As an athlete, you’re taught to leave it all on the field. You must live in the moment, launch yourself into every tackle, find your eternity in each drive towards goal. Why? Because you never know when you’ll be sidelined with an injury, or worse, forced to hang up your boots for good. No one wants to walk away from the game feeling like they could have done more. After spending a week with the FC Kansas City team, I don’t think anyone understands this more than professional female soccer players in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
During my time in KC, I was privileged to stay with my good friend, Yael Averbuch and her teammates Heather O’Reilly (HAO), Tiffany Weimer, and Molly Menchel. I’m not sure what I expected life to be like as a professional soccer player, but what I experienced as a honorary guest in their apartment left me feeling both inspired by their hard work and commitment and shocked by how much they truly have to sacrifice just to get by.
With some players making as little as $6,000 per year, these players know how important it is to live in the moment because it only takes one unexpected bill or extraneous expense to make it almost impossible to put food on the table. And there’s no script or roadmap to success when it comes to making it in this league — these players are gladiators — fighting to grow the game and to leave a legacy that the next generation of women can follow.
All that to say, these players really know how to have fun. My first night in KC reminded me of what it was like to be on a team again. After dinner, part of the team came over to the apartment for a night of improv led by the one and only, Tiffany Weimer. Tiffany gave each person a character and set the scene. Defenders Alex Arlitt and Brianne Reed played two roommates overwhelmed by a sudden bug infestation while forward Shea Groom and USWNT midfielder Heather O’Reilly stared as the exterminator who is afraid of bugs and her boss. I laughed so hard I almost peed my pants (SNL, you might want to give them a call).
FC Kansas City vs. Houston Dash
The next night, the two-time defending National Women’s Soccer League champions took on the Houston Dash at Swope Soccer Village in front of 3,000+ fans. Since the games aren’t broadcast on television, I’ve been following the team on YouTube from San Francisco all season. This was my first time watching an NWSL game in person, and I really enjoyed taking photos and videos with my new Lumix z1000 camera. Despite Yael converting a late penalty kick in the 87th minute, FCKC fell 2–1 to Houston.
While I’ve experienced my own fair share of disappointing games, I’ll say there’s nothing quite like riding home with HAO and Yael after a tough loss. The frustration was palpable. The silence was deafening. Let’s just say, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car.
Preparation and Recovery
If you ever want to feel self-conscious about what you eat or how you take care of your body, just spend a week with a few professional athletes. Nutrition, hydration, and sleep are taken very seriously. However, outside of the physical preparation and recovery, I think I was most surprised by how much mental focus and energy it takes to be successful at this level.
Even a simple trip to the grocery store took careful consideration. “How long will I be on my feet?” is a question often asked before making a decision to do anything. While it may seem silly to debate whether or not to run out to the store to grab some eggs, these types of decisions really do matter when soccer is your job. As Ray Lewis once said: “Greatness is a lot of small things done well,” and as you can imagine, when you have to think through every decision at that level of detail, it can become mentally draining very quickly.
Better, Faster, Stronger
If you’ve grown up playing club or college soccer like me, you’ve probably done most of the drills FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski puts the team through during training. The only major difference is that this team moves on and off the ball at least 10x faster than non-professional players, and no one has to remind them to stay focused. Every pass is crisp and every decision is purposeful. If you want to play at this level, you better pick up your speed.
In addition to practice, Yael and the team go to SoccerFIT almost every day. Here, they would lift weights and work on individual strength and conditioning.
I also learned that FCKC has several practice players who train with the team, but who are not on contract. Meaning, they lift, run fitness, and train just as hard as the contract players, but they don’t play in any games and get paid ZERO dollars. Watching these practice players grind day after day for a dream that may take years to achieve was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. Seriously, take a moment to think about this — can you think of something you want so badly that you would give up everything just for the chance to achieve it? These practice players are sacrificing everything because soccer makes them feel so deeply and vitally alive.
A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned
On that note, let’s talk a little bit about finances. The minimum salary in the NWSL is $6,842, while the maximum salary is up to $37,800. Did you know that the poverty line in the United States is $12,316 for an individual? Let that sink in.
While I could write an entire article on professional women’s soccer salaries, I would rather share a few stories about how these players are finding creative ways to make ends meet while playing the game they love. For example, in addition to being the starting defender for FCKC, Yael Averbuch is an ambassador for my company, ProfilePasser, and also the founder of Techne Futbol. We’re business partners on Techne, and I can’t wait to launch this valuable new technical training app with her this summer.
But Yael’s not the only player juggling a side gig. Forward Shea Groom helps with event planning and social media for the ECNL. Molly Menchel babysits after practice twice a week. Tiffany Weimer founded Our Game Magazine. Brittany Taylor co-owns a club with her fiancé in New York. And many of the players run camps / clinics or coach club teams on the side.
FC Kansas City vs. Chicago Red Stars
The only thing better than watching an NWSL game live is getting to watch it from field level while taking photos / videos. Since I’m a total press pass noob, I was proud that security only yelled at me once for being in the wrong place (note: you can’t take photos from directly behind the goal).
Before the game, FCKC honored retiring midfielder Jen Buczkowski who is leaving the team to start PT school at the University of Kansas in June. “Bucz” is by far one of the most decorated professional players of all time, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know who she was before spending this week in Kansas City. Just so you know, she started all 76 regular season games in her NWSL career and played 6,745 out of 6,840 possible minutes. Take a look at her championship appearance history: 2004 (NCAA), 2006 (NCAA), 2009 (WPS), 2010 (WPS), 2011 (WPS), 2012 (WPSL), 2014 (NWSL), 2015 (NWSL). Wow, just wow.
Besides the chilling temperature and blustery wind, 2015 World Cup Champion and Chicago Red Stars forward Christen Press made quite an impression. It was such an honor to watch her play in person. Press’ movement off the ball and quick cuts behind the defense were mesmerizing, and it’s easy to see why she’s one of the best in the world. I can’t wait to watch her in the Olympics this summer.
Despite a flurry of shots in the final 30 minutes of the game, including a crossbar stop and diving save by UWSNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the game ended in a 0–0 tie. While it would have been more fun to go home with 3pts, the car ride back to the apartment wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as the week before.
While I don’t think Kansas City will ever be able to top living in San Francisco, I will say the players I met during this week made this one of the most memorable experiences of my life. And while I would imagine most of the people reading this article probably don’t follow women’s soccer, I hope you walk away with a greater appreciation for the most inspiring professional athletes you’ve never heard of.