Our Girls Academy Home: Why We Are Skipping the Club-Hopping Party
THE JOCKEYING HAS BEGUN. It’s the dance that inevitably commences right after New Year’s Eve for soccer parents everywhere when they shake off their proverbial hangovers — only to be only to be confronted with the aching question: “Where should my child play next season?”
Though not unique to the game that most of the world calls football, the phenomenon known as club-hopping is especially prevalent in areas of the country where clubs offering an “elite” soccer experience significantly outnumber the quantity of actual “elite” players available to fill the slots. My daughter could try out for at least 15 so-called travel clubs within an hour’s drive of our house here in Maryland. And even though the next season doesn’t officially begin until August, commitment letters and contracts often go out in March or April.
“We love this team,” a parent told me recently. “But we need to keep our options open.”
Not us, I tell them.
“We are staying right here.”
THIS IS NOT A DECISION I made lightly. In fact, I don’t feel like I really made it at all. The Girls Academy, and most importantly my daughter, have built a safe, professional, competitive and fun environment together. When she tells me, “I don’t want to play anywhere else,” I can’t fathom a reason other than gas prices that would ever make me want to try to change her mind. Since no other Girls Academy club exists within any kind of reasonable distance from our home, her soccer team is her home away from home. Period.
For the uninitiated to the crazy world of club soccer, you should understand that girls who envision themselves becoming players at the highest levels of the collegiate or professional game typically have limited options for competitive leagues. In the past 12 years, the Elite Clubs National League has emerged as the dominant force in the game in terms of numbers. ECNL, which also offers boys’ leagues, provides local, regional and national playing opportunities. For a few years, ECNL’s main competitor was known as the Development Academy run by U.S. Soccer. The Development Academy offered a connection to the professional teams in many markets and, since it was run by the same people who picked the beloved Women’s National Team (think Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd), the Development Academy also owned a significant psychological marketing advantage.
In other words, if you thought your child was good enough to be chosen as the best of the best, then the Development Academy appeared to be holding the aces.
THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT when I brought my daughter to her first Girls Academy (GA) identification session for the local Metro United club that runs out of northern Virginia. U.S. Soccer had just dissolved the Development Academy for girls and boys at that time, but a committed group of club managers and coaches across the nation moved exceedingly quickly — in less than a month — to re-form as the Girls Academy (On the boys’ side, incidentally, many of the players from the prior Development Academy moved to a new league called MLS-Next). National Teamers, or women and men with professional and college experience, jumped in to help.
“I watched an incredibly dedicated, passionate group of people work around the clock to hold something together and it really tugged at my heart strings,” said Lesle Gallimore, the longtime University of Washington women’s soccer coach who agreed to step up and serve as the national commissioner of the GA.
As I detailed in Raising Tomorrow’s Champions (Inspire Media, 2021), the book of soccer parenting lessons that I co-authored with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, we already knew one of the Metro United coaches from my daughter’s days at her first travel club. My daughter and our family walked away from Jonah Schuman’s team back then because he didn’t care much if the girls won or lost as long as they were having fun and learning. To his credit, he always took the high road, including his parting words to her: “Maybe we’ll see you again, Angie. Let’s keep in touch.” In the end, we realized he was right.
In addition to Jonah, Metro United retained the same coaches from the Development Academy with strong connections to U.S. soccer scouts and colleges. Like the rest of Girls Academy, they also made lemonade out of lemons by instituting a girls-first mentality in their management philosophy, as well as prioritizing family and school time, referee standards, and individual player development. Winning games, especially prior to age 16, still doesn’t matter much, but giving the girls a voice, as young as age 12, is a key part of the culture. All teams in the Girls Academy have a representative on the players’ Advisory Panel that looks at everything from substitution rules, to coach behavior, to unique community service opportunities — our club recently participated in a Menstrual Product Drive, for example — to whether or not teams should ban white shorts outright.
“I think you really need to think first and foremost about the environment you put girls in, how they’re being coached, how they’re being treated, what they’re learning from the game,” said Lesle. “To set those standards within the league and uphold them is challenging because there’s always this pressure on winning from the parents, sort of looking over their shoulder and living in fear of what some other club might have that your club doesn’t.”
I GOOGLED THE PHRASE “GA vs. ECNL” to see what opinions existed on-line about which league represented the best opportunity for girls. A Joe Campos 2020 article, theorizing that the debate among parents about one league or the other is a fundamental problem in youth sports, led me to pick up the phone for a feisty chat with an attorney with strong opinions. Americans, said the former Marine, have it all wrong.
“In Europe and elsewhere, soccer players are developed by soccer clubs,” said Joe, the founder of the Eagleclaw Football Club of Washington state. “Often times, European children stay with the same clubs for most of their youth experience and that’s where the education and nurturing happens. Here, the focus is on what league your daughter or son plays for, so people move their children from club to club. No league has someone who picks up a phone and calls your daughter and says, ‘Hey, how are you feeling today? How’s that ankle? Have you been working on that left foot? Hey, I noticed in that exercise you were doing the other day that you were kind of doing this and maybe you should be doing that.’ No league will do that for you.
“A league is simply a testing hall. You take your education from the club and you put it to the test. If someone comes to me and says, ‘I’m taking my daughter to this league or that league because steel sharpens steel or iron sharpens iron,’ I say, ‘Good luck.’ It comes down to this: if you are happy with your coaches, if you feel your club has a pervasive educational context, then you’re one of the lucky ones. You are at a good club. It is hard to do. And because it's hard to do, it’s even harder to find. So if that’s what you have, then stick with it.”
WRITING THE BOOK afforded me the opportunity to speak with more than 100 women who played for the National Team, many of whom shared common experiences and opinions. All of them told Joanna and me of an unrelenting desire to win from a young age, with the recognition that winning a game or tournament at the youth level is of little future consequence. Many of them talked about putting yourself in the most challenging environment that you can handle, but reiterated that none of those challenges should come from dealing with a coach who behaves inappropriately.
Amy Griffin and I have covered all of this and so much more in numerous phone calls in the past two years. A former National Team goalie and former college coach with Lesle Gallimore at the University of Washington, Amy now coaches the U.S. Deaf National Team and serves as national president of the GA. Launching a new league hasn’t been easy, she said, but keeping the focus squarely on what’s best for the girls gives her the confidence that the 80-club league will slowly, but surely, grow into the future. The league total will rise to more than 90 clubs in 2022-23.
“We’re not comparing ourselves to ECNL. Our focus is purely on the environment and standards to uphold that environment to create a safe, challenging, enjoyable place for talented players to continue to improve,” said Amy. “I would say that, to us, success is defined as the girls taking their sport back into their own hands. A lot of the initiatives, from the apparel that's chosen, to advice on logos, a scholarship fund and nationwide community service have been initiated by the players. It’s really cool, yet it’s hard to believe no one has asked them before.”
Among the more difficult subjects Amy and I have discussed previously involve issues of coach abuse, whether it be verbal, emotional or even physical. She said that giving the players a voice in league governance has already produced tangible results that include a partnership with STOPit Solutions, which features an anonymous reporting system.
“Now you see these girls asking tough questions and actually helping drive their league,” she said. “Players have literally called Lesle, the commissioner, and said, ‘Hey, is this right? This is how one of our coaches is behaving and I don’t think it is OK.’ We say, ‘You’re right. It’s not OK. Thanks for letting us know.'”
AT THE END OF THE DAY I have the same goals, and therefore the same anxieties, as every other parent who is spending $8-$10,000 year in club fees, gasoline and hotels in pursuit of my daughter’s soccer dreams. If I’m being honest, I do hope there’s a payday at the end in the form of a college scholarship. “The average parent begins with a question: ‘What does my child need to do to be seen?,’” said Joe Campos. “It’s the question that can drive grown men and women into an absolute panic.”
Even though I now know that’s not the most important reason for my daughter to be playing all this soccer for all of this time and money, I do want to be sure her experience checks the right boxes:
Will my daughter be evaluated by college scouts? The answer is yes. The GA’s regional and national showcase events attract dozens if not hundreds of qualified eyeballs. Eight of the 32 players at the recent Under-15 National Team identification camp came from the GA, which — given the size discrepancy between the GA and ECNL — is a significant achievement.
Is my daughter getting adequate practice time? Yes, again. The team trains four days a week spring and fall, and typically three times in winter, with an adequate balance of fitness, skills and strategy. Her practice sessions are attended by several coaches simultaneously and, even though the head coach has primary responsibility for her team, the other four coaches all know her game and can call out strengths and weaknesses.
Is my daughter challenged? The answer is: Definitely. Playing on age rather than with older girls for one of the first times in her life, she has recognized that nothing about this college and professional soccer dream will be easy. The GA is packed with exceptional players, both on her team and elsewhere in the league.
BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY talented players in the country, whether they play for the GA, or ECNL, or any of the other leagues in the U.S., I know that the most important boxes to check have nothing to do with college and professional aspirations. All those interviews with all those National Team players roll through my mind, whether my daughter wins or loses, or scores, or sits on the bench.
“Even if my daughter doesn’t become a super player, I want her to play sports because of what it brought me,” said Shannon Boxx, who was recently elected to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. “Even if she doesn’t get to the level that I got to, it will still bring her joy, it’ll bring her persistence, it’ll bring her perseverance. It’ll bring the teammate relationships, it’ll teach her how to be a teammate, how we can be a good team, how to lose and how to win. And it will teach you to follow your dreams. That’s everything.”
These are the other questions I find myself asking more often than not:
Do the coaches care about her development as a person? Absolutely. As I was preparing to write this article, we told her coach that my daughter would be taking a week off in the middle of the spring season to go see her ailing grandmother. He didn’t hesitate to wish her well. We’ve had the same answer for missing a practice for a music lesson, a school play, or her sister’s cello recital.
Is she in a safe environment? Without a doubt. The GA’s code of ethics and behavior is unassailably well considered and certified health care professionals attend every single match. Our team avoids most tournaments with two-games-a-day formats because of the wear and tear on the players.
Does my daughter look forward to practice? The answer is Every Single Time. And I credit the coaches for that. The GA atmosphere is professional and respectful, but laughter is always allowed and often loud.
“I would say that it comes down to this,” said Amy Griffin as we signed off from our chat. “If your daughter just spent a year at a GA club in an environment with coaches that know what they’re doing, and it suited her, then I think you should really ask yourself if leaving makes sense. I think it’s like a classroom. If you have a methodology and standards and you learn math 101, then the next time you’re at math 102. You wouldn’t necessarily want to move to a new classroom where you’re doing something entirely different every year. True learning requires consistency and safety and care. I like to think that’s what we — the players, the coaches and the league — are creating together and I’m excited for what it will become.”
I plan to keep my daughter around to find out.
The Paul Riley Saga Shows Us We Just Never Know for Sure
In a book filled with life lessons of which I am immensely proud, I’ve recently been haunted by the words on one page I wish I could take back.
I was one of the many players in women’s soccer that sang Paul Riley’s praises. I wrote an entire sidebar in this book on Page 85 detailing how great of a coach he was. I even provided examples of the ways he was able to cultivate team chemistry and create challenging training sessions that enabled his players to thrive. I wrote that the world of soccer needed more Paul Rileys.
I could not have been more wrong.
After recently learning and listening to the stories of Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, I instantly realized Paul had a true dark side. While I once credited him for putting his office in our team lounge so that players could have the freedom to talk with him about “anything and everything,” it is now clear this was also a way for him to impose his will and predatory nature. His large personality that could command a room also coerced my teammate, Sinead, and also Mana to feel “owned” and abused.
Regardless of the titles and trophies Paul had won during his coaching tenure, his behavior off the field was disgusting and inexcusable. A great coach, first and foremost, treats players with dignity and respect. A great coach creates a safe space where each athlete feels protected. A great coach does NOT use their power to influence and manipulate players mentally, physically, or emotionally.
I regret everything I said about Paul Riley. I was fooled . . . which brings me to perhaps the biggest life lesson of all: You can never be sure of anyone and every red flag needs to be evaluated fairly from an unbiased perspective. It should never have taken six years for accusations such as these to be taken seriously. And know this: An abusive coach can show up at any level of the sport. There have been way too many stories from the club scene all the way up to the professional ranks about coaches who have imposed life-long harm.
Thanks to the courage of Sinead and Mana, alarm bells have been sounded in the National Women’s Soccer League and the entire sport is in a moment of reckoning. I hope we all start to understand that motivation through fear and abuse is totally ineffective and harmful. Raising tomorrow’s champions will require leaders who instill confidence, authenticity, and trust — and a community of parents, coaches, players, and administrators who are dedicated to rooting out this kind of evil.
Calling All Soccer Dads: This Book is for You
With Father’s Day just around the corner, I thought I’d reflect for a few moments on a few of the dozens of stories of National Teamers and their fathers that we heard in our interviews for our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.
Briana Scurry’s father, Ernest, told her to race to the bus stop every morning and, in general, “Always be first.” Lori Lindsey’s Dad, meanwhile, demanded that she prioritize practicing soccer, stating: “The homework can wait ’til later.” The man once known as “Crazy Larry” Lindsey also punted the ball toward his 8-year-old daughter’s face from 10 feet away to try to teach her to be unafraid of the ball.
We heard how Alex Morgan's Dad, Mike, got out of bed each day at 4 a.m. to get his workday started so that he’d have time to drive his daughter and her teammates to his practices in the afternoon. Midge Purce told us how her father, James, raised her and her brother all by himself, and April Heinrichs told us how her stepfather, Mel, stood by her when her mother walked away when April was just 15.
Shannon MacMillan explained why she didn’t talk to her father for years, but does now that she has a son of her own. Joanna Lohman shared the memory of her father coming to her in tears after she came “out” as a lesbian. “There’s no sugar-coating it when you shatter your parents’ dreams; those conversations — the ones where you establish your true identity as gay or straight, man or woman, athlete or not — can send mothers and fathers into a painful process of mourning the person they thought they had created,” wrote Joanna on Page 24.
In all, the book features the phrases “father” or “Dad” nearly 200 times and sometimes the references are flattering; other times they’re not. Jessica McDonald’s father spent his life in prison. Mallory Pugh’s Dad is often the first person she calls, whether the news is good, or not. It’s clear that children can, in fact, overcome poor parenting — or a father or mother being gone altogether — and still succeed in sports and life. But the data shows that fathers like Horace Pugh who get it right, by supporting their children through the wins AND the losses, the times of stardom AND the moments on the bench, are far more likely to produce successful, happy players and people.
That’s why, as a soccer Dad myself, I helped Joanna write this book. Champions are not always the ones holding the trophies . . . and the more Dads who understand that, the better. Happy Father’s Day everyone.
BOOK EXCERPT: The 12 Most Socially Significant National Teamers of All-Time
When Joanna Lohman and Paul Tukey started conceiving of a soccer book, they never envisioned writing about the Xs and Os of playing the game, or who scored the winning goals and made the greatest saves. From the beginning, they were focused on the impact the women have had on society, as well as the lives of girls and boys. The authors’ thesis was simple: The U.S. Women’s National Team has become the most socially significant sports team in American history.
For the Prologue, the authors kicked off their book with the selection of the 12 most socially impactful players of all-time. Some of the most iconic names and faces are a given: Mia Hamm was women soccer’s first superstar; Abby Wambach became America’s greatest scorer; and out-and-proud Megan Rapinoe may be the most recognizable female athlete on the planet today who’s not named Serena.
Some of the names, however, are much lesser known. With 241 all-time National Teamers to choose from (at the time of the book’s publication), did the authors get their list right? Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Raising Tomorrow’s Champions:
11 Plus 1 Who Changed the Rules
At the end of 2020, a total of 241 women had appeared in at least one game for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, aka the National Team, since its inception in 1985. In addition to winning more World Cups and Olympic gold medals than any other team in the world during that period, the USWNT and its members have recrafted the very definition of what it means to be female in the 21st century. Few have made more of a collective difference than these trendsetters whose successes and challenges are reflected in the pages that follow. And, we submit, every good team needs a captain. We picked one for the ages.
Michelle Akers — Appearing in the National Team’s second-ever international women’s soccer game and its most famous game 14 years later, she quickly became America’s first dominant player, proving we could compete without embarrassment on the world stage.
April Heinrichs — Ferociously and unapologetically competing on the soccer field like no woman before her, she infused the team with a DNA that would span generations, and she later became the National Team’s first full-time female coach.
Mia Hamm — Discovered as a high school freshman and placed on the national team a year later at age 15, she would become America’s first female sports superstar and the reluctant face of soccer the world over.
Brandi Chastain — Others scored more goals and drew more fanfare until the instant in 1999 when she became forever known as “the one who took her shirt off” and landed women’s soccer on nearly every front page in America.
Briana Scurry — The first truly transformative yet misunderstood minority player, the self-described “fly in the milk” led the National Team as goalie through some of its greatest triumphs and most controversial moment.
Abby Wambach — A reluctant youth soccer player who dominated on the field despite her lifestyle and inner demons, she became the first Generation X and out team superstar as the sport entered a new century.
Hope Solo — The girl from the wrong side of the tracks parlayed scholarships and the generosity of strangers into a singularly dominant, yet controversial career as the nation’s female anti-hero.
Carli Lloyd — Originally derided as lazy and unfit, then cut from the National Team with unnerving regularity, the Jersey girl doubled down on effort every single time and became the proverbial lunch pail hero in the process.
Alex Morgan — Late to the pay-to-play soccer culture by modern standards, her knack for scoring big goals in huge games and girl-next-door smile made her the first-ever soccer pin-up model and Generation Y superstar.
Megan Rapinoe — Once known in soccer’s inner circle as a dependable player who showed up most in the biggest games, she emerged in the past decade as the out-and-proud voice of an entire generation of women in their fight for gender and wage equality.
Mallory Pugh — Still in high school when she scored a goal in her first-ever National Team appearance in 2017, she set what some see as a new example by walking away from a full scholarship at UCLA and turning professional at age 18.
Julie Foudy (captain) — Taking the lead from her mentor, Billie Jean King, the first female recipient of a soccer scholarship at Stanford led her fellow National Teamers on the field, and has remained one of the world’s most important voices in sports and gender equality.
Pioneers: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Still Imparting the Life Lessons of the Game
INTRODUCING: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams
COLLEGES — Western Washington University, University of California-Berkeley
TOUGH KID IN TOUGHSKINS — Growing up in Enumclaw, a rural farm community southeast of Seattle, Kathy’s only initial connection to soccer was the “Soccer Made in Germany” show hosted by Toby Charles on PBS in the early ’70s. “I am the youngest of four siblings who are all much older — so I had to do everything I could to keep up,” said Kathy. “We had a pretty competitive household, including my brother, Wally, who was four years older and super athletic, so by the time I started school I didn’t even think about what girls did at recess. It wasn’t really a question for me. I went to school dressed in Toughskins ready for any sport on the playground with the boys.” What she didn’t realize, at 5 years old, was that it had only been a year or two since girls weren’t required to wear dresses to school and that she also wouldn’t be allowed to play on the boy’s club soccer team. So, when Don Ryan, a local attorney, started a U9 girls’ team called the Auburn Devils a few years later, he found Kathy ready and waiting. She remembers watching the German men win the 1974 World Cup at 9 years old and having her first spark of the idea of a National Team — just for women.
THE REALITY CHECK — Playing with fellow future National Teamer Lori Bylin Sweeney on the Auburn Devils, their team won several consecutive state championships. The reign ended abruptly, however, when Michelle Akers’ team from Shoreline, Wa., moved up an age bracket to U16. “Michelle was a flat-out revelation,” said Kathy. “I mean, I thought we were pretty good until she came along. She just tore through our defense like we weren’t even there. Honestly, as aggravating as it was to lose, I think we all knew we were witnessing something really, really special. I suddenly knew there was so much more I could do to improve my game.”
THE COZARS CONNECTION — College was on her radar, but earning a degree from a high-profile school wasn’t a priority for Kathy when she graduated from Auburn High School. Only a handful of universities, the majority on the east coast, even funded soccer programs in 1983. At first, she migrated with a group of male soccer friends to the local Green River Community College — but again was only allowed to practice with, not compete, on the men’s team (no women’s team existed). Her life changed later that year when Booth Gardner, the soon to be governor of Washington, asked her to join his club team known as the Cozars, which he fully sponsored and coached. “That team was as close as you could get to being professional players at the time,” said Kathy. Traveling to tournaments that included trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, she scored 38 goals in the first half of 1984 and made such an impression when the Cozars landed in St. Louis for the national club finals that the University of North Carolina and several other schools offered full scholarships. Kathy turned them all down. “Honestly, at that point, Cozars were offering me a level of play I didn’t want to give up and I thought to myself, ‘Why would I leave this?’”
BOOTH WHO? — The Cozars’ camaraderie, including their team relationship with the team founder, is legendary in women’s soccer. “Booth was a really special human being and did so much for the team. He was so down to earth, but also a Weyerhaeuser family heir and, by 1985, the Governor of Washington.” To this day Kathy loves reminiscing with the Cozars alum. “Booth would literally drain the gas out of the cars for his security detail to get away from them and show up alone at our practices. Or he’d show up to McDonald’s with us after our games, not have any cash on him because he was Governor, and he’d steal our French fries. It was hilarious.” A year later, Kathy would attend nearby Western Washington University with her best friend, Diana Inch, and several Cozar players including National Teamer Cindy Gordon, helping them to a NAIA Regional Finals berth. “The Cozars evolved over several years to have some of the most amazing talent and coaches, including Berhane Andeberhane, in women’s soccer at the time. It was unique, like the soccer universe aligned to bring everyone together.”
THE MOMENT OF A LIFETIME — In July of 1985, Kathy traveled to Baton Rouge, La., after being chosen for the historic Olympic Sports Festival tournament, from which the 17 members of the first-ever National Team were selected. Picked for the starting lineup in the inaugural game, Aug. 18, 1985, against the host team, Italy, Kathy said standing on the field and singing the national anthem was forever embedded in her lifetime of memories. “It’s one of those pivotal moments you look back on and say you wouldn’t trade for anything. It was truly overwhelming. It was a ‘Wow! I achieved my dream. I did it!’ moment. It was an incredible experience and a rare bond that we share. But for me, as a woman playing soccer at that time, I didn’t know if or when there would be more. It was like, ‘That was amazing, but now what happens?’”
COMPARING GENERATIONS — When considering the remarkable total of 13 players from the Seattle area who played for the National Team from 1985-1990, Kathy balks at the suggestion that today’s soccer players are fundamentally better than those of her era. “It’s tough to compare. An elite athlete is an elite athlete regardless of when they were born,” she said. “Maybe our era didn’t play soccer year-round as kids or have private trainers at 9 years old, but we had something just as good: we played with boys and men. That made us quicker physically and mentally, and technically sound at faster speed of play. If you’re an elite player, you know it; you have a hyper-drive growth mindset, you want to be better than the player next to you, woman or man, and that’s going to be true in any generation. Not to mention we had a long list of players with soccer IQs off the charts including Sharon McMurtry, Lori Bylin Sweeney and Shannon Higgins Cirovski.” Kathy was one of the players born in the 1960s who were named Washington state’s 50 all-time greatest players. That 2016 list also included all of her National Team teammates including Michelle — who Kathy believes belongs at the top of any list of women players. “I have loved watching so many great players come through. I’m really proud to see these young women have this opportunity and just dominate on a world stage. And as the pioneers, I think we are all amazed at how far the program has come. But Michelle was on another level. It’s kind of like Pelé. How do you compare Pelé to Ronaldo, or Messi? You can’t. If you saw Pelé and Michelle play in their prime or had a chance to play with them, you just know they’re different.” (NOTE: Michelle's story is a major component of our critically acclaimed new book, Raising Tomorrow's Champions)
A SUDDEN END: A torn hip flexor kept Kathy on the sidelines in 1986, but after six months of rehab, she returned for the Cozars season before appearing in two more games with the National Team in the summer of 1987. Targeted to join Colorado College that fall, Kathy changed course and followed long-time University of Washington coach Lesle Gallimore and National Team legend Joy Fawcett to the University of California-Berkeley, where Kathy became a third-team All-American in her final year of college eligibility. After graduating with a political economies degree, and with the Cozars disbanded, Kathy spent 15 months working and traveling in China. On her way back to the states, she was recruited by former National Teamer Gretchen Gegg Zigante to play professionally in Japan. Fatefully, she said, she turned Gretchen down. Returning stateside and training with a new Seattle women’s club team, Diadora, Kathy’s soccer future was instantly truncated a few months later when a driver sped through a stop sign and devastated Kathy’s car and body. “It was all neck and back injuries and my competitive days of playing, heading a ball and winning a tackle, were over. Just like that. But even so, I still am so grateful for the time I had at that level.”
EVER THE COACH: Despite playing in an era with little financial return from the game, Kathy has cashed in by turning those experiences into a professional career of coaching and managing business teams. After owning a couple of sports bars with her husband, Tim, and starting their family, she moved on to serve as a corporate manager and coach for Walgreens to help turn around financially struggling stores. She worked for many years after that consulting and managing private education programs within public K-12 school districts. Her last few years have been spent at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services consulting as a certified diversity executive and coaching leadership development programs for an organization of more than 16,000 people. She’s remained an avid student of the game and also coached many youth teams along the way — and sees little distinction between managing the game and business. “It’s amazing how many people lack basic team management skills,” she said. “What I learned from those early days and being a bit of a nomad in my playing career is that we didn’t all have to agree all the time as long as we all had the same strategy in mind. The most successful teams I played for had people with diverse perspectives and different ideas that were willing to learn from each other then flex enough to get the win. As a leader, coach or manager in soccer and in business, build trust and relationships, allow freedom to innovate and fail; that’s what will bring you success. We learned how to experiment, fail and be more adaptable in those small-sided pickup games, right? ‘Winner Stays On! or Last Goal Wins!’ How many times do you let yourself look foolish and fall, literally, flat on your face before you pull off a Maradona in a game and everyone goes crazy? You have to trust each other to be that vulnerable. By removing the barriers that prevent people from being creative and taking risks, you’re creating an environment where they're going to get better, faster and stronger no matter what they’re doing.”
National Teamer: My Story of Sexual Abuse
Cindy Gordon, a Pioneer of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, Details a Lifetime of Suffering at the Hands of Her Youth Coach
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF ABUSE. ANY PERSON UNDER THE AGE OF 18 SHOULD ASK FOR THE PERMISSION OF THEIR PARENT OR GUARDIAN BEFORE READING FURTHER.
THIS STORY WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a straight-forward celebration of the special career of one of soccer’s pioneers. Originally intended as an extension of our book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions: What the Women’s National Soccer Team Teaches Us About Grit, Authenticity and Winning,” the following words should have been about colleges attended, challenges overcome, and goals — the ones that gifted children attain through hard work and sacrifice on their fields of dreams. This story might have focused on the positive influences, coaches like Dan Swain, Booth Gardiner, Berhane Andeberhan and others who, collectively, made the state of Washington the unofficial birthplace of women’s soccer in America.
This narrative, instead, focuses on topics our book never contemplates: the coach as a predator, the influencer as a rapist, the mentor as an almost lifelong nightmare. National Teamer Cindy Gordon, who has kept this part of her life buried beneath the façade of a smiling face and successful professional life for nearly four decades, asked us to help her reveal her truth publicly for the first time. “Parents need to hear my story. My hope is that it will help parents and their daughters make better decisions about who to trust,” she told us. “If parents don’t think something like my story can happen to their children, they’re just wrong . . . Tragically wrong.” After much consideration, and weeks of conversation with Cindy, her friends and teammates, this is what we choose to share.
A LITTLE CITY BY THE SEA: Located on the eastern shore of Puget Sound, at the midpoint of the drive between Seattle to the north and Tacoma to the south, the enclave of Des Moines, Wa., is relatively new, even by American standards. Incorporated as recently as June 17, 1959 — about three years prior to the birth of its most accomplished female athlete — Des Moines seemed like the kind of place where you didn’t need to lock your cars and houses, where people knew each other’s business, or at least thought they did, and where neighbors looked out for each other’s children. The water was, and is, central to life in the area, especially the marina where everyone’s favorite soccer coach kept his sailboat moored.
The beautiful game, to be sure, was both king and queen to the residents. When the Highline Soccer Association launched a girls youth soccer team, the Demons, in 1972 in response to the landmark legislation known as Title IX, Cindy Gordon and her friends, Kim Milner and Robin Rowland, were three of the first to sign up at ages 9 or 10. When the original Seattle Sounders team played its first season in 1974, Des Moiners flooded north to the stadium; the Demons even got to scrimmage during halftime of one of the games at the Kingdome. “We just loved the game; my whole family did,” said Cindy, the second oldest of five siblings. Two of her younger brothers were allowed to play years before she was. “I remember standing on the sidelines of their games watching and secretly hoping somebody would get hurt and they’d look around and say, ‘Hey, girl, do you want to come play?’ This, of course, never happened. But then they started a girls’ team and, man, I loved it. It was just a really good fit for me because I was a pretty active kid and soccer was a good combination of just being able to run, and to be physical, in a way that was frowned upon for girls.”
Kim, who lived six blocks farther from the waterfront than Cindy, but right next to the soccer field at 16th Street, still sounds in awe of watching her friend blossom into one of the area’s first female soccer stars. “By middle school, it was really clear that Cindy was becoming someone really, really special with the ball at her feet,” said Kim. “You just knew. Plus, Cindy had some things going on at home, so I think she turned to soccer as her escape. I remember hours and hours of her juggling with the ball and being amazed at what she could do.”
DADDY’S GIRL: From the outside looking in, the Gordons were living the model Des Moines life. David, an aeronautical engineer, was beginning a long career at Boeing, which still employs more than half the town. He kept a boat in the harbor, took his children camping and fishing, and though he didn’t play a lot of soccer with his soon-to-be prodigy, he seemingly loved a good backyard touch football game with his two oldest sons and self-professed tomboy daughter. Not long after Cindy discovered soccer, however, David coincidentally began turning away from his family and moved progressively toward alcohol. He and his wife had married in their early 20s, when Patricia Gordon was two months pregnant with Cindy’s older sister, Valerie, and Cindy surmised that David had grown disillusioned with family life in his early 30s. When Cindy was 13, he sat his two oldest children down at the kitchen table and told them he was leaving the home for good. Cindy remembers crying uncontrollably.
“That was utterly devastating,” she said more than 40 years later. “Because I was so active, because I was that tomboy, I felt closer to my Dad in many ways than I did my Mom. I guess I knew he was drinking heavily, but that didn’t matter to me. I just didn’t want him to leave.”
To fill the void, Cindy relied more than ever on her friends on the Demons. A 1973 photo posted to Cindy’s Facebook page shows 13 girls in total, with Kim Milner in the front row, far left, and freckle-faced Cindy also in the front row, second from right. The girls would have been 10 years old, in fourth grade, and it’s noticeable that Robin, a fifth-grader standing next to an equally tall teammate in the back row second from left, was already nearly as tall as the coach, her mother Beverly. “Robin was a badass, and I mean that in a good way,” said Kim. Serving primarily as the team’s goaltender, Robin was often first to the practice field to help her mother set out the cones. Cindy would walk the six blocks to Kim’s house; then the two girls would walk briskly together in eager anticipation of practicing shots on their goalie. “The best memories in my life all involve Cindy,” said Kim, who now resides in Maryland. “Cindy and soccer. Soccer and Cindy. Practicing under the lights, getting to the field early and taking shots against Robin and just, you know, that whole feeling of being outside with the other girls from the school. To this day, I drive by soccer fields all the time and the lights are on and kids are there and it’s still the greatest feeling. I think to myself, ‘Yes!’ Those were great days.”
THE DIRTY SECRET: By the time the girls were in high school, graduating from the Demons to the Dirty Dozen was a Des Moines soccer rite of passage. Led by its charismatic coach — who some of Cindy’s teammates credited for their success in their interviews with us — the team was already used to winning frequently. “(His) British accent gives him an edge in drawing his young players’ wandering attention,” said a 1978 article in the Seattle Times that celebrated the team’s many victories. Cindy recalls going out of her way to earn the much older man’s praises; the coach was 53 and the player was 14 when she joined his team. “Yeah, I was totally into him, the accent, the charm, and his knowledge of the game,” she said. “I definitely took note when he would put his hand on my shoulder on the sideline when I was getting ready to go into the game, or he was giving me instructions. I think that’s where it all started . . .”
As the next year progressed, the coach began to give his newest star player more and more attention, staying late with Cindy after practice and, eventually, offering rides home in his cigarette-stained and smoke-filled blue Ranchero. Sometimes Kim and Robin would also cram, thigh-to-thigh with a man three times their age, into the modified coupe-style pickup truck with no back seat. By the spring of her freshman year, the coach began inviting Cindy out to his sailboat with his wife, the mother of his two teenage children.
Robin said the coach was a regular at The Yardarm Pub and Cindy and Kim said it was open town knowledge that the coach always kept a pint of rum close at hand, though they don’t agree on the brand. Cindy says it was Bacardi 151; Kim recalls it was Myers’s. “He was a maintenance drinker,” said Cindy. “I don’t think I ever recall seeing him drunk.” The night after the team won the Washington state championship in 1978, one of the players threw a party at her home — and the coach arrived with more than enough rum, champagne, cherry brandy and vodka for everyone. Cindy said it was the first time she had ever consumed alcohol, but the parties and her consumption of booze and marijuana would soon become a habit. Notably, she doesn’t think any of the players’ parents ever suspected anything nefarious and, even if they did, they just looked the other way. “It was a different time back then in the ’70s; I don’t think parents paid that much attention,” said Cindy. “I know my mother didn’t. She had to get a job and raise five children when my father left, so she had her own issues to worry about.”
By their sophomore year in high school, the alcohol, marijuana and the sailing began to mix. Cindy and other players joined impromptu cruises that launched from the marina, traveled past the town beach and then out into the open Sound. Sometimes the coach would just anchor off shore and pass his rum while the players fished and swam. One night, with the tide going out and Cindy and Robin on board, the coach ran the boat aground on a sandbar. The coach, sounding duly alarmed, called the Coast Guard and asked the dispatcher to alert the girls’ parents about what had happened. In retrospect, Kim now sees the whole escapade as a clear ruse. “I think he absolutely did it on purpose,” she said during a conversation in early April of this year. “He had sailed in that area hundreds of times and knew exactly where to be, or not.”
Before heading to higher ground on the beach, while waiting for the tide to change, the coach retrieved his bottle of rum and a blanket from the cockpit of this boat. Positioning himself between the two girls, Cindy 15 and Robin 16, the 54-year-old man began passing the bottle back and forth with his right hand, while keeping his left hand hidden under the blanket. Quietly, he unzipped his pants. He then waited patiently until Cindy brought her right hand under the blanket next to his, then slowly pulled her hand toward his penis. “I had never touched one before,” she said. “It was kind of exciting if I’m being honest.”
FOREVER HAUNTED: Like so many of her teammates who stood on the field in Jesolo, Italy, in August of 1985 and listened to the Italian fans lustily chant “USA, USA, USA” — yet pronouncing it “Ooosa, Ooosa, Ooosa, Ah” — Cindy Gordon recalls the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team game as one of the proudest moments of her life. Hearing the National Anthem played on foreign land gave her goose bumps and brought tears of joy to her eyes. Sometimes that memory still does. “Cindy was a special, special player who I loved having in front of me,” said National Team goaltender Ruth Harker. “She was so cerebral; she knew the game as well as anyone.” Several members of Cindy’s soccer sisterhood from Washington state were on the field in Italy that day, too. “Cindy was so quick and so tough,” said Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, who grew up in Enumclaw, Wa., 40 miles to the east of Des Moines. “She was one of the people I had the most chemistry with. I mean, she was pit-bull tough, so tenacious on the field, and you always felt comfortable having her out there with you.”
Cindy played every minute of those first four games in Italy and, by some accounts, might have been considered a National Team fixture for years to come. It would be just a year later, however, when anxiety attacks — hidden from others — began to surface. Cindy played two more games for the U.S. in 1986, but was left home by new coach Anson Dorrance when the team headed to a tournament in China that year and was never invited back to try out ever again. “Looking back, I can see it now. For as good as she was, the self-confidence always seemed to be a little bit lacking, yet you never knew why,” said Ruth, who is the only National Team teammate with whom Cindy has shared her story until now. “When you begin to understand what she went through, and also understand the pressure of trying to make that team . . . it’s just so, so sad. Knowing what I know now, it just boils my blood.”
Cindy recalls driving through Bellingham, Wa., on her way back to Des Moines when her mental state began having physical implications. With the road blurring and seemingly starting to spin, sharp pains jabbed at her chest. Assuming she was having a heart attack, she managed to steer her Corona safely to the side of the road. “That was my first full panic attack, which I never had previously,” said Cindy. “I had started having those more often and I ended up going to a therapist. She gave me the book on how to handle panic attacks, which was totally useless, because they say, ‘Oh, just relax, breathe deeply.’ Well, that’s an impossible thing to do in that moment.”
As much as she had tried to suppress the memories from years earlier, they only seemed to come back stronger. The incident with the marooned boat had only been the beginning of a two-year pattern of manipulation that escalated the very next day when the coach invited Cindy back onto the boat, telling her his wife would be there. When Cindy discovered the coach was alone when she arrived at the dock, she knows now that she should have turned away then and never come back; the guilt for staying has been overwhelming her for decades. “The truth is I was a 15-year-old girl who thought I was older than I was,” she said. “He was an older man showing interest in me and it felt exciting. That’s what I probably struggled with the most, because it didn’t feel like abuse in the moment. My head was filled with fantasies and fairytales; he never said it to me, but I thought that, since he was paying all this attention to me, he must love me.”
IN PLAIN SIGHT: The rides home from soccer practice began to take on a predictable pattern in the weeks and months after the first physical encounter. Most times, the coach would bring Robin Rowland home first, even though she lived by far the farthest from the field and he could easily have dropped Kim and Cindy off along the way. Circling almost all the way back to the field, he would then bring Kim home before finding a side road, a church parking lot or a wooded area to stop the car. He asked Cindy for oral sex at first, and soon progressed to intercourse.
When the weather warmed, the coach would take Cindy to his boat instead. On one occasion, which she recalled from a diary entry she has kept for all these years, Cindy said an older soccer player came to the boat with her. The coach tried to entice Cindy to follow him to the berth area below deck; when she resisted, he brought the other girl instead. “I thought we were trying to keep a secret,” Cindy said. “When they came back up top, he said to me, ‘I would have taken you down there instead of her, but you didn’t want to go.’”
Further evidence that Cindy was not the coach’s only victim would come just last year when Cindy called Kim to reveal her experiences. According to Kim’s recollections conveyed to us, on more than one occasion she, too, was assaulted on the sailboat by the coach while Cindy waited on the deck above. Then, she said, Cindy would take her turn with the coach, or vice versa. “I don’t remember it that way, because I just don’t recall ever going below on the boat when someone else was on board,” Cindy told us. “It’s troubling to me that she has memories that I don’t have, because I wonder what else I might have repressed.”
As more time passed, with her consumption of alcohol and marijuana increasing, Cindy recalls moments of jealousy, yet also growing paranoia about having the relationship revealed. One night, at the church near her home, a passerby banged on the windows of the coach’s car during an assault. On another night, with adults and teenagers all drinking together on Blake Island during an overnight camping trip, Kim recalls the coach walking up to Cindy amidst a crowd of people, taking her by the hand, and leading her off into the dark woods. "Nobody said a word," said Kim. Cindy also vividly recalls having a conversation with the coach about his son, just two years older than Cindy, who had grown suspicious of his father’s extramarital activities. “He told me his son said, ‘Dad, you better not be doing anything with her,’” said Cindy. “I remember that actually felt good to me . . . that someone was actually looking out for my interests.”
By her junior year in high school, overwhelmed with guilt and shame, yet still occasionally succumbing to the coach’s advances, Cindy said she began cutting her upper thighs and arms with a razor blade — a common self-harm behavior among victims of sexual abuse, according to many experts. “I remember just feeling so many different emotions and confusion and pain,” she said. “I was just so tired of lying to my mother, even to my father, and it felt like that cutting myself was the only way to focus that pain somewhere physical.”
PAY TO PLAY — National statistics and various non-profit organizations state that between 2 and 8 percent of young athletes are sexually assaulted in the U.S. — though others say that number may be higher due to the lack of reporting by victims, especially boys. SafeSport is funded by the federal government to focus on these issues and an organization known as Safe4Athletes, founded by Olympic swimmer Kathleen Starr, works to educate American families about the risks that have always been there in the complex relationships between coaches and athletes of all sports and ages. Safe4Athletes offers educational programs about four differing types of sexual misconduct in sports: pedophilia, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and athlete domestic violence — the latter being the most complicated, because it involves an adult older than age 17 who can legally consent to intimate behavior.
“Sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem,” states the National Collegiate Athletic Association in its official policy manual on the subject of coaches and players in a romantic relationship titled “Staying in Bounds.” Coaches dating players is a common occurrence, even though highly discouraged by the NCAA, and banned by the policy guidance of many colleges and universities. When older adult coaches have sexual relationships with students under the age of 18, however, there is no gray area, legally or otherwise; it’s pedophilia, harassment and abuse all rolled into one illicit act.
“It’s horrific and it’s criminal, and I’ve come to believe it’s an epidemic,” said Cindy, who said she doesn't believe the problem only existed in her generation. A recent search of headlines across the nation indicates she's right. As recently as March of this year, two separate cases in New York involved male soccer coaches, one aged 29 and another aged 57, abusing girls aged 14 and 12. Last year, soccer-related cases in Missouri and New Jersey involved an 11-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man, as well as a 16-year-old girl and a 32-year-old man. Truly horrific soccer cases in Maryland in recent years involved children, a girl aged 7 and boy aged 8, once again indicating that young boys are in no way immune.
The patterns of behavior are almost always similar: the assaults follow often long periods of grooming to gain trust of the players, and usually their parents, and can often be accompanied by the quid pro quo of gaining favor with a coach in exchange for playing time. Cindy’s case was textbook. By the holiday season of her junior year in high school, Cindy said she finally found the strength to tell the coach she wanted to end the physical relationship. He, in turn, immediately put her on the bench. Though she was clearly one of the Dirty Dozen’s best players, a forward who would soon score 50 goals during her record-setting career at Western Washington University, she was suddenly an afterthought in most of the team’s games. “In my mind it was over and I just tried to wrap everything up and put it in a box and stick it in the corner of my head never have to think about it again — except that I still had to play for him,” said Cindy. “He made it very clear to me that if I wanted to play in the game, I needed to pay his price.”
Desperate to perform in the Coca Cola Skills Challenge in the spring of 1980 so she could showcase her talents for college coaches, Cindy turned one last time to the coach for a ride to and from Lake Washington near Seattle. As they approached her house on the way back from the event, he veered his car toward the church where they had stopped dozens of times before and popped the clutch, which abruptly stalled the car’s engine. “The car battery must be dead,” she recalls him telling her. She said she immediately gripped the door handle as tightly as her hand could squeeze while her long-time assailant stared in her direction. Just as she was preparing to jump out, he started the engine and drove her home.
Heading into her final year of high school that fall, after nine years of playing with virtually the same group of girls, Cindy made a decision that was just as hard as trying to stay away from the coach; she quit the Dirty Dozen and joined one of their arch rivals, Team Adidas, from Tacoma. “My lifelong friends were furious with me, and I couldn’t even tell them why I needed to do it,” she said. “I couldn’t tell them that (the coach) would show up at the seafood place, Moby Doug’s, where I worked and try to talk to me, then just sit there. I just had to get away. . .”
LIGHTING ONE CANDLE AT A TIME: “By any account, Cindy is a person who has her shit together. . . successful soccer career, her professional career, and friends who care about her,” said Amy Carnell, a fellow Washington state soccer star who served as the first general manager of the Seattle Reign, one of the 10 member teams of the National Women’s Soccer League. “Like many survivors, the corrosive aftermath of abuse is kept out of plain sight.” When Cindy was not invited back to the National Team after 1986, she continued to play soccer for the legendary Cozars team founded by Governor Booth Gardner and coached by Berhane Andeberhane, among others. She was a key player on the area’s over-30 national club championship team and left behind enough of a legacy and impression that, as recently as 2016, she was voted along with Hope Solo and Michelle Akers as one of the top 18 players in state history in a poll of regional experts commissioned by the Washington Youth Soccer Association.
Cindy has indeed enjoyed a significant and stable post-soccer profession. After receiving her biochemistry degree from Western Washington University, where she’s a member of the school’s Hall of Fame and still ranks as its third all-time leading scorer, she joined the staff at the biochemical genetics lab of Seattle Children’s Hospital. More than three decades later she’s a laboratory development scientist who helps create diagnostic testing for testosterone and estradiol levels in youth who are contemplating gender transitions. It has been a fulfilling life and work, she said, yet lonely at the same time. She has never married or had children; her last attempt at a romantic relationship with a man ended more than a decade ago.
Cindy’s assailant died in 2006 at the age of 82 — which is why we have opted not to use his name in this story out of respect for his family — but she said she has never really been able to shake the memories associated with her secret. She feels her low self-esteem led her to accept unreliable, even abusive, treatment from men and that the idea of another relationship seems like “too much work.” She has turned instead to her dog, Elsa, and, sometimes too often, to alcohol. “Am I an alcoholic? Well, I don’t call it that,” she said. “I call it a substance abuse disorder. But, yeah. In fact, I got a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) in 2009. I actually stopped drinking for five years because I was on a deferred prosecution plan. And then I started again because it was obvious to me if I could stop drinking for five years, then I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. The problem is that I was introduced to alcohol at such a young age, as an early teenager, that somehow it triggered something in my brain that if I drink at all it’s like it’s never enough. I just feel so good, so out of my own head, that I just want to keep it going.”
A cleaner, more clear pathway began to present itself in May of 2019 when Cindy came across an article shared on-line about Dr. Laura Anton, a pediatrician from Dallas, who had come forward with a story that sounded all-too familiar. Dr. Anton, once a national caliber soccer player who earned a scholarship at George Mason University in the mid 1980s, had been groomed by her youth team soccer coach into a long-term sexually abusive relationship. “Her story was my story,” said Cindy. Then, in 2020, Cindy also read Amy Carnell’s revelation. Lured into a soccer club by a coach who openly bragged about having coached National Team legend Michelle Akers during her Washington state youth career with a team known as the Shoreline Thunderbirds, the Carnell family never picked up on the clues that Amy was also being drawn into abuse. “I Needed to be Rescued,” read the headline in Cindy’s hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, that broke Amy’s story and brought forth a flood of others who reached out. For the last several months the three women, Cindy, Amy, Dr. Anton and others have formed an informal support group of “soccer survivors” who meet regularly on ZOOM calls. The other women in the group, excited about the progress Cindy is making, have encouraged her to come forward and share her story.
“She’s been left to suffer in silence, until now,” said Amy. “I’m so proud of Cindy’s courage.” Dr. Anton said Cindy’s recognition that she was, in fact, abused is the most significant step toward recovery. “It’s almost universal that victims of this kind of trauma try to put it away, to package it as a child would, then put it in the dark recesses of the brain,” she said. “It festers, creating shame and dysfunction and depression and anxiety. And so the only path to healing is to first recognize that you were a victim—and then trying to release yourself from this life of lies.” Dr. Anton said she won’t forget the first time Cindy contacted her. “She said something in my article had stuck with her when my therapist kept saying, ‘Laura, you can be one of those first candles. You light your candle in the darkness, and then your candle lights another girl’s candle in the night and then she lights another girl’s candle — so you start to spread light into the darkness.’ It’s monumentally important for Cindy to come out of the darkness for herself, to step out of the shame and start healing. Cindy’s candle will be a very, very powerful one, for herself and so many others who will hear her story and say, ‘Me too.’”
WE NEED TO DO MORE: Having made the decision to come forward, to try to leave behind the guilt and any notion that any aspect of her childhood story is her fault, Cindy still can’t help but wonder what might have been. What if, for example, her father had stayed connected to his family? “I can see now, as an adult, that my mother and father were not a well-matched pair,” she said. “But I do think that, when you make the conscious decision to bring children into the world, that also means you’re making a commitment to be there for them.” What if, she wonders, her coach “had simply been a decent human being?” Maybe she would never have helped the National Team win World Cups in 1991 and 1999 like Michelle Akers or Mia Hamm, but she dares to go there in her mind. “Sure, I do think about how far I could have taken soccer in my life,” she said. “Because I really, truly love the game with all my heart. And he took that from me, not the love of the game, but the ability to become the best version of myself within the game.”
Robin Rowland wonders too. She has been friends with Cindy her entire life and, until that night sitting under a blanket on that sandbar in the Puget Sound, the worst trouble they had ever been in together was sneaking onto the high school field and turning on the lights so they could practice more soccer after hours. “She was so funny, so smart, so much fun to be with,” said Robin, who was a mere two-feet away when her best friend’s life began to unravel. Robin, too, said she bears guilt for not doing something to stop their coach in his tracks. “You look back and say, ‘I should have seen the signs,’ but I had no clue,” she said. “I just had no clue. If I did, I would have decked him right then and there.”
Cindy said she would occasionally search on-line find out bits and pieces of information about her assailant’s whereabouts and she learned, for example, that his wife filed for divorce in 1980 while Cindy was still in high school. “I used to think about ways to confront him and inflict pain, like the pain he inflicted on me,” she said. “But now that he’s dead, and I’m meeting with these other women, I realize I’m luckier than some of the other survivors of abuse whose perpetrators are still walking around, in some cases still being allowed to coach young girls.”
She sees the next phase of her life as a work in progress, with good days and bad. During the weeks of conversations in preparation for this story, Cindy asked for breaks at times when the reliving the memories was just too painful, or when having a drink seemed like a better idea in the moment. She went for a long walk with her father in late March and, for the first time in her adult life, asked him about his own drinking and how he found the strength to quit more than 20 years ago. “I told him, I admitted really, that I was still struggling,” she said. “He said, ‘I know it’s hard, because I just started drinking Diet Coke. I had Diet Coke everywhere.’ It was a simple answer, but it was really kind of nice to talk to him about it — being something I never felt comfortable telling him or anybody in my family. It was sort of my shameful secret, but I guess I’m trying to be more authentic with people.”
She said her biggest focus, nearly 36 years after hearing the National Anthem play in Italy, will be to use whatever platform the National Team has given her to spread the word that everyone in soccer needs to do more to stop a silent plague. “Parents need to be educated and children need to be warned,” she said. “That coach you think is being really nice to your daughter, or your son? Maybe they are just being nice. There are definitely some really great, amazing coaches in this world and I played for some of them. But for your children’s sake, you need to assume that no child is safe when left alone with a coach . . . as sad as that may sound, it’s advice that can literally make, or break, their lives.”
Pioneers: Pam Baughman-Cornell, an Outdoor Life Well Lived
INTRODUCING: Pam Baughman-Cornell
COLLEGES: University of Central Florida, George Mason University
THE CAREER THAT ALMOST WASN’T: Soccer launched at Fairfax High School in Virginia the year Pam entered the school as a freshman and, having played for the Fairfax Police Youth Club for coach Ron Dietrich, she was considered a great area player — yet went unrecruited well past her graduation date in 1981. When the father of Michelle Jardin, a player from the nearby Braddock Road soccer club, recommended Pam to Jim Ruby, the coach at the University of Central Florida, she showed up in Orlando sight unseen and immediately became a college All-American and team MVP with 18 goals and 11 assists. Almost as quickly, she flunked out. “I just wanted to be outside; I really, really had a thing about being inside a building all day,” said Pam. “I just felt like that’s not where you learn; you learn outside. I needed to be out in the environment. Also, in college, there’s a lot of distractions and it was my first time away from home for any lengthy period. The truth is, I just didn’t go to class.”
PUT ME IN, COACH: After a year back in northern Virginia at a community college to get her grades in order, Pam walked into the office of Hank Leung, then the coach at George Mason University in her hometown of Fairfax. The school had just started its soccer program in 1982. “I’m going to come here and play soccer,” she said matter-of-factly. “His jaw dropped, because he knew what I had just done at Central Florida.” Hank had never seen Pam play previously. "I heard about her from all the northern Virginia girls on the team," he said. "She walks in and I think, 'Is this for real?' It was a bit of magic as far as I'm concerned."
BRING ON GOLIATH: Joining future National Teamer Lisa Gmitter, among many others, Pam instantly helped elevate George Mason's status. In their first year together Lisa and Pam led their team to the national championship game against North Carolina, where they were soundly defeated 4-0. The following year they lost 2-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Colorado College and its four-time All-America goalie, Janine Szpara (who is prominently featured in our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions). Immediately after that game, Hank raised a lot of eyebrows in the locker room when he pronounced to his players that George Mason would win the national championship the following year. “In that moment, we were just devastated,” said Pam. “He sat us down and said, ‘Start preparing for this tournament next year. You guys are the winner.’ I was just furious. I'm like, ‘How can you say we’re going to win — after we just lost! The pressure!’ How could he safely say what’s going to happen a year from now? But he planted that little seed in our heads . . .”
A SIDE TRIP TO ITALY VIA BATON ROUGE: A few months after that loss, yet just weeks prior to her senior year, Pam was among about 70 women invited to Baton Rouge, La., to the Olympic Festival. Picked for the first-ever National Team after that tournament, and starting in its fourth-ever game, on Aug. 25, 1985, against Denmark, Pam had already made George Mason history as its first USWNT member – but still had some unfinished business back in the states (Note: Pam scored a goal for the National Team in a 3-0 victory against Canada in 1986).
MANY PERSONALITIES, ONE TEAM: Nothing seemed to be going right when Pam got back to campus in the fall of 1985. Admittedly out of shape after her summer vacation, she spent more time in the training room than on the field. With their coach’s proclamation defining the season well in advance, teammates bickered, both on the field and off. They had all the talent in the world — the roster featured Pam and Lisa, standouts Sue Vodicka and Andrea Baines, as well as future National Teamers Chris Tomek, Kim Maslin-Kammerdeiner, Betsy Drambour and Kim Crabbe — but they often collectively rolled their eyes, especially when Hank would have the players practice meditation at halftime. “You don’t let college students lay down and close their eyes or they will fall asleep,” said Pam with a laugh. Pam and the other team captains, however, called a meeting and encouraged the players to listen to the coach, whether they agreed with him or not. The coach's offbeat approach would pay off on the morning of Nov. 25 when Pam hobbled into his office in tears with a leg injury so painful she didn't think she could play in the national championship game that afternoon. In that moment, Hank was going through the roster with Peggy Puig, a therapist who utilized the techniques of applied kinesiology in her approach to healing. "Two minutes later, Pam walked out of my office ready to play," said Hank. "Peggy had aligned Pam's 'chi,' her free energy." As described on Page 134 of Raising Tomorrow’s Champions, it was Pam’s goal, off a cornering pass from Lisa Gmitter — and a misplaced heading of the ball by North Carolina’s injured National Teamer Stacey Enos — that helped beat a Tar Heel team that some thought invincible after 56 consecutive games without a loss. “That (team) meeting made all the difference in the world; we didn’t have to agree on everything off the field, but we needed to accept what Hank was telling us. The life lesson was to have a clear vision of where you were going. It worked.”
AN OUTDOOR LIFE: Having married her high school boyfriend, Glenn Cornell, in January of their senior year at GMU, Pam has never strayed far from soccer. She has coached either youth, high school and college teams since well before she retired from playing, which included three national 30-and-over women’s club championships. She has also remained true to her life’s mantra that the best environment for learning is outdoors. Pam and Glenn have been involved with vineyards, have taken numerous wilderness excursions — Pam has hiked the Appalachian Trail on multiple occasions — and raised a pair of soccer-playing outdoorsmen, Nick and Brian. The family exudes happiness in its vast collection of experiential photographs; Brian has even turned his passion into a vocation as an outdoor writer. “He is living out of the back of his pickup truck right now, somewhere in Nevada, I think,” she said. “And, yes, I sleep fine at night. We told our sons they were going to be independent, they were going to go away to college, and they were going to be able to take care of themselves. That’s how we raised them.”
Carli Lloyd: Still Proving It, 300 Games Later
I’D FEEL REMISS IF I didn’t take a moment today to honor the living, breathing life lesson that is Carli Lloyd, the author of the Foreword for our book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” She played in her 300th game yesterday, April 10, 2021, for the U.S. Women’s National Team, venturing into territory only ever matched by two other women: Christie Pearce, at 311 games, and the indomitable Kristine Lilly, who played for 23 years and 354 games. I don’t think it’s outlandish or hyperbole to predict this out loud: no one else from the U.S. will ever join this club.
Part of that is because times have changed. As Kristine noted in our book, she joined the National Team at 16, an age so young that she once arrived late at a U.S. training camp because she chose to play a high school softball game instead. Christie, four years younger than Kristine, played in an era when kids still participated in whatever sport was in season; by all accounts she was the embodiment of The Natural, leading her high school in scoring in basketball, field hockey, track and soccer. Others have theorized that she could have been an Olympic pentathlete if the National Team hadn’t swept her exclusively into soccer.
Carli, however, came of age in the era of sports specialization — after Kristine and Christie, along with Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Briana Scurry and others made making the National Team part of the American dream for legions of young girls. Carli was never the best athlete. She wasn’t even the best player in the eastern region of the country; that designation, back in the day, went to my co-author, Joanna Lohman, who beat Carli to the National Team by four years.
That’s why I think Carli Lloyd represents one of the great American success stories. Period. A master of reinvention, she rebuilt herself and her game when an Under-21 coach named Chris Petrucelli told her she lacked the fitness and the mental fortitude for the National Team. “Ninety-nine percent of the players you tell that to will blame the messenger,” Chris told us in our book. “To Carli’s credit, she owned it and she did something about it.”
It can also be argued that no one in National Team history has had more big-game goals than Carli, yet her starting position — even her place on the team — has been in doubt virtually her entire career. She’s gone from striker and scorer, to defending midfielder, to attacking midfielder and back again more times than most people can count. She breaks down her body and rebuilds herself the way Tiger Woods used to re-tool his golf swing every few years. “You can never, ever get complacent for one second or someone will take your spot,” she told us in one of our many interviews.
Even after “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” was written and ready for the printer, we caught wind that Carli was in the midst of yet another personal makeover. This time, she said, she was going it alone in training for the 2021 Olympics — without the mentor to whom she dedicated her 2016 book — and she was also reconciling with her parents and siblings after so many years apart. At her request, we stopped the presses and re-wrote an entire chapter. The final photo inserted into the book was Carli with her parents and two siblings at Thanksgiving of 2020. Her life lessons are scattered throughout our pages, from “speak your mind,” to “stay loyal to your friends,” to “stay focused, even when everything else in life will try to pull you away from your goal.” Her latest message, however, was equally important: at the end of the day, even as you approach 300 appearances and 16 years proving and re-proving yourself to all the doubters, family matters a hell of a lot.
The prognosticators are having a field day in trying to guess the 18 players who will represent the U.S. in Japan this July. Carli still, after all this time, figures she needs to improve. I personally think there’s no way the coach leaves the most dependable player of the modern era home for what will almost assuredly be the last big tournament of her career. She has earned it — but she also knows that’s not how it works. “The biggest lesson you can share is that nobody in this life hands you anything,” said Carli Lloyd. “I’m living proof of that.”
Pioneers: Gretchen Zigante, the First Full-Time Professional Women's Soccer Player
INTRODUCING: Gretchen Gegg Zigante
COLLEGES: Universities of Washington and North Carolina
LOVE AT FIRST SITE: Gretchen said she knew within a minute of stepping on the middle school soccer field practice for the Dash Point Dashers that soccer was the only sport she would ever take seriously. Though Gretchen would have preferred to remain a field player, one of the area’s many pioneering girls coaches, Dan Swain, quickly saw her potential as a goaltender and recruited her for his Team Adidas club that ruled the soccer landscape in Tacoma, Wa. “I’m not sure he thought I was that good, but he did think I was brave,” she said.
18-0 AND NOWHERE TO GO: Amidst the birthplace of American women’s soccer that the Tacoma-Seattle area of Washington state represented, Gretchen soon found herself playing with or against many of the 12 other women from that era who would join the National Team via her club team, the Cozars, which competed for national championships for several years. Her Hall of Fame teammate Michelle Akers was the legend in the making, but the area also produced Sandi Gordon Yotz, Cindy Gordon, Lori Henry, Denise Bender, Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Denise Boyer Merdich, Amy Allmann Griffin and Sharon McMurtry. Gretchen even allowed her future National Team teammate Lorraine Figgins Fitzhugh to live for a year on her family's 25-foot sailboat in the Seattle harbor when Lorraine was attending the University of Washington and fighting with the school administration about adding a women’s varsity team. As Lorraine told us in her interview, the UW club team was beating all comers, including an 18-0 season in 1984, but were denied the opportunity to play for anything but pride.
MOM VS. MOM: Gretchen’s biggest rival might have been the other goalie, but instead the pair were each other’s biggest supporters and instigators of hijinks. “There’s not a human being in the world that doesn’t like Amy Griffin; she’s one of my greatest friends to this day and will be forever,” said Gretchen. “Our mothers, on the other hand? They were fiercely competitive with each other about who should be playing the most, Amy or me. That carried on for years.”
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Gretchen declined to attend the infamous tryout in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985 for what became the first National Team. “I honestly didn’t think I was that good,” she said. She changed her mind in 1986, however, and National Team head coach Anson Dorrance liked what he saw enough that he not only offered her a spot on the roster, he also offered her a scholarship to attend North Carolina that fall for her senior year. Though she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament after college and was sidelined for long periods — with no surgery to repair it — Gretchen managed to remain a regular attendee at National Team camps through 1990 and appeared in two games, one in 1986 and the other in 1990. “I think I was in the best shape of my life at that point and I gave it my all,” she said. “When I didn’t get picked for the World Cup roster in 1991, I was at peace with the decision. I was in the stands when they won in China in 1991 and I was in the Rose Bowl with my mother in 1999 and I still felt connected to the players and the team.”
THE CALL THAT OPENED A HUGE DOOR: The day after being cut from the National Team, Gretchen received a phone call from Hiro Watanabe, a professional men’s player from Japan who she had met while completing her college degree at Idaho State University. “He said, ‘Did you make the team?’ When I told him I had been cut, he said, ‘Great! That means you can come to Japan.’” Hiro, who was instrumental in developing Japan’s team that beat the United States in the 2011 women’s World Cup, helped Gretchen land what is believed to be the first-ever full-time professional contract for an American woman in soccer. The Fujita Tendai paid her six million yen annually, along with housing and other covered expenses — which was the equivalent of a $30,000 American salary with myriad other benefits from 1990-1995. With Gretchen serving as an unofficial ambassador for the only professional women’s league in the world at the time, several other Americans followed her to Japan, including Stanford standout Heather McIntyre and 1999 World Cup hero Brandi Chastain.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES: Sexism was rampant in the early 1990s in Japan, as evidenced by the marketing pieces for the women’s matches that Gretchen saved. Still, she said the experience was positive overall. “I was treated very, very well,” said Gretchen. “Once they trust you over there, that means everything.” The men of Japan, however, were not necessarily used to seeing women with muscular physiques. “I had a man in the supermarket walk up to me and say, ‘Your legs look really strong!’ He proceeded to grab my legs right there in the store to test how strong they were.”
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: While still under contract in Japan, Gretchen was back in the U.S. in 1993 recruiting players to come to the Orient when she met a man on an airplane who seemed unusually impressed with her status as a professional goalie. “He said, ‘If you’re a goalie, you need to come train with my friend.’ He kept going on and on and on about his friend, Ziggy.” When that same man called a day later, she agreed to drive to a soccer field outside of San Diego where she met Nenad “Ziggy” Zigante, a goalie for Dinamo, the top team in what was then Yugoslavia. At the end of their first encounter, Gretchen invited him to go sailing in her mother’s boat. “There he is in his thick Croatian accent trying to find the words to say ‘Yes’ . . . ‘I’m very sorry, but I would like to come.’” The couple’s daughter, Susana, was raised playing goaltender in the U.S., but due to her father’s heritage, she has become a member of the Croatian women’s national team.
THE LONG, WINDING ROAD: With teaching the art of goaltending as their calling cards and the only jobs they’ve known, the Zigantes have traveled the nation and world together in the past three decades. Gretchen has coached in Japan and for colleges in Colorado, California and New York, including a year as interim head coach at Cornell University. In more recent years she has focused on club soccer, but only on her terms. “There’s a lot of crazy people in this game right now,” she said. “I’ve been in situations where the club team’s parents think they know more than I do, so I tell them, ‘Then I guess you don’t need me,’ and I’ve moved on.” In 2018, they landed in Heber City, Utah. “It’s a small community and more mello,” said Gretchen, who works with a local soccer club and previously coached the high school team. “I see this as my retirement job.”
Should My Daughter Play Up? The Question Never Goes Away
To play on age, or “up” with girls a year older? That is the question that has dogged my daughter and our family ever since U.S. Soccer’s controversial 2016 mandate that young American soccer players be grouped by their birth year rather than their school year. By then my daughter had already been playing soccer a few years and, because she was born in August and is the youngest girl in her class at school, the new rule would have taken her away from her friends and placed her back with girls primarily in first grade.
Instead, she moved into club or “travel” soccer that fall with many of her friends. My daughter joined a team whose coach promised she could play up if she proved to be good enough and unafraid of taller, faster players. She did and, within a game or two, became a starter who rarely came off the field. In my daughter’s third year with that club, the administrators enforced a hard-and-fast rule: all girls would play on age and no exceptions were allowed — even though U.S. Soccer’s mandate clearly gives all clubs the latitude to let children play up a year or two, but not down.
From a purely parental ego standpoint, those fall, winter and spring seasons were great; my daughter’s on-age team went 26-2, she scored goals in bunches and still has about eight trophies in her room from that year. Even then, though, my daughter knew she wasn’t really being challenged — so a year later she returned to her original, older team. The club didn’t like it, but finally agreed to make an exception.
For this coming fall 2021 season, what would be her sixth with the same club, the dilemma has returned; the administrators told us they would prefer to have my daughter to play on age again. Never mind that she is the starting defensive midfielder on the big field, 11 vs. 11, and plays almost every minute of every game.
Because I just wrote a book titled “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, in which we interviewed more than 100 all-time members of the National Team, I already knew how the players felt who had made it to the highest level. “I was always playing up from my actual age,” said Nicole Barnhart, a long-time backup goaltender to Hope Solo, who like Hope, started out as a field player. “You can get a false sense of yourself playing with kids your own age, especially if you’re a bigger person, growing faster or you’re just taller and faster than other children. Age is just a number. Children should be playing where their ability places them, not necessarily their age.”
THE COLLEGE PERSPECTIVE
Partly because this is a hot topic in my household right now, and partly because I knew it might lead to this column, I reached out to the more than 20 college coaches whom we interviewed in researching “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” None of them felt like the playing on age rule should be non-negotiable; all of them agreed, as Barnhart stated, that players should be on the team that’s most appropriate according to skills, development and playing time. In other words, if a child is playing up and is starting, playing more than half the game, that would indicate the proper placement.
I put a lot of stock in the words of Chris Petrucelli, who has been a coach in the U.S. National Team youth program for more than 20 years. The current coach at Southern Methodist University, he was a two-time national champion coach at Notre Dame and has numerous international tournament trophies on his resume. “I am in favor of players playing up if they can handle it physically and can be competitive at the older age group,” he told me. “If your daughter doesn’t yield to the older players, then I think it’s a great idea to play up.”
Some of the college coaches also cited another significant reason to allow children in my daughter’s circumstance to play with her school-age team rather than a birth-year team. As she gets older, not playing with the girls graduating in her same school year could put her a significant disadvantage in recruiting. College coaches focus most of their recruiting efforts one class at a time and will be much more likely to go to a game where most of the girls on the teams are projected to graduate at the same time. “I’ve seen some players get lost a bit,” said National Teamer Sam Baggett Bohon, head coach at Embry-Riddle University. “So, for example, if I’m looking for players for my 2023 class and a team has 12 of them vs. a team that has two of them, I’m more likely to prioritize my time during a busy tournament on the team where I can see more players in the same graduating class.”
Sam also told me that younger players with experience against older players can be a distinct advantage in college, since freshman are inherently playing up in most situations. International players in particular, she said, often come to the U.S. college system with a leg up. “It’s pretty common to find a graduating (international) senior having played with experienced older players if they’re good enough,” she said. “We do value this experience over an American player who’s playing predominantly with her own age.”
THE HIGHER GOAL — If you read the volumes of debate about the playing up topic on-line and in books, you’ll see that U.S. Soccer was broadly criticized. Participation in youth soccer has dropped off markedly since 2016 and some say it’s because children want to play their first games with their school buddies and, if they can’t, they’ll pick a different sport. U.S. Soccer is also criticized because the birth-year rule, while making it somewhat easier for coaches to pick the 30 best players in each age group nationally, results in challenging conversations and circumstances for thousands families and communities all across the country who struggle with this issue. “For the detractors of the switch, it's seen as a move that inconveniences many to serve a few,” said Mike Woltalla of the magazine Soccer America.
If a young player is truly special and stays on age and dominates, an argument can be made that the player will be more likely to be noticed by a scout for U.S. Soccer. No data backs up this thesis; but if it’s your goal to be seen as a someone who might be chosen to be on the U-14 U.S. National Team, then maybe it’s more beneficial to go out and score three goals in a U13 elite tournament game than it would be to, say, be an average starter in a U14 tournament game. “If she’s a U16 thriving amongst U17s, she will be noticed by college coaches,” said National Teamer and soccer Hall of Famer April Heinrichs, who was in charge of the youth programs at U.S. Soccer when it implemented the rule. “If she’s buried amongst all the older players, it wouldn’t be good — it would be better to have her play with her own age-group.”
Given the millions of American children playing the game, however, the odds are about 100,000-1 that any given soccer-playing child will make a youth National Team. Even if a child is playing high-level soccer at age 11 and above, the odds are still stacked mightily against making a national roster. The goal should be solid, incremental development with as little mental and family stress as possible. For children still playing high level club soccer in their teenage years, playing in college, even obtaining a scholarship, is a reasonable goal. Anything more than that is, honestly, a pipe dream for almost everyone. “So many players I ask: ‘Who wants to be a professional?’ They all raise their hands. I say, ‘Do you guys even know what that means?” said National Teamer Yael Averbuch on Page 99 of our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “That means you’re distancing yourself from the rest of this group.”
At age 11, my daughter will still state privately that she wants to make the National Team, but is savvy enough to know that simply making a good college team isn’t a given. In the meantime, I’ve concluded that I’ll nudge her toward the highest quality team we can find that projects her as a potential starter. It’s not fair to limit her long-term development because of some random age rule — and I’m thankful that our club has empowered our family to be part of that decision, even if they don’t always agree with us.