Chasing the Dream

As the NWSL season opens, many of its players are pursuing soccer careers on a shoestring budget

Portland Thorns in 2014 (AP)

One-by-one this offseason, National Women’s Soccer League players opting to retire possessed a common trait: they are women in their mid-20s, and are either at their athletic peak or nearing it.

In September 2014, Jazmine Reeves (right, above) was the first to grab headlines. She played one season with the Boston Breakers, in which she scored seven goals and showed that she could have had a bright future in soccer. For instance, in a May 28, 2014 game she scored a hat trick against the then defending champion Portland Thorns. Reeves retired at 22 years old, however, to take a job she “simply could not pass up” with Amazon.

A few months later, another Breaker, Courtney Jones, left the game to pursue a new business opportunity. Jones, the daughter of former NFL tight end Brent Jones, is 24. She won two national championships at the University of North Carolina and played in the first two seasons of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Then there was 26-year-old Nikki Washington, a former Under-20 Women’s World Cup champion with the United States who retired after stints in two professional leagues.

Nikki Marshall, also 26 — and also a member of the U-20 team in 2008 — retired in February, less than a year after getting her first call-up to the senior United States national team.

Defender CoCo Goodson hung up her boots at age 24. Goalkeeper Taylor Vancil moved on at age 23. And most recently, 25-year-old Kate Deines made the decision to stop playing.

Specific reasons for retirement vary among all of these players, but their realities do not. They play in a fringe sector of a still-growing sport, in a fledgling league looking to break the curse of its predecessors and last longer than three seasons.

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In 2004, then Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Latrell Sprewell offered one of sports’ all-time out-of-touch moments. Sprewell was in the final year of his NBA contract, slated to pay him $14.6 million that season as a 34-year-old. But he didn’t get what he deemed an acceptable offer from the team for an extension and he took to the media to voice his discontent.

“I’ve got a family to feed,” he said in frustration.

Some athletes, however, are legitimately scraping by just to feed themselves.

The National Women’s Soccer League kicked off in 2013, over a year after the second attempt at a professional league – Women’s Professional Soccer – went under after three seasons of play.

Before the WPS, there was the WUSA, which was the first attempt at a full-fledged professional league that was born out of the hysteria of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the United States. But from 2001-2003, the WUSA burned through $100 million and closed its doors on the eve of the next Women’s World Cup.

WPS opened play in 2009 with what were thought to be more realistic expectations, initially implementing a salary cap of over $500,000 (the cap disappeared in later seasons). But losses there were still in the millions – even if a fraction of those of WUSA – and the league eventually lost too many owners and too much money to continue.

So this iteration, considered the most viable yet, is realistic in its financial approach. It just doesn’t offer what many would deem a realistic way to live.

The minimum salary for an NWSL player is $6,842 for the course of the six-month season; the maximum is $37,800, made primarily by international-level players. The team salary cap for 20 players is $265,000, which doesn’t include the top U.S., Canadian and Mexican players who play on club teams but whose salaries are paid by their respective federations.

“It’s actually pathetic when I think about what we make,” says Deines, who played for Seattle Reign FC for the first two seasons of the NWSL.

Deines played in 18 matches in 2014 for the Reign, starting half of them. The longtime Pacific Northwest inhabitant was traded to FC Kansas City in the offseason and she is exactly the type of player who is likely to have a great opportunity to take on a more prominent role this season and next as clubs deal with player absences due to the World Cup and Olympics. But Deines, who has a bachelor’s degree in communications and media studies as well as a master’s in continued education from the University of Washington, couldn’t continue to turn down business opportunities in favor of the low-paying league.

In the increasingly expensive Seattle housing market, Deines’ income level meant she lived in a five-bedroom house with three teammates and a pair of players from Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders.

“It definitely feels like an extension of college life, and it is way less glamorous than college,” Deines said.

The NWSL kicks off its third season on Friday in Houston, where the Dash are owned by the same group that owns MLS’ Houston Dynamo. The struggles that the NWSL faces in its early years draw parallels to those still present in MLS.

Major League Soccer signed a new collective bargaining agreement with its players union in March only days before the start of the league’s 20th season. A 64 percent hike of the minimum salary to $60,000 was a small victory for players, who even a decade ago had a floor of $24,000.

These are the realities of a growing business.

Jeff Plush took over as commissioner of the NWSL in December. He previously worked for the Colorado Rapids in MLS and served on Major League Soccer’s board, working in the thick of many of the growing pains of that league.

“Look, the player looking to make a career out of this who is on the lower end of the wage scale is going to have to do [additional things], whether that is coaching at a high school or club or those kind of things,” Plush told NBC SportsWorld. “We are very respectful of that and we fully understand that we need to continue to build out our potential business platforms that they can tap into to help augment their salary. We have to be mindful of where we are. I’m very cognizant of this – it’s not all the money in the world, but where we are today is we are in the third year of a long-term strategy to have a very sustainable, robust league in this country. It’s just going to take some time.”

Plush contends that the number of players retiring this offseason is relatively small in regards to the overall player pool.

While the NWSL salary cap and maximum salary figure have each grown over 20 percent in two years, the minimum remains a four-digit number and is stretched out over a longer season in 2015. Players live like average Americans, not professional athletes. Off the field, it’s just about getting by.

Gibby Wagner is living at home with her parents in Wall, N.J. As an amateur player on Sky Blue FC’s reserve team, she won’t be paid but she could take on a significant role in the middle of the season due to World Cup absences. Wagner left a local newspaper job in hopes of just playing in the league, even if she doesn’t immediately get paid.

Boston Breakers defender Julie King, 25, lives on her own now after two years of living with host families, a common arrangement that NWSL clubs set up to defray player housing costs. But living on her own in greater Boston on an NWSL salary means she needs financial support from her parents.

“I’m definitely chasing the dream,” King says. “I feel very fortunate to have parents who are willing to support me if I need them. I really did need them my first couple of years, as far as my salary went. I wouldn’t have been able to survive without them.”

* * *

Becky Edwards is one of the best midfielders in the National Women’s Soccer League. In 2013 she was playing for Portland Thorns FC when she was approached by then U.S. national team coach Tom Sermanni about possibly joining a future training camp.

Edwards, like countless other players in the league, has long dreamed of wearing the red, white and blue. She was part of that 2008 Under-20 U.S. team, which also included the likes of national team regulars Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux.

Two weeks after that conversation with Sermanni and before she received any formal invite to the U.S. senior team, Edwards tore her ACL. She rehabbed quickly, in time to be the 2014 cornerstone of the expansion Houston Dash, who traded her in the offseason. Now on her third team in three seasons – the Western New York Flash – and in her second professional league, Edwards still exudes positivity.

“This is the life we live,” she said. “For me, personally, I still wake up every day and love what I do. I don’t want to have any regrets at the end of the day when I am done playing. I have the rest of my life to work or coach or whatever I decide to do, but right now, for me, it is still worth it.”

Edwards still hopes to make the United States’ 2019 World Cup team; she would be 30 years old. Representing their nation is a dream that keeps many players in the league despite the extremely low salaries. But the dream can grow tiring for some. The United States national team is one of the best in the world and those who aren’t already a part of it can understandably feel it is an enigma that often proves inaccessible to those on the outside.

Marshall left the NWSL to take an increased role with the Colorado branch of AvNet Technology Solutions, for whom she worked remotely year-round while playing. Constant work outside of work wasn’t ideal for training to play at the international level, which Marshall was on the cusp of doing.

“In order to make it to that elite level, you have to live and breathe the game,” Marshall said. “You really don’t have time for another job. You want to train hard during the offseason. You have to pour your life into it and you have to be extremely dedicated.”

Both Marshall and Deines acknowledged that the hardest part of the low pay is the unpaid offseason, which stretches up to six months. Some players find short-term opportunities overseas, while others train or try to find coaching jobs. Unable to focus entirely on training, the gap only widens between those who have and those who don’t. Being a member of the United States national team is a rare job in women’s soccer that can pay six figures.

“That becomes a huge part of it as well and something that women’s soccer is really missing. Some of our best athletes are not getting a chance,” Marshall says. “Maybe they get a half-look, but these coaches are not necessarily committed to giving them a real chance. I think that will change here soon, but for now that is definitely how it is. The women who are on the (U.S.) national team now, they are making a lot of money. They are the top echelon of women’s soccer and they are the only women who are making a lot of money, so they can afford to train every day during the offseason without having a second job. It’s a bit of a different lifestyle. It’s more of an opportunity I think.”

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Fixing some of these issues requires time and money, which is easier said than done.

Players largely understand the financial constraints under which their clubs operate. They play because they love the game, an intangible passion that is uniquely unwavering across sports.

And they play to try to pave a path for a better future in the sport – “laying the foundations for future generations,” as King calls it. They are everyday women hoping that in some ways, they will be pioneers through their sacrifice.

“We’re trying to grow something here,” Edwards says. “We understand the situation from the league. We understand the limitations that they have financially. I want to continue to grow this game and make it possible so that players can make a better living in the future.”

Deines hopes that the NWSL can progress to the point of the WNBA, which stands on solid footing thanks to the backing of the NBA. Portland and Houston are the current NWSL teams backed by MLS clubs, although several MLS clubs are interested in professional women’s teams, according to Plush.

Much like it is for some of the WNBA’s best players, there is money in Europe for women’s soccer players. Diana Taurasi will sit out this WNBA season to play for her Russian team, U.M.M.C Yekaterinburg, for about $1.5 million, close to 15 times the maximum salary in the WNBA.

United States national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe reportedly made $14,000 per month recently playing for Lyon in France. That is more than many NWSL players make in a season.

Such success stories in Europe vary greatly, however. The average player can get slightly more in Europe, but that may only mean between $1,000 and $2,000 per month, according to Faudlin Pierre, an agent who represents several players domestically and overseas.

But if anyone is in women’s soccer for the money – well, they are going to be very disappointed.

“We certainly don’t play soccer because we make a lot of money or because it’s glamorous,” Marshall said. “We do it because we absolutely love it. I think I just got to the point where it wasn’t worth the sacrifice for me anymore.”

In time, the National Women’s Soccer League and the United States Soccer Federation hope to make the grind more worthwhile.