Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect
The Ups and Downs of Women’s Soccer
Words by Christine Van Dyk
Phots from Utah Royals FC

When Michelle Maemone closes her eyes, she can hear the roar of 18,000 fans, their cheers echoing across Rio Tinto Stadium.

“The sound was electric, an adrenaline high like I’ve never experienced,” the Utah Royals FC player said. 

It was the first match of Michelle’s professional career, and she was on the pitch.

With a fever that reached 102 degrees the day before and would spike again by halftime, she took to the field. Subbing in for two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Kelley O’Hara, it was the reward for a lifetime spent in cleats.

After a near-perfect performance that contributed to a shutout, the defensive player jogged off the field knowing she’d done her job. Her parents and teammates cheered; Kelley O’Hara pumped her fists in the air.

It sounds like make-believe. This would be the first of many starts, fans would wear her jersey, and endorsements would roll in. But while this is no fairy tale, it’s the story of a professional female athlete—with much more to that story.

The youngest of three, Michelle was drawn to the sport before she could walk, by curiosity, by desire or maybe just by the need to keep up. There’s a family picture of a giddy toddler swallowed in a pile of soccer balls. It explains the spunky girl who’d later carry a soccer ball to junior high school.

“My friends enjoyed playing, but they were also drawn to other things,” Michelle recalls. “For me it was always soccer.”

But passion and grit are no match for dumb luck.

After a stellar start to high school that attracted attention from college scouts, Michelle tore her ACL. A year later she tore it again. 

“I knew I was good enough,” she admits, “yet I still spent a lot of time on the sideline. I contemplated if I could make it back, be the player I once was.”

She would come back with a vengeance. 

Her meteoric rise began with a new position. Timid from that tell-tale pop her ACL made when it tore, her coach decided to move her from attack to defense, and she remains an outside back to this day. The change propelled her into the top tier of collegiate soccer at Pepperdine University and onto the Utah Royals roster.

Her arrival in Salt Lake City coincided with a time the world was grappling with issues of gender inequality, and many wondered if this reckoning would extend to the pitch.

A lawsuit brought by several World Cup players revealed that women in the 2019 games competed for just 7.5 percent of the prize money awarded to men the previous year. However, the pay gap of elite players tells only part of the story. The real disconnect is at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) level, and in particular with young players such as Michelle. 

Female players make a minimum of $20,000, up from $16,538 a year ago. In comparison, men make a minimum of $56,250, and their ceiling is up to 10 times what females can make.

“This is a rewarding job, but it’s not always a sustainable or stable career,” Michelle said. “I know players who work second jobs. I don’t make enough in the off-season to live on my own, so I move back home.”

It’s not the prestige one would assume of a professional athlete, and yet there is a sense the tide might be turning. Over the past few years the league has begun adding teams, and with many World Cup players in their 30s, a platform exists for younger players to step onto. Also, the emergence of celebrity-owned teams, such as the upcoming Angel City FC, hints at greater notoriety for female athletics. 

Amid such promise, Michelle began her second season with the Royals. 

Then, out of nowhere, a pandemic swept the globe and brought soccer to a grinding halt. 

“It’s been weird,” Michelle says. “We spent months not leaving our apartments except to run. We limited our grocery runs and avoided interaction with fans. A positive test could impact the whole team.”

Ironically, the quarantine seems to have brought the team together, and the opening match of the Challenge Cup this past June was the most-watched game in NWSL history. 

No one knows the future of women’s soccer. Some worry restrictions on foreign play could impact recruiting options for undrafted players. Others fear co-ed organizations may defund women’s teams in an effort to cover revenue deficits. 

And yet the game goes on. 

As the Royals stepped onto the field for the final game of the abbreviated season, the women seemed hopeful. There was a palpable camaraderie among the lucky few in the stands. 

Unlike the fanfare of those 18,000 spectators a year ago, the stadium was eerily quiet. The battle was hard fought in the silence, and the W did not go to the Royals. It was a tough loss for those who’d gambled so much on this life

“When I close my eyes, I see that little girl on the field,” she says. “She doesn’t know how good she is, but there is joy on her face. And while soccer is not who I am, I’m pretty lucky that it is what I get to do. That’s what I’ll remember on days like these. There are no regrets.”