On the athletic field, leadership can be hard to define. There are different kinds of leaders, quiet ones and vocal ones, players that lead by example and by words, or by both.
But as every coach knows, to be a successful team, leadership is an extremely valuable component.
On the U.S. Women’s National Team, the team captains are Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, but there is strong leadership all over the field, from Hope Solo in the back to Alex Morgan up top, and even from several young players who are embracing their roles and responsibilities like veterans.
Proof positive of the proliferation of leadership on the WNT is that when the team captains meet for the coin toss before most NWSL games, there are likely to be a very familiar faces greeting each other. Of the ten National Women’s Soccer League teams that have embarked on this historic fourth season, eight are being captained by current U.S. Women’s National Team players: defender Whitney Engen for the Boston Breakers, forward Christen Press for the Chicago Red Stars, midfielder Carli Lloyd for the Houston Dash, defender Becky Sauerbrunn for FC Kansas City, midfielder Tobin Heath for Portland Thorns FC, forward Alex Morgan for the Orlando Pride, long-time U.S. captain Christie Rampone for Sky Blue FC and defender Ali Krieger for the Washington Spirit.
WNT forward Alex Morgan has filled the captain's roll for NWSL expansion side Orlando Pride in its inaugural season.
Heath has worn the armband in the absence of the injured Christine Sinclair, while Engen is in her first season with the Breakers and Morgan in her first with the expansion Pride. Press was handed the captaincy in Chicago for the first time this season. The other four players have captained their sides for a season or more, with Sauerbrunn leading the Blues to the last two NWSL titles.
“Having an opportunity to lead on and off the field, I think that only enhances their role and their responsibilities,” said U.S. head coach Jill Ellis. “All of our players are incredibly professional and team-oriented, but getting the perspective of being a captain with their NWSL teams benefits them when they come back into our environment.”
Krieger is in her third year as captain of the Spirit, and as the squad is on their third coach in four seasons, the team has had to do more adjusting than most – making player leadership even more important.
“I’ve always been a believer that you don’t need to wear the band to be a leader, but as captain, I just try to lead by example and try to keep the chemistry going in a positive way,” said Krieger, whose team is unbeaten early in the NWSL season. “The chemistry right now within the team is so good, and that’s most important, especially when the National Team players are going back and forth. If you have good chemistry you are golden, as other players can pick up that leadership. We have players that want to work hard and show up to work every day to get better.”
While she was a captain in college at Stanford, Press is captaining a professional side for the first time. The new role has caused her to re-think her approach to the game and her team.
“It’s really different,” she says. “We lost a lot of leadership in the offseason, so (goalkeeper) Alyssa (Naeher) and I are the veterans players on this team and Rory (Dames), our coach, asks us for a lot input. We are expected to influence the group in a lot of ways. We've been missing the driving voice that we’ve had in older playe
rs and myself and (fellow WNT player) Julie (Johnston) and Alyssa have quieter personalities. So we’ve been asked to have a bigger roles and step out of our comfort zones to fulfill the needs that this team has.”
That’s good news for Ellis, who knows the extreme challenges that soccer at the highest levels brings for every player to step up.
“For all the players, there will be moments that require leadership,” said Ellis. “Whether it’s in a training camp or away from camp, there’s moments when they have to experience a leadership decision. The more experience they have doing that will certainly benefit the National team and I think having a leadership role also gives you a broader appreciation for being a good follower. You understand the demands of the positions and the overall importance of collective buy-in.”
Krieger takes particular pride in being able to captain her hometown team. The Virginia native grew up about 60 miles from where the Spirit play their home games and says that wearing the armband fits into her team-first mentality.
“I enjoy being the liaison between the team and the staff,” said Krieger. “My teammates have made me better in that way as I’ve had to step up into a bigger and different role, but I think it comes naturally to me. I’ve always wanted to do what’s best for the team over what’s best for the individual.”
Press, like many strikers, admits to at times being singularly focused on the field, a quality that may not lend itself well to being a captain. But as she’s done often in her life, she knows that finding that balance is a key to successfully embracing and amplifying her role.
“I always enjoy a challenge and the NWSL poses lots of different challenges, but it also provides a lot of opportunity to improve individually and expanding our personal capacity on the field is one of those,” said Press. “I look at this as an opportunity to think about group dynamics and be a little less selfish mentality-wise. As forward, sometimes you are a bit disconnected, your job is to score goals and help the team win, and sometimes that removes you from the heartbeat of the team. Now, we are being asked to be the pulse of the team, so I want to focus on not letting my emotions get the best of me, being connected with the team, making sure players are being driven and are together. It’s asking a lot and it’s a bit of a change for me personally, but it’s an enjoyable growing experience.”
Just as no person is the same, no captain is the same, but Krieger says that the focus is on fitting all the parts together with the goal of doing what everyone loves: winning.
“Everyone is a leader in different ways, and that’s really healthy,” said Krieger. “As a captain, it’s my job to make sure that everyone is bought into the same idea of success, the same idea of how the coach wants us to play, and that everyone embraces their individual roles are within the team. These are challenges for everyone, but it helps when you have a team that buys into doing what needs to be done to be successful.”
Carli Lloyd, with the Houston Dash, captains both club and country