingly used to make a political statement, cutting short what was supposed to be a summer-long series with the USSSA Pride. Days later, the 18 players announced they were making a new team, called This is Us. Below, Stokes walks us through the events of the last two weeks and what comes next. 

The last two weeks have been crazy. Can you describe what happened from your perspective, starting with what went down after that first game? 

So the game ended and we were all kind of walking into the locker room at different times. I sat down in my seat and I had picked up my phone and I noticed that I got a text message from one of my teammates, Kelsey Stewart. It was a screenshot of the tweet. In that moment, I guess, I didn’t really know how to view the tweet or how to take it. I just had to sit there for a second and comprehend it all. And as more and more of my teammates were coming into the locker room, everybody’s starting to see the same thing. So at that point it became really heated in the locker room, because we knew exactly who had put out the tweet. We were trying to figure out where to go next. I think one of the biggest things was, “Kiki, how do you feel? What do you want to do in this moment?”

And I really couldn’t say a ton. I was just overwhelmed, and I felt betrayed. That’s the best way to put it. And immediately, in that moment, everybody was like, “We’re done. We’re going to walk out. This is it. We’re done.” About 10, 15 minutes after that, our coaches walked in and expressed their apologies. They had just gotten the news as well. And they had told us whatever we wanted to do, they were going to be a hundred percent behind us. And they stuck by that. They chose to walk out of their jobs as well.

When did Connie May address the team? 

About 30 minutes after that, because we asked if the GM could come into the locker room. Because obviously as a team, we wanted to talk about it. And immediately, the first thing that she did was try to justify why she said what she said. In that moment, a bunch of team members started speaking up about why what she did was wrong, and what we were going to do as a team. She kept trying to say her two cents. She kept chiming in. At one point, she started repeating, “All Lives Matter.”

That was my cue. I started to pack up my things as she kept talking, and of course my teammates are still chiming in trying to tell her why she was wrong. And then she says, “Well, this is a really uncomfortable situation for me.” And at the time, I mean, I was the only black person in the locker room.

I realized, she doesn’t understand, she’s not comprehending anything of what we’re saying. She’s just thinking about her own feelings, to be honest. So I just walked out of the locker room. She tried to stop me saying, “Kiki, wait, let me explain.” And at that point again, I’m just a mess. So I walk out. About a minute later, my teammates are right behind me. Everyone’s cleaned out their lockers and they’re leaving.

I’d heard that she was just talking in circles and that players started walking out. I didn’t realize you were the one to really lead that. 

That’s the best way to describe it. She was talking in circles. I mean, I was obviously crying and as were some of my teammates. It was just really, really disheartening to know that she did what she did to fit her own agenda. It’s not even like we had had a discussion prior to the game. Were we going to stand? Were we going to kneel?

That was never a discussion that any of us had had amongst each other or as a team or as an organization. So for her to just do that while we were playing and blindsiding all of us was just so disrespectful and insensitive to everything that’s going on right now in our world and within the Black community. And so I think walking out was a really easy decision for everybody. It wasn’t even a question. I mean, it was like, “What do we do? Okay, we’re done? All right, cool.” Jerseys came off and that was that.

Wow.

Yeah. It was a really quick decision for everybody. I don’t even think anybody thought twice about it. I mean, for myself, I was just like, “Yeah, I’m leaving. I can’t play for an organization that doesn’t stand behind me.” It was powerful, though, because some of these girls I’ve only known for a week or two, and the fact that they would go to bat for me and stand behind me just goes to show the character that we have on our team.

I remember seeing the Tweet live and just thinking, what? And then hearing about what happened in the locker room after was so disheartening. But that’s so powerful to know your teammates were willing to have your back, no discussion needed. 

Mm-hmm [affirmative]. It was a really cool moment looking back. I mean, the fact that I was only outside the locker room for a moment, and then I turned around and saw everybody else was right there with me. That was a really cool moment. But again, it’s gone to show, you do the right thing and you stand up for what you believe in. As women, we have to put our foot down, especially when our voices have been taken, after we’ve fought for so long to have our voices heard. The fact that we did that, it speaks volumes of all of us and who we are.

Absolutely. Speaking of your collective power, can you talk to me a little bit about This Is Us Softball? Where did the initial idea come from? 

We kind of came up with this right after the game. That first night, our media director helped us come up with a statement. We could each write our own, but the initial statement was “This isn’t us,” in terms of what the tweet said. That wasn’t us. We didn’t have anything to do with it. We were blindsided by that.

I think making a new team was the obvious next stop. Everybody was like, “Okay. As long as we’re not tied to Scrap Yard or the general manager, we’re good. We’re going to keep playing. It’ll be on our terms.” And so then that next day, we were all thinking about names, and we said, “Well, what about This Is Us? Everything that we are doing now, this is us. This isn’t Connie, this isn’t whoever else is involved in the picture. This is us doing everything from here on out. This is us.”

And the USSSA Pride has been very, very supportive in everything that we’re doing. I think it was easy for them to just stand behind us and be like, “Well, we still want to play too. We’ll find a way to do it.” And literally within days, we had shirts and all of it to be able to do it.

How would you describe the new team’s mission? 

The best way to put it is it’s a group of us now that are going to stand on empowerment, unity and awareness, as far as educating the softball community about the things that need to be better. And whether it be in our game or just in life itself, I think that we’re really just striving to show people now that when one person messes up, there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel.

The speed at which you guys brought everything together is incredible. I mean, you already have t-shirts being printed and sold. 

I think this just goes to show all the resources that all of us have as a unit and as a team. When you put all those things together and you have people who were reaching out before we could even ask for a hand, it just goes to show how powerful our movement is and how much it meant to a lot of people that we stood up for what we believed in. Everybody that has donated, those are the people that really are making everything that we want to happen, happen.

How have you been handling all this mentally? I can’t imagine trying to organize all this and stay focused on your sport. 

It has been, honestly. When people ask, “How has it been?” I’m like, “honestly, it’s been overwhelming.” The softball part of it, actually being able to go and play softball, has been the best part because it’s our release. But all the stuff behind the scenes has been so stressful. And it really does suck because none of us are specialized in any of this stuff when it comes to the logistics of how to make something work. And everything costs money. So it’s hard. It’s hard to navigate through it all, but we have so much help, and we’re all on board. So that makes it easier. And when we see that we are inspiring people and that our story is being told all over the place, I think that’s what kind of keeps us motivated and keeps us going.

Do you think this is a temporary phenomenon, or is This is US something you hope will continue well after this summer? 

I think this is the beginning of something that’s going to have longevity. I think all of us want to be a part of making sure that this is something that can change our game and change the way we view professional softball. In the beginning, did we think it was temporary? Absolutely. But as it started growing and becoming more and more inspiring and powerful to people, I think we’ve changed our thinking around completely. Now it’s like, this is something that we have to continue to do and we want to continue to do. It’s become a long-term vision.

Katie Stengel plays as a forward for the Houston Dash of the NWSL. She previously played for the Boston Breakers, Washington Spirit, and Utah Royals, as well as Bayern Munich in Germany and both the Western Sydney Wanderers and Newcastle Jets in Australia’s W-League. A true international journeywoman, we talked to Stengel about her multi-league career, how the NWSL has changed, and what she’s learned along her professional journey. 

This offseason, you were traded to the Houston Dash from the Utah Royals. How did this move come about? 

Well, I was expecting to go back to Utah this year. And then, all of a sudden, I got hurt and I texted my coach, asking if we could chat. She never called me back and I later found out she took another job. My assistant coach was supposed to reach out to me to catch me up on things. I never got that call either. Instead, I got a 30-second call from our General Manager who said, “Hey, I just want to let you know you’ve been traded. Thanks for everything. Okay, bye.”

You know this league – they don’t really care. I didn’t know who to call or what to do. Not to mention, I was still hurt. So, I called the coach here in Houston and we talked about when I could come play.

Obviously you’ve been in quarantine for a lot of your time in Houston, but how do you like the city so far? 

I love this city, it’s so fun. There’s so much to see and do. I’ve been to the rodeo at least 45 times. There’s bars and happy hours everywhere – it’s cheaper. People are Southern and have Southern manners. Everyone is friendly, but then also crazy. There’s parks and restaurants and coffee shops. It’s a good spot. I think I’m made for this city.

Small sample size, but how does it compare to your other NWSL experiences? 

Houston’s been my favorite in terms of it’s a fun city. I get along with the players and I really like the coaching staff even though I’ve only been here for a little bit. Everyone always chirps on Houston, but it’s actually been amazing.

You’ve played in Germany and for three clubs in Australia. You’ve also played for the Washington Spirit, Boston Breakers, Utah Royals and now Houston Dash in the NWSL. How have your experiences compared across different teams and leagues? 

Playing in D.C. was my first NWSL experience and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought everything was great, and I had fun. When I went to Boston, I thought, “Wow, this is a totally different experience.” We were in a real city and I thought the Plex as a facility was great. And then going to Utah, they put so much money into the program that it was great. I really appreciated that experience. And then here in Houston, I don’t know yet. Each club is a little different, but I think the league is progressing on the whole. It’s hard to compare clubs at all because the league is just getting better and better each year. When I talk to my friends at the other clubs that I used to be at, they say everything has changed.

Do you think Houston’s reputation is impacted by the fact that there’s not a lot of National Team players in the club? 

Oh, yeah. And because of that, the press never shows up which doesn’t bode well for the reputation of the team. People always wonder, “Oh, there must be a reason National Team players don’t want to be here.” But that’s not really how it is. As a club, Houston has come a long way the past couple years, and it’s much better now. Whenever I talk to the president of the club, it’s clear that there’s significant investment being put into the team.

Talk to us about balling out in college.

I didn’t ball out in college. I just kicked the ball harder than other people.

You played for Wake Forest University. What was your recruiting process like? 

I went to high school in a small town in Florida and my club team wasn’t that big. We went to a couple showcase tournaments just because we were close to Disney. I could barely afford to play for a big club, so my dad volunteered on the board at my local club and we got discounted rates. Wake took a risk on me when they saw me playing at Castle — one of the tournaments my club team got invited to. I was actually on a visit to Duke that weekend, which kind of makes me sick. When I visited Wake, we went to a men’s soccer game and I loved how the whole school was a big soccer school. It was small and had strong academics, and I wanted to be in the ACC. So that worked out great, and the rest is history.

You came from a small club, Wake Forest took a risk on you. What do you remember from your freshman year? Did you have any idea you’d have the kind of career you did? 

We did really well my freshman year, which shocked people. I mean I’d never even heard of Wake Forest until I started doing more research when they reached out to me. Then we ended up winning the ACC tournament. My roommate was MVP because she saved three PKs in the final. I won an award for freshman players and it just took off. I remember thinking, “Oh, shoot. Maybe I am going to do well.” I ended up doing much better than I thought I would and getting a lot of recognition, which I had never experienced before.

Was that a confidence boost for you?

It was a confidence boost. But it was also like, “Uh-oh. Now I have to perform.” I can’t just be that girl who had a good freshman year.

Did you feel a pressure to perform after that during your next three years at Wake Forest?

I think the real pressure to perform didn’t come until senior year because I was just having so much fun playing with everybody. I was so excited about this whole new experience. Also, I think I found myself more during my sophomore year. I was more outgoing instead of shy, and I made friends with girls on the team and in all of the other sports. The whole atmosphere was so exciting that I didn’t feel much pressure, per se. It was more just excitement.

Talk us through your junior and senior years at Wake Forest and your thought process leading up to the NWSL draft? 

During my junior year, I was with the U-20s and we had training camps all the time. I missed half of my season with Wake. Coming back from that was tough because you were constantly competing under the radar to earn playing time. We were good my junior year, but we fell apart in the NCAA Tournament.

Then, in my senior year, I had all these expectations. I did okay, but then I started getting hurt all the time. My calves were always super tight and it ended up being blood clots. I’m basically 80 years old. We had our senior night coming up and I couldn’t play because I had to be on these blood-thinners. So I missed part of my season then, too. I decided I wasn’t going to enter the — I wanted to play abroad instead to learn from different cultures and challenge myself.

You signed with Bayern Munich in Germany after college. What was that experience like? 

The team had girls from all over, which was a really fun experience. I roomed with a girl from Holland and a girl from Norway, who both spoke English — thank God. Otherwise, it was tough to break into the culture. I played well there. We actually won the league, which was huge. And I was the leading goal scorer, which was shocking.

Why did you decide to come back to the NWSL in 2015? 

My whole plan was to play abroad and develop as a player. I knew at some point I had to get back to the league if I ever had a chance of getting on the National Team. Once I told my coach that in Germany, I went from starting to not traveling at all with the team. That caused me to mentally question myself: “Is he not picking me because I’m not fast enough? Am I this or that? Can I compete at this level anymore?”

When I finally came back to the NWSL, I wanted to prove myself. But then I got carried away because I was putting too much pressure on every single day. I kept thinking that if I didn’t perform at training, I’m not going to play well that weekend, and if I’m not playing well that weekend, how am I going to play on the National Team? I got in my own head a lot and it was a big development year. Even though I wasn’t technically a rookie, it still felt like rookie season. And I see this happen all the time. Girls have the expectation that it’s going to be an easy, smooth transition and they’re going to do well. If they don’t, it’s like the world is over.

What do you think makes these transitions, either from college to the pros, or across different professional leagues, so tough? 

I don’t think it’s difficult so far as talent-wise. You just have to find your fit within a good team that needs you. Sometimes there are clubs that have 47 forwards — no matter how good you are, you’re not going to break into that. It’s just tough. When that happens, you constantly feel under pressure. Then you don’t perform as well because you’re just stressed all the time. You have to find your fit with the coaching style and style of play too.

It’s tough, especially as a rookie coming in. It’s nothing like college where you’re best friends with your teammates and everybody hangs out all the time. These are peoples’ jobs, money is on the line, you can get waived at any point. You’re constantly stressed because everyone secretly wants you to do worse than them. But at the same time, who doesn’t want to compete and win? It’s an odd situation.

Team culture in the professional leagues seems to be a lot different than college. Why is that? 

I think it’s because everyone is secretly going through the same exact thing, but is too scared to show vulnerability and talk about it. If you show vulnerability, it’s hard to come off as this great player. When you’re brand new to the league, you don’t want to show weakness. So then you are hypersensitive and aware of everything you do and say. You can’t relax and be yourself. It’s hard to fully engage with your teammates so you don’t fully create those friendships.

And if you don’t have somebody to talk to, or hang out with, or vent to, all you do is think about soccer. Then, you’re stressed all the time and you don’t actually relax and enjoy it. You don’t realize you even have a life outside of soccer. I think that’s why college is different. In college, you know you’re good and you don’t have to stress about that. You don’t feel like you’re under pressure all the time. There’s pressure to perform, but it’s different. You’re with your friends who want you to do well.

I have made friends in the league and there are people who want you to do well. But, it’s different and it’s hard to find a balance.

You’ve been in the league for almost 5 years. How do you manage that pressure and make it positive? What keeps bringing you back? 

Soccer is still fun for me. I can tell in the off season when I am still motivated to train and work hard, even by myself. I love the competitiveness. I love hopping on a team bus and going to games and hanging out in a hotel room. For me, as long as I can still have fun at training, even though it might be competitive and stressful, it’s worth it. It’s important to remember that when you go home you have to decompress and not talk about soccer 24/7. I think it’s important to have friends who aren’t in soccer too. For us, soccer is everything. But, one day, we’re going to step away from the game and realize: “Wow, there was so much more I could have been doing. And I could have enjoyed it so much more if I didn’t put so much pressure and stress on every single day.”

Is that what you are trying to do now? 

Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do now. I want to have fun when I’m playing. So whatever happens, happens. I learned that a little bit when I was playing in D.C. I relaxed and thought: “This coach is either going to pick me or he’s not. Me stressing over it is not going to help me at all. It’s just going to get in my head.” You have to focus on just controlling the controllables.

How has moving from city to city impacted your mindset? 

I think moving around is the hardest part. In Utah, I finally laid roots. I had friends outside of soccer — I had people who I had met through friends or who I knew from Wake. And then, just as it finally worked out, I was leaving for Houston. It’s hard. You can’t fully embrace your new city — you can’t buy furniture and actually invest because you never know. I’ve learned to make it as much of a home as possible – again, control what you can — and just take things as they come. When I got traded to Houston, I was stressed but it ended up being one of the best moves ever.

You talk about controlling the controllables, but there have been a lot of things outside of your control recently — a trade, the pandemic. How do you deal with that mentally? 

During the last two years in Utah, I finally felt like I’d found some footing in the league. I was getting consistent playing time, proving myself, and — even with all of the National Team players there — starting. I led the team in scoring my first year there and, last year, I played the most minutes besides Barney [goalkeeper, Nicole Barnhart]. To be traded was humbling. And to have been traded so many times is stressful. At the end of the day, though, it’s still soccer. I’ve learned to not stress about every single day and to figure out a way to still enjoy it, even with all the different moving pieces.

You just turned 28. What’s next for you? 

I want to keep playing until it’s not fun anymore, or I feel like I can’t compete at this level. I might go play somewhere else. Eventually, I want to go back to school. They have nursing programs where you can specialize if you already have a Bachelor’s Degree. I want to specialize in anesthesiology. I’m not done playing though — I haven’t done everything I want to do with soccer yet.

Alana Cook plays as a defender for Paris Saint-Germain and has also appeared with the USWNT. The 23-year-old is currently on loan from PSG, after signing on to play with OL Reign in the upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup. We spoke to Cook about what went into that decision and how she’s feeling heading into the Cup. 

You’ve now been in camp with the Reign for a couple weeks. How is that going? 

It’s been going really well. I think one of the awesome things about Reign is they have quite a few established veterans who are, I think, very vital to the team culture, the team environment. And I think everyone kind of follows their lead, in terms of looking after each other, helping each other be better. I’m enjoying the time here, and I think I’ve learned a lot. I’m continuing to develop under another staff and the leaders here.

When did you first realize there was an opportunity to play for OL Reign and how did that come about? 

We kind of just had to monitor the situation as the pandemic evolved, to see what the French league was doing and if there was going to be a NWSL season. Almost as soon as this tournament was put together, we were able to put together some of the terms of the loan deal and get it worked out with both Reign and PSG. Speaking with Bill [Predmore, OL Reign owner], it was clear that this was a win-win. We’re both hoping I can contribute and help the team, and that playing with the team can help me continue to develop as well.

How long have you been back in the U.S.? 

I think the French season was officially canceled maybe in May. But we had been suspended since probably the first or second weekend of March. And once things started to get a bit crazy in France, when they started looking at doing a total shutdown, I decided it was best to just come home. So I’ve been home in the U.S. since I think March 12 or 13. Right when things started to really pick up in France with the pandemic.

After you got out, were you just training at home and waiting to see what would happen?

I think when they first suspended league play, they were very much taking it day by day, week by week. We were told to be ready to come back at any time to continue playing. So I was just at home in New Jersey, doing my best to kind of train, and if there were any fields open, try to go to those. Obviously, New Jersey was hit pretty badly with its proximity to New York. So most of the public parks and everything shut down, so then it was kind of just, how much fitness can I do in my backyard and in my basement?

How much were you able to do? I can’t imagine your basement had enough space for full on soccer workouts. 

It was a bit difficult. I mean, I used all the online resources I could to find workouts and all that kind of stuff. You know, you make it work, you do what you can.

How does PSG feel about you playing in this tournament? 

I think they’re happy for me to be able to continue training and continue developing. And hopefully if I get some game time I think that will only benefit me when I go back to playing with PSG.

After a few practices with OL Reign, are you seeing differences in the French game versus the American game? 

It’s kind of the stereotype we all kind of assume between the French game and the American game. I think here it’s a little more athletically based. There’s a lot more, I would say, focus on counter-attack and the transition game. Whereas I think over in France, maybe Europe in general, it’s a little more, I don’t know… not necessarily possession based, but I think you’re less looking to strike on the counter-attack. Less looking to use your athleticism and speed to get behind unbalanced defenses.

Having grown up in the U.S., something I’ve noticed is that I think we focus a little more on just the tactics. And I think we spend more time specifically nailing down every detail of a defensive scheme, how things work. And I think over in France, maybe it’s just a little more ingrained in how they grew up playing. They don’t necessarily focus on it as much in training. It’s more assumed that you understand the relationships between the positions and stuff like that, and I think it’s just assumed that you then can apply that to different formations and different tactics.

So I would say here we’ve spent more time just slowing things down. We’re in our spots, looking at what we’re doing. Whereas in France, if you get told we’re playing a 3-4-3 or 4-4-2, you’re kind of expected to just know how that functions.

Would you say you’re more comfortable in one style? 

I mean, I’ve played at lot of 4-3-3. At PSG, we played some 3-4-3, 3-5-2. So I think either way, I’ve gotten used to those formations and I feel comfortable. And I think a lot of my coaches have done a good job teaching me the relationships and how to apply them in any formation. With that said, I am a big fan of a 4-3-3.

How are you feeling heading into the tournament? What are your thoughts on going into the bubble?  

I feel good. I think we’ve been doing really well in training, and I think the coach has been happy with the progress we’ve made. Obviously, it’s not a long preseason. We had to put the pieces together as quickly as possible. But I think we have a really good chance of doing well in the tournament, so I think morale is pretty high over here.

In terms of the bubble, I think everyone is doing the best they can to keep all the players safe and make sure the proper environment is maintained so that we can just play. With that said, I think everyone’s a little uneasy about being so secluded. I think we’re all willing to try to make it work. But it will definitely be an experience. There may be some character building along the way.