It may be the offseason for most NWSL players, but nearly two dozen of the league’s best have been hard at work for the last two months in an attempt to earn their C License through U.S. Soccer.
Starting in late September, 21 players representing every team in the league met up in Salt Lake City to kick off the effort. First came a full week of 12-hour sessions, which was then followed by 10 weeks of homework assignments and practicums. This week, the course will culminate with the players meeting up in Utah once again for their final assessment.
Part of a joint partnership between the NWSL, U.S. Soccer, Utah Royals FC and U.S. Soccer donors, the class was offered to the players free of cost and represented an effort to increase the number of women coaches. Utah Royals FC and owner Dell Loy Hansen also helped arrange housing in the team’s apartments and a nearby hotel, as well as meals and rental cars for the players while they were in town.
“We’ve had to kind of take our player hat off and put our coaching hat on,” said Orlando Pride defender Ali Krieger. “I can say I respect my coaches a little bit more now that I’ve been through the course. It’s pretty demanding, yet very rewarding. We’re learning a lot. Our instructors are super-knowledgeable. They’re inspiring and now have become some of our mentors throughout this process.”
“We need more female coaches in the world, especially in the NWSL and in youth development,” she added. “With us having all the knowledge that we have from playing at the highest level and going through different levels throughout our careers, I think we already have that advantage over a lot of other coaches who might just be starting out. And I think we need to start being willing to take these courses and give back in a way.”
North Carolina Courage midfielder Heather O’Reilly explained that she took the course as a first step in her coaching journey and is interested in pursuing her B License and maybe even her UEFA badges in the future.
“I wanted to take the class because I’m really interested in coaching and managing at a high level,” said O’Reilly. “I think I’m at the point in my career, obviously, where I’m in my latter years, I suppose, and looking to the future of what I’m going to be doing after my playing days are wrapped up.”
Utah Royals FC goalkeeper Abby Smith hopes to use the course as a springboard in her own coaching career down the road. Having already completed half of her master’s degree in education, she wants to work in a high school or middle school and coach at the youth level.
“I actually want to be a teacher when I’m done [playing] just because I like the thought of giving back to kids that aren’t in the best situations and don’t necessarily have everything that is provided for them,” she said.
In that role, Smith’s goal is to build confidence in players who might otherwise be overlooked. She also thinks it’s important to make sure young players remember to enjoy the game.
“I feel like now it’s so competitive, it’s so driven — to a point where there has to be an endgame of, ‘I have to play in college,’ or ‘I have to be in [Division 1],’ or ‘I have to get a scholarship.’ At the end of the day, I feel like kids need to have fun and really enjoy what they’re doing,” said Smith. “I also want to be able to give them the confidence that they may not have and also show them that sport can be an avenue for them to really grow as a person and better themselves.”
All three players said they picked up different lessons from the course with O’Reilly noting that she particularly appreciated the parts that dealt with how to plan out and break down an entire season of training sessions to “shape it with player loads and physical demands.”
“I am a very eager player who wants results right away and that will be a challenge for me to sort of have a little bit more long-term plan and patience,” she said.
O’Reilly also praised the tactical aspects of the course. “[There’s] a big emphasis on decision-making and I think that’s where our country sort of still lacks,” she explained. “Certainly in my development, I’ve had wonderful coaches and wonderful playing environments, but I do think that in comparison to some other parts of the world, the areas of decision-making and problem-solving is maybe where we sort of lack in the U.S., so I think that’s where we have to spend some time trying to catch up.”
Krieger has high ambitions for her coaching career, explaining that she would be interested in coaching at the professional level, or even the U.S. national team. Yet, she also understands the value of youth development, stressing that kids deserve coaches who understand the game, know how to lead, and are willing to work hard — all values reinforced throughout the course.
“Not all great players are good coaches, so you have to really practice,” said Krieger. “You have to study. You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations out on the field teaching kids. It’s about teaching.”
She added: “It’s our duty as a coach to impact so many young kids’ lives. … I think that the best part about it—that you’re not only impacting them on the field and teaching them about the game, but you’re teaching them life skills that they can carry on.
“A lot of us can say that about our youth coaches because we had a certain connection with them when we were young and they knew that they could impact us with their experiences — and so incredibly at a young age — and mold us into good people and good players.”
All three players acknowledged that the United States, despite being a world leader in women’s soccer for decades, still has a significant gender imbalance in the coaching ranks at all levels. In 2018, three of nine NWSL head coaches were women and three of the 16 teams to make it to the Division 1 NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament Round of 16 were coached by women. In 2015, 32% of women’s college soccer coaches were women. They’re hoping this course can be a first step in moving the needle in the opposite direction.
“I think [the lack of women coaches] could be because there’s a misconception that it’s hard to coach and have a family, or it’s hard to prioritize what is needed, so people think that you can’t be an elite coach while being a female,” said Smith. “I don’t think that’s true. … It’s traditionally been a male-dominant field and I think that’s something that we’re trying to change.”
Krieger says that women need to recognize what they can contribute to the game through coaching. She argues that many women, especially those in the NWSL and those with national team experience, are more knowledgeable than many of those currently in the coaching field.
“We are just as knowledgeable, if not more knowledgeable than a lot of the male counterparts and coaches,” she said. “We need more female, badass coaches in the world and I know that a lot of the women who are going through the NWSL and the national team, we have experienced so much and we can use that to give back to the youth.”
O’Reilly explained that there are many reasons women haven’t gotten into coaching in the past, including a lack of representation that has created a self-perpetuating problem.
“There’s not one reason why [there aren’t more women coaches],” said O’Reilly. “Some of it is due to women wanting to have families, some of it is due to confidence. Some of it is due to people that we’ve seen in those spots before and that gets you in a rut of thinking that that’s what a coach looks like or acts like.
“I certainly think my generation of players, there’s so many of my peers that are interested in coaching, so hopefully, those numbers go up soon.”
All three also agreed that providing the course cost-free was a major incentive and likely to help more women get into the coaching profession.
“Sometimes you have to break some cycles by doing things like that and being bold and taking big steps and that’s what they did,” said O’Reilly.
“We’re super thankful that the league and U.S. Soccer provided [the course] for us because a lot of us, [coaching is] kind of something that we’re still trying to push for,” Smith said. “[It’s] making it a little bit easier for us to access that side just because our league is still growing.”