Over the summer, South Sound magazine intern Carli Ricker lived at home with her parents while her university was on break and was surprised and intrigued to learn an additional guest would be there — professional soccer player Meagan Kelly. Kelly was playing temporarily for Reign FC, based in Tacoma during the World Cup, and during that time, Ricker learned the less glamorous side of athletics.
For the better part of June, and a brief week in July, the eyes of the world seemed to fall on and follow the United States women’s national soccer team. During the course of the 2019 FIFA World Cup tournament, it felt like you couldn’t turn on the news or scroll through Twitter without hearing about Alex Morgan and equal pay or Maegan Rapinoe feuding with the President of the United States. But while the
national team dominated their way to victory and celebrated their hearts out amongst beer and champagne in the locker room, my mind couldn’t help but wander to Maegan Kelly, one of the many players left to continue the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) during the World Cup.
When national team players reported for training camp in May, the nine teams of the NWSL had to find replacement players to fill in for their absence. This is why Kelly got the call to come to play for the Reign FC, based in Tacoma. Prior to moving to the NWSL, Kelly was playing for the Atlanta Mozzanica club in Italy.
Because of Kelly’s temporary position, she was placed with a host family for housing, which is how she came into my life. After my oldest brother showed my parents an ad he stumbled upon about the Reign seeking host families, my parents decided to open up our University Place home. With most of their kids out of the house, they figured they had the space and thought it would be an exciting opportunity.
Kelly took over one of the bedrooms formerly belonging to one of my older brothers and made herself quite at home. In our backyard she would play with our dogs and chase my niece around with bubbles. After I’d come home from my internship and her from practice, we’d sit at the island in the kitchen and talk about the day’s events. She’d often help my mom cook dinner which we’d eat outside in the warm, Washington summer evenings. In our rec room we’d sit early in the morning and the World Cup and hear about players Kelly had met.
Prior to coming home for the summer from college, I was genuinely excited to meet Kelly, even though, truthfully, I had no idea what to expect from living with a professional athlete. However, as a college student majoring in sports journalism, this was a rare opportunity to observe first-hand the life of a professional soccer player.
Throughout the summer, Kelly and I grew close, and she became a friend who embodies aspects similar to a cool older cousin. She joined in weekly family dinners and Bachelorette viewing parties with my friends and me. We swapped stories of adventures we’d managed to get ourselves into at school, I showed her where to buy macaroons in Seattle and she offered me boy advice.
Throughout the summer I looked forward to every Reign match, especially when they played at home at Cheney Stadium, where I felt a deep sense of pride in personally knowing one of the players. Throughout my time living with Kelly, I could tell how much the sport means to her and how deep her love for it runs. But, I also quickly realized that for her and a majority of professional soccer players in the NWSL, life is short on glamour and high on sacrifice.
A typical day for Kelly started around 8 a.m., when she’d wake up and get ready for practice at Cheney Stadium. Once at the stadium, depending on the day, she’d ready herself by visiting the chiropractor, physical therapist, or masseuse. In the locker room, each player’s uniform for the day was folded and laid out on chairs in front of their stalls, while their cleats hung on a pegged-wall to dry. Like any other workplace, players chatted amongst themselves about their weekend, last night’s episode of Big Little Lies, or Khalid’s concert at the Tacoma Dome. Typically, practice consisted of a team meeting followed by a trip to the field for about an hour and a half of drills.
Sure, this might sound about right for the life of an athlete, except when you consider that because of the constant travel and moving, Kelly doesn’t have a car, so she Uber’s every day to practice. Or that the team meetings are held in a Foss High School classroom turned film room. The practice field is also on Foss property. And then there’s the locker room.
When the Reign moved from Seattle to Tacoma one of their priorities as an organization was to get players a proper locker room to welcome them to their new home. The team did have a short turnaround time between announcing the move to Tacoma and having players arrive but when the club finally revealed the new locker room to players, Reign FC Associate General Manager Brynn Sebring was taken aback by the reaction from some players.
On the day of the reveal, Sebring said, “I didn’t quite realize the effect it was going to have on some players.” She said one player started crying when she saw the locker room, because it was her first time having a true locker room in her five years as a player in the professional league.
In terms of payment contracts, most might think professional athletes are raking in major money.
Superstars like the Lebron James’, Tom Brady’, and Serena Williams’ of the world have million-dollar contracts and partnerships with mega brands like Nike and Gatorade. As the best in the world, it’s only natural they be paid accordingly, but even second or third-tier talents in certain sports make more than some women in the NWSL.
A CNBC article reports that in the NFL “the minimum annual salary for a rookie active roster player with a one-year contract is $480,000, according to the collective bargaining agreement.” In the NWSL, the maximum salary for a player is $ 46,200. The league minimum is $16,538.
“I think that the girls that are playing women’s professional soccer around the world deserve more money than they’re getting by far,” said Addison “Addie” Steiner, one of Kelly’s close friends on the team, who was also brought on to Reign’s roster to fill in during the World Cup.
Steiner said that it can definitely be a challenge to live off what she makes playing soccer. When playing for Sweden’s top leagues, she worked a side job making t-shirts for extra cash. On her first contract in Sweden, she was paying more money to play than she was earning.
And then, of course, there are the social sacrifices that come with reaching the professional level. I’ve heard stories before of athletes missing family events or birthday parties to be at games or spend extra time training. But as Kelly shares, for her and other women in the NWSL, those sacrifices don’t loosen up once they make it pro.
Between rigorous training schedules, traveling for games, and having to be ready to relocate at any time, players have to forego major life events, like attending a close friend’s weddings or being there for the birth of family members.
“I think after a while you kind of get, like, ‘Oh, I’m missing so much. Which I think is a hard thing to be missing all the time” Kelly said. “Especially when you’re not getting paid (enough) because, at one point you’re deciding ‘Ok, well, when do I stop missing all the important things that are happening in life?”
As players from the National Team returned back to their home clubs across the NWSL, Kelly wasn’t offered a contract. This brings us to arguably the biggest challenge of being a professional women’s soccer player: unpredictability.
When Kelly wasn’t offered a contract, she stayed with the Reign as a practice player until she and her agent planned her next move. Ultimately, she signed with the club Florentia Sangimignano in Florence, Italy. She announced this news to my family on a Monday night after dinner. By Wednesday morning she left for the SeaTac airport with her bags packed. Before reporting to her new club, she visited her boyfriend and family.
For a majority of players, by joining the league they trade in a sense of permanence for the chance to play. That’s why contracts mean so much to players. They represent more than negotiating a wage. They represent at least a temporary moment of security and stability.
Steiner was offered a contract after the World Cup ended, and when asked if signing her first NWSL contract represented anything to her, she interrupted mid-question with, “Oh my gosh, yes! Everything, it meant everything to me.” For her, signing her NWSL contract proved that her years of work and dedication to the sport were worth it.
It also meant she had the chance to really lay down roots in the city. Steiner said, “I think it has changed my mindset completely because now I’m able to establish friendships or relationships with people who I thought that I’d only be around for a month and a half. Now I’m going to be around a lot longer.”
So, with the list of demands high and hard as a professional women’s soccer player, what keeps them playing? Boiled down: a deep-running passion for the game and the fact that they know someone must sacrifice now to make the game better for the next generation. The Reign and the league’s other teams serve as a symbol for what girls can achieve in sports and its players are the ultimate role model.
Steiner said, “It makes me so happy, honestly, after the games when there’s just a giant line of fans and like little girls and little boys lining up to get your autograph. And even though I’ve only been there and played in like four or five games, like just them saying, ‘Oh, they’ve been waiting for you. We’ve been waiting for you specifically to get your autograph …That’s kind of why I do it.”
She adds that “even though I might not feel like I’m impacting a lot of people or young athletes, when I see them (kids) at the game and hear what they have to say when I’m signing their shoe or their little ball or scarf, it just gives me like that much more reassurance …The reason I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Sebring also weighed in on this sentiment. The players aren’t living a lavish lifestyle or gearing up for an easy retirement, but they are paving the way for future players.
“They are taking professional women’s soccer on their shoulders in the U.S. and saying, ‘I’m going to grind and I’m gonna put in the work today so that the little girls that are getting their autograph after the game maybe will be able to play and get paid a million dollars,” she said.
While the World Cup cemented the star status of players like Morgan and Tobin Heath and created new ones like Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle, their home clubs were being carried on by players who may never reach that level of fame. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all trying to take away from the hard work, success and praise the national team deserves. But it’s worth remembering that it takes more than 23 players to carry not just a league but a movement of change. If the National Women’s Team are the face of inspiring the next generation of American soccer players than women in the league, like Kelly and Steiner, are its backbone.