'The most wonderful time in women’s soccer': NC Courage and the NWSL are making the women’s game boom

<p>Carla Overbeck didn't have the infrastructure of a professional league, but certainly helped in its development.&nbsp;</p>

Carla Overbeck didn't have the infrastructure of a professional league, but certainly helped in its development. 

In the peak of her career, Carla Overbeck, assistant coach of the Duke women’s soccer team, was working two jobs. She balanced the assistant coaching gig for the Blue Devils with her position as a starter on the U.S. Women’s National Team. Most of the year, Overbeck trained by herself. In 1995, when the U.S. women got third place in the World Cup, there was not a professional women’s soccer league in America. In 1996, when they won Gold at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, there was not a professional women’s soccer league in America. In 1999, when Overbeck captained her team to a World Cup final victory, there was not a professional women’s soccer league in America.

“We couldn’t just be labeled a professional and play soccer for our job,” Overbeck told The Chronicle.

Now, women’s professional soccer is booming in the United States. Ten years ago, in the early days of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), few people were confident in the league’s longevity, even in the feasibility of women’s professional soccer. Now, teams like the Courage are proving those skeptics wrong.

That’s not to say a career as a woman in professional soccer is easy, or has a clear path. The industry lives in a state of serious flux, catalyzed by the national growth both of soccer and of women’s sports across the board. Women’s soccer players do not make nearly as much money as their male counterparts, and there are fewer professional players on the women’s side than on the men’s. But players and team owners are advocating for change, and everyone is watching it happen.

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The N.C. Courage’s home field lies just 23 miles from Koskinen Stadium, where Duke women’s soccer kicks around.

The cheers at WakeMed Soccer Park are more high-pitched than one can usually expect at a professional sporting event. Quite a lot of them come from little kids — predominantly girls — sporting pigtails and youth-small jerseys. Many hold up hand-made signs, really just stolen sheets of printer paper with misspelled attempts at “Go Courage!”

On this April Friday evening in Cary, WakeMed hosts 8,135 fans for the Courage’s home game against Seattle Reign F.C., its fifth-largest regular-season crowd in history. The weather is perfect for football — clear skies, a setting sun. WakeMed is designed for a crowd like this: With a maximum capacity of 10,000, the park looks crowded and cheers echo through the surrounding forest, but it’s not overstuffed.

There wasn’t a professional women’s soccer league in America until Overbeck and 19 of her World Cup-winning teammates formed the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001. In 2003, 100 million dollars in debt, that league went bankrupt. Six years later, a new Women’s Professional League played its first game. Three years later, that shut down, too, citing internal problems and resource shortages.

When the NWSL launched in 2013, Overbeck, at 45, was past her playing years. She’d had a storied career — four national titles with North Carolina, winner of the first-ever Women’s World Cup, Olympic gold medalist, National Soccer Hall of Famer — but she had done it all as a trailblazer. There was no infrastructure for Overbeck to reach the level of success that she and her teammates found on the international stage. They made it happen with sheer force of will.

***

Women’s players are still making things happen with force of will, but now they have some scaffolding. Brianna Pinto, a member of the Courage roster since 2022, stands at 5-foot-5, on the shorter side for a professional. She’s also on the younger side, at 23, where the NWSL has an average age of 27. Still, Pinto fits comfortably into the role of leader. She has excellent posture, a strong stance, a level voice made for public speaking. She uses it. On the field, the midfielder plays high-speed, high-intelligence soccer, with fast footwork and frequent shot attempts. She passes a lot. She’s a team player, and she’s the same way off the field.

In 2018, Pinto was one of three athletes from North America to present its bid to host the 2026 World Cup. The players got what they asked for. The U.S. will also host the FIFA Club World Cup, and potentially the inaugural Women’s Club World Cup when FIFA launches it in 2026.

Throw in Lionel Messi’s move to the MLS in 2023 and you’ll see that soccer, the most popular sport in the world, is finally climbing the ranks of American sports royalty. Which, according to class of 1988 Duke graduate Francie Gottsegen, is exactly how professional women’s soccer is going to succeed.

Gottsegen has been the president of the Courage and of North Carolina F.C. for just over two years. Her strategy — the industry’s strategy — for growing women’s soccer is simple: promote football, promote women. When interest in the MLS grows, it helps the NWSL. When interest in the WNBA grows, that helps the NWSL. Caitlin Clark’s success supports Brianna Pinto’s success, and so does Messi’s. It is not a coincidence that women’s soccer has seen huge success in the last couple of years.

“We’re entering the most wonderful time in women’s soccer in history, where so many brands from different industries are finally investing in the game,” Pinto says.

For this season, the minimum salary in the NWSL sits at $37,856, according to CBS Sports. The average salary hovers around $65,000, though that doesn’t account for the housing which most NWSL teams subsidize for their players. Neither of these numbers are all that large, but they used to be much smaller. Between 2021 and 2024, the minimum salary in the NWSL jumped from $22,000 to where it is now — an increase of more than 50%. In December, the NWSL signed its biggest deal ever, agreeing to give Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez $1.5 million dollars over four seasons for an average yearly payout of $375,000. With sponsorship deals, which most professionals are signing these days, the average annual income for players is realistically much higher than the mid-sixties. Pinto’s income, for example, is highly subsidized by her status as an Adidas Athlete.

“And now we’re seeing viewership come to life,” Pinto says.

*** 

The kids with pigtails and misspelled signs crowding WakeMed Soccer Park are a big part of the NWSL’s growth. Gottsegen strives to connect fans with players: Any member of the Courage who wants to, which is most players, can hang out at a designated spot on the field after home games to meet fans, take photos and sign jerseys.

“Female athletes engage with their fans much more than male athletes do, and I think in different ways, in more meaningful ways,” Gottsegen says. “We have to, in order to get that support, but by doing it you create a connection.”

Maybe women’s soccer players have to work harder off the field to make a livable or lucrative wage. Maybe a career in the NWSL depends more on the support of young, female fans than it would in a different professional league (Gottsegen says the Courage’s fanbase skews young and female, though not dramatically). But those fans are there, the interest is there, money is there and coming in faster now than it ever has.

“We’ve flipped the narrative,” Gottsegen says. “Women’s soccer and women’s sports, to a certain extent, overall have been viewed a little bit as a charity, a little bit of a cause — ‘it’s the right thing to do.’ But it’s the smart thing to do, is what I now like to say.”

In November, the NWSL signed $240 million worth of media rights deals with TV providers — CBS and ESPN among them.

“We put a great product out on the pitch,” Gottsegen says, “and people want to come and see that, brands are starting to see it, media partners are starting to realize it.”

***

Riley Jackson, the youngest player on the N.C. Courage roster, was supposed to be a Blue Devil. But between her sophomore and junior years of high school, the professional game became, in Jackson’s eyes, a sturdy enough career to bypass college soccer, largely thanks to Olivia Moultrie.

In 2021, then 15-year-old Moultrie filed and won a lawsuit against the NWSL so that she could sign with Portland Thorns F.C. before turning 18. Until then, women couldn’t go pro — or even sign — until they reached legal adult status. Now, teams can sign girls without an age restriction, and the NWSL has seen an immediate influx of younger players. Moultrie has scored six goals in her regular-season career thus far and has a spot on the national team roster. She is 18.

Overbeck helped recruit Jackson, who recently turned 18, to play for Duke in 2022, when she was a sophomore in high school. But in 2023, Jackson retracted her verbal commitment to the Blue Devils and signed with the Courage, instead. She has spent her senior year taking online classes through her private school in Roswell, Ga.

“It was really the hardest decision of my life,” Jackson says. “In the end, I'm really happy that I made the decision just because I'm so, so happy to be here.”

Her job has worked out, so far. “If you're skipping your education, you need to be making enough money,” she says her parents told her. Jackson has found the financial gamble to be worth it: Things are different enough now from the time Overbeck was her age that Jackson can give up a Duke education for a career in the NWSL and not be too worried about it.

Overbeck, however, wouldn’t have necessarily taken Jackson’s path, even if given the chance.

“It would be a tough decision, I think, to forgo college,” Overbeck says. “College was four of the best years of my life. I had a chance to develop, I had a chance to fail, I had a chance to succeed. I feel sometimes when you jump straight to the pros, you're expected to be this player. I feel like you have to grow up very quickly.”

She’s right — failure has higher stakes in the NWSL than it does in college, where an athlete is a student whose livelihood does not necessarily depend on soccer. There are questions that hang over Jackson’s head: What if she gets injured? What if she’s not good enough? What will she do then?

But those are the kind of questions that all professional athletes have to ask themselves, man or woman. What the NWSL has done in the last couple of years is get rid of the question, for women’s soccer players, “Can I go pro?”

***

The pigtails in WakeMed Soccer Park suddenly rise. Striker Tyler Lussi has broken the static of the match’s first half-hour with a volley off the back of her foot that soared right over the outstretched arms of Seattle’s pink-clad goalkeeper. Someone bangs a steel drum from the left sideline and the home team sounds a siren as the Courage gathers in a group hug by the goalpost, its players’ blue jerseys blurring together.

The pigtails and their parents, and several thousand other people, scream across the field. “N.C.!” shouts one side of the stands. “Courage!” yells the other. It’s clearly a practiced chant; these fans are regulars at WakeMed Park.

In the 89th minute, Jackson runs onto the field, her brown hair pulled taught in a ponytail. Up close, the 18-year-old looks her age, if not younger. But from the stands, all anyone can see of No. 16 is a midfielder running her fastest, dribbling her best, defending her hardest. 

Riley Jackson is proving herself, and her sport, worthy of the field.


Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports Managing Editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.

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