Though Sky Blue FC had just convincingly lost to the Chicago Red Stars in a mid-September rout, there was still a celebration to be had at Yurcak Field. Forward Jen Hoy was handed a framed jersey with her name and the number 100 on the back as the latest player to reach the triple-digit mark in National Women’s Soccer League appearances.
“I just feel honored and blessed that I get to experience this,” Hoy said after the ceremony, “[and] my career honestly.”
Though players have been reaching the milestone of 100 NWSL game appearances since 2017, when Reign FC’s Lauren Barnes was the first to do it, the 2019 season has seen an uptick in players reaching the achievement. Each team now has at least one player who has at least 100 appearances, a sign of longevity for not just the league but its players.
All of the players who have reached the milestone so far were part of the league’s earliest seasons, which created a unique dynamic for players who were evolving while the league was doing the same.
“Those players have had to get better and continually fight to earn [their] spots,” NWSL Players Association executive director Yael Averbuch West told Pro Soccer USA last month. “You have to be better than you were yesterday, every single day, and so those players we’re seeing reaching 100 games are better players than when they were in their first game or tenth game or even 80th game.”
The NWSL was created with a lot of uncertainty around it, the natural result of following in the shadow of two leagues that folded after their third seasons. Hoy was a senior at Princeton University when the NWSL launched, though she had not previously considered going professional. She only entered the draft at the encouragement of her college coaches.
Others were more patient. Averbuch West played for Sweden’s Göteburg FC in between playing in Women’s Professional Soccer and NWSL, and she skipped the league’s inaugural season. The Houston Dash’s Amber Brooks was a senior at the University of North Carolina at the same time as Hoy, but opted for a wait-and-see approach with the fledgling new league.
“All of a sudden, this news is coming out that there’s realistically going to be a league,” Brooks told Pro Soccer USA this month. “There were so many unanswered questions, like who knew how the draft was going to work, and there were just a lot of unknowns.”
Brooks signed for Germany’s Bayern Munich a week before the first NWSL College Draft.
But from Europe, Brooks and Averbuch West kept their eyes on the NWSL. Averbuch West said she stayed up to watch matches during the 2013 NWSL season, and both said they were attracted by the competitiveness of the league. In 2014, both came back to the States, with Averbuch West signing for the Washington Spirit and Brooks joining the Portland Thorns.
“I’m happy I did,” Brooks said about playing for Bayern, “because I think once you come back to this league and you see how competitive it is and obviously playing in your home country, it’s hard to leave again.”
Brooks in particular said it was an ambition of hers to play professionally in the United States. Growing up in New Jersey, she was a season ticket holder for the Philadelphia Charge in the Women’s United Soccer Association and later Sky Blue in WPS. The success of NWSL is not lost on her as someone who grew a passionate supporter of women’s soccer.
The beauty of going through old pics ☺️ I was the biggest Charge fan back in the WUSA days pic.twitter.com/jimLRYNdjT
— Amber Brooks (@abrooks22) October 27, 2015
“It’s really cool that people my age are able to have this goal of playing pro soccer,” Brooks said.
The NWSL’s longevity has also meant Brooks, Hoy, and the other players who have made it to 100 league appearances are part of the first group to do so in American women’s soccer. As Averbuch West noted, “no one has any of these benchmarks without a league to do it in.” Hoy does not take that status lightly.
“Obviously, we have young girls and young boys who look up to us. I think that’s so cool, but I have clients who have told me, ‘I look up to you. I’m living vicariously through you,’ because they didn’t get to even play in college,” Hoy said of the people she works with through her holistic health coaching business. “I really, really am grateful that this is an opportunity for me.”
Despite the strides the NWSL has made, Brooks said getting to 100 appearances requires a strong support system to manage the an offseason that is close to six months long.
“I think more about the offseasons than I actually do the six seasons now that I’ve played in this league,” Brooks said. “[If you’re not] getting what you need training-wise so that you can continue to get better in those months that you’re with your team and you’re not being paid, then I think that’s where a lot of girls just decided it’s not worth it.”
Still, Brooks said she and the others that have reached 100 NWSL appearances are building reputations as pioneers of American women’s soccer. She added that the sentiment is shared by the league’s younger players.
“I was speaking to a rookie on our team, and she kind of wrote me a note about how I reached 100,” Brooks said. “She was like, ‘It’s really cool because of players like you, there’s players like me who are coming into the league, and it’s a dream that we can live because of the hard work and the fact that you guys have kind of put in the hard miles.'”