Jamaica vs. U.S. Will Test This Family's Allegiance to the Red, White & Blue

Custom-made jerseys in 2017 honored our family's new houseguest . . .

I'M OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER the deep, agonizing pain of seeing the Boston Bruins' all-time best player Bobby Orr suiting up for the Chicago Blackhawks at the end of his career. I empathize with the San Francisco 49ers fans who had to endure two years of watching Joe Montana play for the Kansas City Chiefs. I honestly still don’t know who I’ll be rooting for on Oct. 3, 2021, when the New England Patriots — my favorite NFL team since 1969 — kick off against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He should have been a Patriot for life. Bill Belichick made a profoundly stupid decision to let Tom go. End of discussion.

This Sunday night at 10 p.m. eastern time I’ll be facing a similar dilemma. The United States women’s national soccer team will be playing Jamaica and, in our soccer-crazed household whose world is disproportionately dominated by my 11-year-old daughter, Angie, we treat National Team games like stop-the-presses Must See TV. Normally, we’d be all in for the women wearing red, white and some shade of blue. This Sunday, though, we’ll be tracking the women in yellow and green, especially the one with the number 6 on the front of her Jamaican jersey.

I call Havana Solaun my soccer daughter. Because virtually all professional women’s soccer players didn’t make a living wage in 2017, players like Havana were placed with “host families” who provided free rent in an available room in their homes. I raised my family’s hand back then and, seemingly out of nowhere, a world-class soccer player from the Washington Spirit was frying her breakfast sausages and scrambling her eggs in our kitchen many mornings for the next two years. Just like Renée Zellweger's character Dorothy Boyd in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” Havana had us at hello. We loved her instantly, as I noted in my book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” Knowing Havana is what made meeting Joanna Lohman, and writing the book, possible.

My daughters and their friends were always at the front of Havana's autograph line . . .

Some people in the last few years have suggested that we were generous for opening our home to a stranger. My perspective is the benefits were mostly ours. With a daughter who believes or believed, depending on the day, that she, too, can be a National Teamer, we were able to see first-hand how utterly difficult it was (is) to be a women’s professional soccer player in America. If Havana had been a professional male, staying with a host family at age 23 would have been unthinkable. If she had been a male, she would have had better facilities, a vastly larger paycheck, qualified team doctors to help her overcome injuries, more opportunities for sponsors — and not have had to endure the sound of my older daughter’s cello practices wafting through her bedroom door while she was trying to sleep.

This big one didn't get away . . .

Havana showed us what it means to be dedicated to a dream no matter what. She showed us breathtakingly good skills. Look at the speed, agility and instinct it took to complete this goal in May of 2017: https://washingtonspirit.com/2017/05/06/washington-spirit-earns-4-3-home-win-over-sky-blue-fc/ (2:00 mark of the video). Along the way, she fished with us in the pond in the ravine, patiently answered my endless questions about youth soccer, coached Angie in the front yard, and showed up to watch with her teammates at the wine bar when my son was beginning to follow his own dream of making it as a professional musician (www.DukePaul.com). In short, she became a member of our family. When Havana scored the first and only World Cup goal in Jamaican women’s soccer history in 2019, I literally cried for minutes on end. I get teared up again, every time I watch the replay (https://www.foxsports.com/watch/1544512579516). Have you seen a better, more athletic, goal?

A made-by-soccer family . . .

To many people, Sunday night’s contest between the U.S. and Jamaica will be inconsequential. It’s like the first-game-in-September college football scenario where the powerhouse schedules the patsy to puff up the quarterback and the stats. The U.S. team is ranked No. 1 in the world and Jamaica is somewhere south of 50th. On paper, the U.S. should win at least 4-0. For me, though, this game means everything. My view, as her soccer Dad, is that Havana could (should) be on the U.S. team instead. Born in Hong Kong to a Cuban father and Jamaican mother with dual citizenship in Canada and the U.S., Havana grew up in Florida as an American girl who played with and against many of the women on the current U.S. team as a youth player. She was called in to seven different youth National Team camps through the years but, ultimately, the coaches let her slip away.

As I have watched Havana become a starter for the North Carolina Courage this season, spraying uncannily great passes all over the field, I wonder what might have been. I think of what Havana revealed to me during an interview that appears on page 241 of our book: “I’d like to think that some point down the road, the U.S. coaches will watch Jamaica play and say, ‘Dang, we missed out on that one.’” Sunday night could be that night.

When Khadija Shaw and raised Havana Solaun off the ground, the two women lifted the hearts of a nation with them. Credit: dpa/Alamy Live News from Page 241 of Raising Tomorrow's Champions

But Sunday isn’t really about proving anyone wrong. As Havana stated in our book, playing for Jamaica — with women whose blood flows through her own veins — is probably the way it was supposed to work out all along. Leading a group of underdogs, a group of Davids vs. Goliaths if you will, has become her higher calling ever since she pulled on the crest of a group of soccer vagabonds known as the “Reggae Girlz.” It’s a team where basic needs of players are barely met, sort of like the U.S. Women’s National Team circa 1985. I’ll never forget what Havana told me: “The game has taken on a higher purpose in my life now; it’s not just about me anymore. I just hope I can show them how to play the game with dignity and give them hope for a better future.”

So come Sunday night at 10, for this one game, I know who I’ll be rooting for.

Book Excerpt — Concussions: Are the Rewards Worth the Risks?

NOTE: This story appears on pages 182-183 of Raising Tomorrow's Champions

Whitney Klein . . . facing a life of challenge brought on by her love of the game (FROM PAGE 182 OF RAISING TOMORROW'S CHAMPIONS)

Whitney Klein, from what I could observe from the sideline, was a demure high school-aged assistant coach for my daughter’s club team. She seemed to quietly come and go sporadically for two seasons, for reasons left mostly unexplained, except that the effects of her soccer-related concussions were lingering. When Whitney didn’t appear at practice at all during the winter and pre-Covid spring of 2020, I reached out. “Soccer is my thing!” Whitney told me in a tone that instantly quelled my impression of her shyness. The game is in her DNA, she said. Her grandmother Elizabeth Phillips Stoddard was a pioneer who filed a formal complaint with the Wellesley school board in Massachusetts in the late 1970s to force the town to add a girls’ high school team, which she coached. Her first-ever roster, notably, included future National Team player and coach Dr. Lauren Gregg.

Whitney laughed disarmingly when she told me about suffering her first concussion playing goalie at age 10. The fog was so thick she never saw the shot go by, and when she went back to retrieve the ball she also never saw the goalpost coming. “I grabbed the post with both of my hands and tried to hold myself up, then I kind of just collapsed,” she said. That would require a seven-month recovery. At age 13, playing midfielder, she took a shot to the back of the head. She sat out the rest of that game, played the next day, but felt progressively worse. Diagnosed with concussion number two, she missed three months of soccer.

Fast forward to her final soccer practice as a player, Nov. 14, 2017, suffered a head-on collision in front of the goal. The result was an Advil for one girl — and nearly three years of emergency rooms, entire semesters of school missed, and trips to the Mayo Clinic for Whitney. During that winter of 2019 and spring of 2020, she was hospitalized for acute migraine headaches, followed by a month of intensive physical therapy. She rattles off just some of her conditions like a med student — acute light-headedness (“postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome”), swelling of the throat (“idiopathic angioedema”), and chronic fatigue syndrome (“myalgic encephalomyelitis”) — yet can no longer do the most basic math problems without a calculator, and has lost the faculties to learn new languages.

Through it all, said Whitney, she was never a crier — except when she tried to come back to the soccer field in those early days of coaching. What I mistook for shyness was actually a barely concealed broken heart. “My greatest joy was taken away from me,” she said, still remarkably upbeat. “I have had to learn to love the game again in a different way.” When I asked her what I thought was the most obvious question, she reiterated that to be able to play the sport that her grandmother fought for meant everything. “Yes, I had all the doctors discourage me from playing all my life since the first concussion. My parents knew soccer was my one true love, and they let me continue. After the second concussion, I think most everyone wanted me to stop . . . and I’m so grateful that I didn’t because I really would not be the person that I am today. I mean, if I wouldn’t have gotten that last concussion, I literally would have been a radically different person. But I also would not have been able to play soccer for my freshman team. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” — P.T.

Sexual Abuse By Coaches: How To Stop it Before it Starts

Sports is supposed to be the sacred place. When we bring our children to sporting events, we think we’re signing them up for exercise, friendship and all the other positive life experiences that should come from kicking, throwing, punting, jumping, passing and team building. We want to trust the men and women who oversee our children in what should be sacrosanct moments — but as National Teamer Cindy Gordon’s story of being sexually groomed and abused by her youth coach showed us, all too often we can’t.

“If Cindy’s story helps one person, one child, one family, then it was worth it,” said her long-time friend and teammate, Amy Allmann Griffin. “My guess is her story will help a lot of people, because there a lot of people who need it, too many women who already lived through what Cindy has endured — due to a lack of knowledge of the risks.”

The responses from Cindy's revelation continue to bear that out. She reported being overwhelmed by the number of women who reached out to her, many of them saying in essence, “Me, too.” I also heard from some of these women, yet I did receive one anonymous on-line comment about how my selection of current headlines, plucked from a selection of the nation’s newspapers, was “sensationalistic.” One organization told me off the record that the issue of sexual abuse of players by coaches was “one-in-a-million,” and not something they had ever heard about in their own club. I’m still waiting for a call back from that club’s president for an on-the-record quote.

I’m sensitive to painting all coaches, especially male coaches, with the same tainted brush of doubt. My eyes tell me that the vast majority of coaches have nothing but the best of intentions; they are out there to help the girls and young women get better at their sport. Often they are fathers of daughters. I know my daughter’s first coach was unhappy with the quality of coaching and lack of resources his own daughter and her teammates were receiving relative to the boys, so he started coaching girls himself to level the playing field. I desperately want to believe — and do believe — that his intentions are pure.

As uncomfortable as it may make us, however, Amy and so many others believe it’s imperative that parents approach the coaching relationship with inherent trepidation. “There are a lot of guys coaching in the in the women’s game and you do have to wonder why they’re there,” said Amy, a long-time National Team goaltender and current coach and senior administrator with the Girls Academy, one of the premiere youth leagues in America. “Is it because they couldn’t survive in the men’s game? Is it because they are hoping girls will fawn all over them? Or is it for all the right reasons, they value the talents and potential the girls and women possess?”

Amy Allmann Griffin, right, with National Team icon Michelle Akers and Michelle's son, Cody, in a photo from Page 236 of the book, Raising Tomorrow's Champions (courtesy of Amy Allmann Griffin)

Amy said she played for many excellent male coaches throughout her life, yet inappropriate sexual behavior among coaches was rampant. “Girls didn’t say anything back then because we thought, ‘Oh, I guess this is what guys do.’ We shouldn’t complain because everyone’s doing it. You think, ‘I can’t go to a different team, because it’s happening on that team, too.’” Amy and Cindy Gordon’s National Team teammate, Emily Pickering Harner, agreed in a social media post congratulating Cindy for her courage: “It was just such an era where ‘pedophile, abuse and predator’ were not terms that we even use to contemplate.”

Amy said Girls Academy coaches now receive training about the issue of sexual abuse and maintaining proper boundaries between coaches and players. She agreed it might be a good idea to consider making this training mandatory for players and parents as well, something that another sexual abuse victim said she would like to see instituted at the highest levels at U.S. Soccer. “I guarantee if I had been told to look out for that kind of behavior from my coach, my life would have turned out differently,” said Amy Carnell, who revealed she had been molested by her youth soccer coach in Washington state. “That was a prime motivator for me to step forward last year and say, ‘Hey, look, this happened to me — and I want to help stop this from happening to others. But we need to do more.”

Both of these women and others helped us draw up a blueprint for parents to follow when trying to keep their children as safe as possible. Here’s the advice:

SET STRICT PROTOCOLS — Clubs, teams and leagues need rules that govern coach-player contact, and then steps must be taken to ensure adherence. “For example, for each team there needs to be two to three designated watchdog parents who are trained to specifically be looking out for signs of grooming, or sexual abuse,” said Amy Carnell.

ANNUAL TRAINING — Part of the orientation for each team each year needs to include age-appropriate information the issue of sexual abuse, including brochures and videos for parents and guardians to follow when talking to their children. 

If YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING — Parents and anyone else in the sports community need to speak up when even the slightest suspicion arises. Signs of sexual grooming include excessive attention to a single player or unusual gifts to one player, but not others.

AVOID ONE-ON-ONE SITUATIONS — Any situations that put a player and coach physically alone and out of view of others should be banned, including car rides home. Any necessary soccer-related individual meetings between players and coaches should be help in public spaces, such as hotel lobbies, team buses, or offices with the door open and, preferably, someone else in the room.

AVOID DIRECT COMMUNICATION — When coaches need to communicate with players about practice or game times, it should be conducted in group settings such as team-wide texts or emails, or ZOOM calls. Parents should avoid commenting on appropriate soccer issues such as playing time or  positions on the field — but otherwise monitor all communications between the players and coaches to be certain no inappropriate lines are crossed.


National Sexual Assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673

United Soccer Coaches course: https://unitedsoccercoaches.org/education/sexual-violence-the-facts/

The official policy of U.S. Youth Soccer: https://tnunitedsc.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/1221/2018/11/USYS-Code-of-Conduct-2.pdf

U.S. Center for SafeSport: https://uscenterforsafesport.org/

Safe4Athletes: https://safe4athletes.org/