The Real Soccer Moms: Elite Women Players Return After Giving Birth
When US Soccer announced last year where national team members would play in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League, Seattle Reign FC scored offensive powerhouse Amy Rodriguez.
But Rodriguez, 26, would never play a single game for Seattle.
After the teams were set, Rodriguez found out that she was pregnant and unavailable for the season. “We were quite surprised. We weren’t planning on starting a family this year,” Rodriguez told KUOW.
The pregnancy may have been unexpected, but the timing follows a fairly common pattern for women on the US Women’s National Team.
“My husband and I said that this was a great blessing, and if it was to happen, this was the best time for it to happen, because it wasn’t in a big tournament year like the World Cup or the Olympics,” Rodriguez said.
Women’s soccer in the US orbits around the World Cup and the Olympics, which run back to back. The last cycle was the 2011 World Cup followed by the 2012 Olympics. As a result, female soccer players who want children often get pregnant during the two less competitive years. Besides playing for the top-ranked team in the world in the highest competitions, the World Cup and the Olympics are breadwinning events for the players.
Right now is the down season for national team duties – the ideal time for players to get pregnant before the cycle repeats in 2015.
Also pregnant at the same time as Rodriguez was defender Stephanie Cox, her teammate on Seattle Reign FC and the US Women’s National Team. Cox, 27, was a trimester ahead of her. She had her daughter Kaylee in April and quickly returned to the field for Reign, playing her first game post-birth on July 25.
“This year is really kind of an off-year – it’s not critical, there’s no qualifying tournament or anything,” Cox said. “Next year is really an important year to qualify for the World Cup, and then obviously comes the World Cup and Olympics. I think the timing was pretty good.”
Women’s soccer at its highest levels has long embraced babies. Starting in 1994 with the team’s first mid-career mom, Joy Fawcett, children have been a part of the team.
The current matriarch is, most agree, US National Team captain Christie Rampone, 38. The stalwart has two daughters: Rylie, 8, and Reece, 3.
“My plan was never to have children and play on our national team, but what I know now is how much has been put in place by previous moms like Christie Rampone; she’s paved the way for other moms like me,” Rodriguez said.
Rampone’s children were both born in the slack years of the national team schedule and are fixtures on the team.
Cox said that being around the team is a great atmosphere for her daughter, because the players’ kids play together at camps and liven up meal times for their moms.
US Soccer over the years has also supported the soccer moms.
“There was probably a concern early on like, 'Hey, what’s this going to do? How is this going to work? Is it going to be okay to have kids on the road?' I think very quickly that having the kids around breaks up that monotony that happens at times on the road,” US Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe said to KUOW.
US Soccer has taken big steps to support the mothers on the team by paying for nannies at training camps and tournaments and allowing the children to travel with their moms. The other players act as surrogate moms and all participate in diaper changing.
“The players are all babysitters in a way and they get their opportunities to take care of the kids – and that allows the mom to maybe pull aside and take a nap,” Buethe said. “All of those little things add up and help her perform on the field.”
Rodriguez and Cox have also benefited from working with the national fitness coach as they ramped up their training programs, which started weeks after giving birth.
But getting pregnant – even during the national team offseason – has its risks.
As the pool of players gets larger and deeper, competition for spots on the National Team increases; there’s no guarantee the players will be invited back after their babies are born.
"I think you have to be willing to let it go if you’re going to get pregnant," Cox said. "I knew that if this doesn’t work out, I need to be OK with having to be done."
“I always knew that I want this to be right for my family, not just for me. So I always knew that there was a possibility of me being done playing. I think that kind of unknown – some players maybe aren’t ready to go there and I think that that’s OK and they can wait until after they’re done.”
Rodriguez said that waiting until after retirement would have been easier, but that she’s received support from teammates and the organization.
National Team Paydays
Timing pregnancies around the elite tournaments has huge financial benefits for the national team players.
The Associated Press reported that on the last contract, which expired in 2012, players could earn $10,000 for being named to the qualifying tournament roster of either the World Cup or Olympics and another $10,000 for being on the roster for the actual event.
Victories were even more lucrative: $50,000 for finishing first, $20,000 for second and $10,000 for third in the 2007-2008 tournament cycle and an unspecified increase for the 2011-2012 cycle.
For players on the US National Team, that adds up: The US women have taken gold in every Olympic tournament since the event was added in 1996 with the exception of a silver medal in 2000. Likewise, the team has reached the podium in every World Cup since 1991, most recently taking second place in 2011.
Earning gold in the 2012 Olympics reaped even more significant profits. The 18-player team split a $1.5 million bonus from US Soccer in addition to each receiving $25,000 from the US Olympic Committee. The team was also granted a 10-game victory tour upon returning home, which meant more pay and more time in front of fans.
US Soccer declined to reveal to KUOW the bonuses under the collective bargaining agreement that was ratified last March.
Historically, it has been more important for the women to secure a spot on the national team during the tournament years than to play in the domestic professional leagues, because there has yet to be a stable, long-term women’s soccer league.
The US is on its third attempt to sustain a women’s professional league. The first two iterations, the Women’s United Soccer Association (2000–2003) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009–2012), crumbled because of financial issues. US Soccer, which manages the national programs, created the National Women’s Soccer League in 2013 with a plan to ensure its success. The biggest change is that the salaries for national team players are subsidized by US Soccer, lessening the financial burden on the club teams.
As a result, players from the US National Team are still receiving a portion of their salary from the national organization, even if they can’t play for their professional team due to pregnancy or injury – putting the emphasis on being available for national team camps and tournaments more than their club team.
Cox said she hopes that the National Women’s Soccer League will last; she said if it does, it will be even easier for players to have children. “I hope the stability of the league would encourage people to really invest in a city, a player to invest in the city and be able to call that home and feel like they can become a mom and come back to play,” Cox said.
And the league needs seasoned players like Cox and Rampone.
“When you have a lot of experience, I think you can take some time off and come back and still be an intricate part of the team, because right now there are a lot of players that just came from college,” Cox said.
Rodriguez, who gave birth to her son Ryan in August, was disappointed to miss the first season in the National Women’s Soccer League, but said she plans to return to the professional league next spring. It won’t be for Seattle though: She was recently traded to FC Kansas City.
She has also rejoined Cox and the rest of the US National Team at training camp – giving her a chance to be noticed by new head coach Tom Sermanni before he chooses the roster for the World Cup qualifying tournament next year.
“It’s certainly not easy to bounce back after having a baby – I can say that first hand. I know how hard I’ve worked these last few weeks and I’m going to continue to work hard, because it’s basically like returning from an injury,” Rodriguez said. “I haven’t played in over a year, and the impact that pregnancy has your body is quite big. I’m looking forward to coming back on the team and hopefully bouncing back to the level I was before, if not better.”
Meantime, more players are announcing their pregnancies.
Just three days after the National Women’s Soccer League wrapped its first season on Aug. 31, Chicago Red Stars and US National Team midfielder Shannon Boxx announced via Twitter that she would be missing playing time in the upcoming season to have a baby.
In her announcement, she used the hashtag #Lookingahead2WC2015.