From the raucous futsal courts of New York City high school gymnasiums to the dirt fields and searing heat of Nigeria, Gwendolyn Oxenham’s “Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer” peels back the layers on women’s football around the globe. The sum of this collection of non-fiction stories is a snapshot of young women sacrificing everything in pursuit of success and building a career in the beautiful game. For me, this book brought back memories of playing as a young girl, when anything was still possible. While reading about these inspirational women pursuing a dream in the sport they love, I was constantly reminded of the hours I spent banging the ball against my parents garage door in my Mia Hamm jersey -- right foot, left foot (still crap) -- playing so often on the hard concrete that I ground down my first pair of cleats until there was no rubber left on the bottom. For anyone who has dreamed of a career in football, this book will remind you why you fell in love with the sport in the first place.
SG: What was it about this collection of stories that inspired you to write them, and how did you come across them?
GO: I wanted to know what it meant to play pro, or pro-ish, women’s soccer all over the world. There was stuff out there about Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach and the American players, but I was interested in the nobodies. Because I played [Gwendolyn played at Duke University and 1 year pro in Brazil] I had connections. So I used my foot in the soccer world to go on a big scavenger hunt. I would hear something and then I’d want to go find the full story. One thing would lead me to another. What’s lucky about women’s soccer is that there aren’t 10 levels and layers that you have to go through. It’s not like trying to reach out to Wayne Rooney. Usually you can get someone to call you back.
SG: The NWSL features prominently in your book. The league just kicked off its sixth season. What are you most looking forward to this year?
GO: Utah [The Utah Royals, a team new to the league this year] has thrown a level of resources at the game and are really treating their players like professionals in a way that’s not really been seen before, so I’m interested to see what that looks like. I’m always interested in the Marta/Alex Morgan combo in Orlando. Portland -- I’m a huge Allie Long fan, and now she’s playing for Seattle, their rivals, so I’m curious how that goes. I love Megan Rapinoe -- so Rapinoe and Allie Long together in Seattle is really interesting to me. I just want to see how the league grows. We’re in uncharted territory. We’ve gone beyond the other leagues [Previous professional women’s leagues in America, the WUSA and WPS, lasted two and three seasons, respectively]. I look forward to seeing all the ways it keeps growing, and I would love to see it become a part of the national conversation. We still have a ways to go with regards to that.
SG: The last chapter in the book focuses on Portland and their phenomenally successful women’s team. What is it about the city of Portland in particular and the culture they have there that makes it so uniquely successful?
GO: There are the obvious answers-- they benefit from the infrastructure of the Timbers. They come from a soccer city where soccer has always been embraced. Portland is an offbeat place. They like the weirdos, and the outliers. And women’s soccer is an outlier and an underdog, and so the offbeat nature of the city fits with the offbeat nature of women’s soccer. But I also think that in Portland women’s soccer isn’t an obligation. I think that ever since the leagues folded originally, women’s soccer is this thing that people feel that they should support. And where’s the fun in that? What Portland has done has made women's soccer not a thing you’re obligated to do but rather something that you absolutely have to go check out because of how awesome it is.
SG: How would you encourage other NWSL owners, fan groups etc to develop their culture and fan base similar to what exists in Portland?
GO: I think that one thing is you can’t just market to families. For a family, it's really hard-- people get busy, you cant go to every game. So marketing to beyond families, and having beer-- making it an experience. In Portland, there are 5 or 6 people who are just absolutely dedicated to it, and when you have 5 or 6 you can rope in more people and grow it. There’s an amazing NWSL supporters Facebook group comprised of the dedicated die-hard passionate folks from every team, not just the Riveters. It’s just a larger network in Portland. But there are very very supportive, tightly knit groups for all of the teams. And they’re just working on figuring out how to do it to the same scale as the Riveters.
SG: What do you make of some NWSL players venturing over to play in Europe. Do you think that the rapid rise of investment by huge soccer brands like Man United, Man City, Chelsea, PSG etc could negatively impact the NWSL in any way or do you think that growth, wherever it happens, is good for the women’s game?
GO: I think growth wherever it happens is good, and I don’t think that they have to be mutually exclusive. I love the idea of cultures bleeding and inspiring each other. Whatever is working for England, how can we make it work for us? And if they’re doing really well I like to think that it will help us rise up to that level too. I think experiencing different forms of football is good for a player's development.
SG: Football, at least on the men’s side, is often times obsessed with individual talents and superstars, whereas the women’s game has always been more about a collective. Obviously, we’ve had our occasional superstars, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain to name a couple. But do you think to take women’s football to that next level, do we need female soccer brands? And if you think so, who could you see emerging in the next couple of years as the next big face of women’s soccer?
GO: I definitely think soccer brands have been big. My nieces both play soccer, and Alex Morgan was huge for them. They loved Alex Morgan, even when they might not know the other players. So, I can see why it would be helpful to have a big name for people to rally around. Mallory Pugh has obviously been cited, but there is such an influx right now of new players. And I don’t think it’s clear who has emerged. I was saying Christen Press would be it for a long time, and I still think she’s incredible. Sam Kerr is just insane, ridiculous. I think that she’s the next Marta level superstar. There’s a new Colombian player Lacey Santos, but she’s just a baby and isn’t a star yet, but I could see her becoming a star.
SG: Your favorite ever women’s football player, and your favorite ever women’s football goal?
GO: Marta, and Marta. Maybe it makes me un-American, but the semi-final against the U.S. where she does that ridiculous circus act, and then scores through three different defenders [WATCH HERE]. That’s just magic. I was in Brazil during that game. And when I played soccer in Brazil, I knew about Marta but the Brazilians didn’t. No one had ever heard of her. And that game, she was all over the newspapers, everybody was watching the highlights. Everyone cared because of that goal. I remember watching her when she was 17 in her first World Cup. I literally sat up, moved to the coffee table and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She’s a gift. She’s an absolute gift. I think she’s the greatest who will ever play the game.
SG: Looking back on this whole writing journey and the people you’ve spoken to are there any big takeaways that really stand out to you about the underside of the women’s game that we don’t necessarily get to see on TV?
GO: Anson Dorrance [coach at UNC Chapel Hill and 21-time NCAA national champion] has a quote from once when he watched Mia Hamm training by herself. “A champion is someone who is bent over in exhaustion when no one else is watching.” What he meant was you’re putting in the time on your own, even without a coach to impress. I think that quote has become eerily true for women’s soccer in general, in that even if you do make it to the top and you’re a professional women’s soccer player -- no one is watching still. The thing with women’s soccer is that it’s just the clearest form of doing something for love and that’s it. You’re definitely not doing it for money and you’re definitely not doing it for fame. You’re simply doing it because you can’t imagine not. These girls are choosing this over much more lucrative professions. They’re choosing it at the expense of families. And that to me is really inspiring.