Glenside native Maddy Evans' retirement from playing soccer an example of ugly truth about NWSL salaries

Glenside native Maddy Evans, a product of Abington High and Penn State, recently played her final game for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Orlando Pride. She left the field because of the league’s low salaries for players who aren’t national team stars.

Women’s soccer fans who follow only the U.S. national team might not have heard of Maddy Evans, unless they knew of her when she was growing up in the Philadelphia region.

But Evans’ name is very much one worth knowing, because her story says a lot about the present and future of the sport in this country.

A 26-year-old product of Abington High and Penn State, Evans retired from playing last week after a five-year pro career. Among the reasons: She couldn’t earn enough money in the job to sustain a living.

Evans’ salary this season with the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League was set to be approximately $16,000, just above the league minimum of $15,000. In previous seasons — with the Boston Breakers from 2013 to 2015 and the Pride after that — she received half that sum or less. Players are paid only during the time of year when teams are on the field.

It’s a far cry from the glamorous lives led by the global stars with whom Evans has shared fields. It’s reality, though, and it’s a reality that often doesn’t get enough attention.

“You are really putting your life on hold, in that regard, being in this league as not a national team player,” she said in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News. “I’ve made it work for the past five years, and my first couple of years in the league, I was making a lot less than I make now. I’m thankful that I was able to be paid, albeit not a huge amount, to do what I love – I’m very thankful for that – but it is difficult.”

In a press conference in Orlando after her final game, Evans tried to emphasize that her decision to retire “wasn’t made on one or two things; it was made on a bunch of different things.” And she said it “was not based just on money, I promise you that.”

But she also addressed her financial situation directly, and didn’t seem to leave much doubt about its impact.

“It’s gotten better every single year, so we’re looking on the up – unfortunately, it just didn’t stay kind of caught up with where I needed to be,” she said. “Ultimately I want to be able to look back in, say, 10 years and say players can come out of college and you can be 27, 28, 29 in this league. I feel like I’m still in form, I can play, but I look at where I want to be in three years and being here unfortunately isn’t getting me there.”

The NWSL has been built on financial prudence throughout its history. Up to now, it has been a necessary path. Both prior women’s professional soccer leagues failed after three years because spending outpaced revenue by too much.

Evans is not the only player who has left the NWSL in her mid- to late-20s because of low salaries. Downingtown native Becky Edwards did the same last year, and former Philadelphia Independence midfielder Jen Buczkowski preceded her. Others came before them, and others still may come in the future.

It’s a pattern, and it’s a problem.

“There are a lot of players who are now still making the new minimum, or very close to it, myself included,” Evans said. “I think that if we want to see the league continue to grow, and have those players that are in the league stay in the league for 10 years, 15 years, then you’re going to have to find a way to continue to build so that players can be paid a little bit more. It was a little different when I was 22, or just out of college, but now that I’m 26, I’ve had to make some tough choices, and unfortunately, that meant moving on.”

NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy declined comment on the league’s plans for its salary structure. A spokesman said the league is “continuing to work on improving [salaries] every season.”

Edwards returned to playing this year, signing a contract with a pro team in Sweden. Would Evans consider a comeback some day?

“When I was going through this whole process I was really hesitant to use the word ‘retire’ in general,” she said at that press conference in Orlando. “If there’s a team in Philadelphia, that would be phenomenal. … It would be hard to go anywhere else after here. I’m retired, but I still love playing, so there’s a chance, maybe some day.”

Despite Evans’ lack of overall fame, she won recognition from the league’s most devoted fans, especially in Boston. She became something of a cult hero there for bringing toughness and hustle to a team that was among the NWSL’s worst.

“It’s incredibly humbling to know I have any fans at all, and to know that I have some pretty strong fans is really special,” she said. “They’ve brought so much joy to me over my past five years playing that it’s special to know that I did create a little bit of a following. … I really appreciate their support of the league and for allowing me to do what I’ve done the past five years.”

Camera icon Courtesy of the Orlando Pride
Glenside native Maddy Evans, a product of Abington High and Penn State, recently played her final game for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Orlando Pride.

Coming to Orlando was a major upgrade on and off the field. Whereas the Breakers play at Harvard’s 4,100-seat soccer stadium, the Pride play at a 25,500-seat soccer palace in the heart of downtown. They also use the same full-scale training facilities as their Major League Soccer brethren, Orlando City.

“Playing in Orlando, I really got to experience what it felt like to be a professional,” Evans said. “Everything from accommodations to our staff, pretty much everything was incredible. … I think Orlando is really setting the standard of what women’s professional soccer needs to look like across the board, across the league, if we want to be successful.”

And of course, there’s the joy of playing with two of the sport’s biggest stars: U.S. national team striker Alex Morgan and Brazilian playmaking wizard Marta.

“That was a real privilege and an honor,” Evans said. “Marta in particular had a really strong impact on me, as far as just the player and person she is. Obviously, you can see the work she puts in on the field, scoring goals and all that, but she’s just an incredible person as well, who I think has been so positive for women’s soccer.”

But Evans remains deeply grateful for the time she spent in Boston.

“I have so much respect for everything they do at the Breakers,” she said. “They’ve done so well with what they have, and obviously in a huge sports city, it’s a whole different challenge for them. But that organization, while it was very different from my experience in Orlando, treats their players very well, and I felt very lucky to be there, as well.”

Evans’ time with the Breakers actually began well before she turned pro in 2013. She spent the summers of 2011 and 2012 training with the organization. The legendary Tony DiCicco was the coach, and players included former Philadelphia Charge star Kelly Smith.

“It really kind of solidified my dream of becoming a professional athlete,” Evans said. “I don’t think I would have made it as a pro if I didn’t benefit that much from those two summers.”

The first of those summers included a humorous cameo appearance in the Inquirer after the United States’ famous 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal win over Brazil. She was quoted about celebrating in her host family’s home in Boston after Penn State alum Ali Krieger scored the decisive penalty kick in the shootout.

“I do remember that,” Evans said with a laugh. “I was running in circles around their living room.”

Coincidentally, Evans and Krieger became teammates six years later in Orlando, and shared the field in Evans’ final game.

That was barely even a dream for Evans when she began her senior year in State College. There was no pro women’s league in 2012, the year between the end of Women’s Professional Soccer and the launch of the NWSL. So Evans planned to move on from the game and become an English teacher. She even got a placement set up at a school in Philadelphia.

But over the next few months, two big things happened to change that course: The NWSL came together, and Penn State stormed to the NCAA title game. Although the Nittany Lions lost to North Carolina, Evans knew she had a shot to make it as a pro.

“When we went to the national championship, I was like, ‘You know what, this is something I need to go for,’ ” Evans said. “So I made plans to kind of change around my education so I could make it happen.”

Evans did indeed make it happen, but she had to do it the hard way. She was drafted in the fourth round of the inaugural NWSL draft by Boston, but didn’t earn a contract at first. She ended up making her debut as an unpaid amateur player who was called in as a bench replacement to fill out a game-day roster while national team stars were away.

She stayed in Boston after that season, and had to find work away from soccer to afford the city’s notoriously high housing costs. Among the jobs she picked up were coaching at MIT, teaching at a middle school, and working at a Trader Joe’s grocery store.

“You kind of figure things out,” Evans said.” Trying to find that balance of being a true professional — it’s our job to have fresh legs and be able to go into games feeling fresh and fit … but you also need to find a way to supplement your income and make a living. You find a lot of people doing some odd jobs.”

Camera icon Courtesy of the Orlando Pride
Glenside native Maddy Evans, a product of Abington High and Penn State, playing for the Pride.

After the 2014 season, she took a graduate fellowship at Concordia University in Chicago. It got her cheap housing, and helped her start down the path toward a master’s degree in organizational leadership. When it was time to head back to Boston, she continued her studies online, and ultimately finished the program in 2016.

Her best offseason came this past winter, when she headed to Australia to play for the W-League’s Brisbane Roar. Because the W-League and NWSL seasons are at opposite times of the year, a number of American players have made the journey down under to keep up their fitness and sample life abroad.

“I had the absolute time of my life, and it was hands-down the best decision I’ve ever made,” Evans said. “I had it in the works for a little while, and I signed the contract, and then at the end of the [2016] NWSL season, I had a moment of  ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing right now?’ But when I got there, it ended up being the absolute best.”

While Evans was in Brisbane, the NWSL announced a raise in its minimum salary to the $15,000 level it is now. It was significant, but still not enough to truly make a living. She realized it was time to start looking at other opportunities. At one point, she found a posting for an assistant coaching job on West Chester University’s women’s soccer team.

“I saw it online, I have an apartment in West Chester, and I said I’d throw my hat in the ring,” she said. “I went for it, and applied for a few other jobs in the Philadelphia area as well, and this one came through.”

It’s not a high-profile Division I job, but the Golden Rams are no slouch. They’re one of the top teams in Division II. Last year, they won the Pennylvania State Athletics Conference regular-season title with a perfect 16-0 record. They enter this season ranked No. 9 in the nation by United Soccer Coaches, the organization formerly known as the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

“I’m just thrilled to have Maddy be a part of our staff,” said head coach Betty Ann Kempf Townsley, a Philadelphia native with more than 300 career wins at West Chester and Seton Hall. “She has a strong character on and off the field that is going to enhance my players’ lives in so many aspects, not just with soccer but life in general. With her experience playing with some of the best players in the world, she has so much to share.”

So she’s coming home. She didn’t want to leave Orlando right now, but the job wouldn’t have been there if she had stayed for the rest of the campaign.

“I kind of just struck while the kettle was hot,” Evans said. “Unfortunately the timing wasn’t right that I could line it up with the NWSL season ending, but like in any job, sometimes you have to move and change gears in the middle of a season.”

Evans played her final game for the Pride on Saturday. She didn’t start, but she didn’t really mind.

“I was able to sit there and kind of soak it all in, and look around a little bit, and not have that obvious pressure of performing,” she said. “All in all, it was perfect.”

She entered in the second half, and received a huge reception from teammates and fans – including her mother, who flew to Orlando for the occasion and got to join her daughter on the field after the game.

Camera icon Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire
Maddy Evans’ mother flew to Orlando to watch her daughter’s final game as a player for the Pride.

“I just feel fortunate that I had some phenomenal teammates who made the day really special for me,” Evans said. “I really felt the love from the fans. They were chanting my name in the 18th minute. It was really awesome.”

The only blemish was that she missed a penalty kick. It ended up not mattering, as the Pride routed Sky Blue FC, 5-0.

“It will be something that I’ll look back on and laugh at,” Evans said.

She leaves with support and thanks from the Pride organization. That includes head coach Tom Sermanni, a veteran of the women’s game who coached the U.S. national team from 2013 to 2014.

“We are losing a player with such influence on the team, both on and off the field, and with such a great relationship with our supporters. Maddy has been an unbelievable team character, irreplaceable in that sense,” Sermanni said in a statement issued by the Pride. “So it’s with a lot of sadness we say goodbye. But at the same time, it’s exciting for her to look at this opportunity that’s cropped up. She feels the time is right to move to the next stage in her life and career, and we share her excitement for that.”

It’s good that Evans isn’t leaving the game entirely. But it says something that an assistant position at an NCAA Division II program pays more than the salary one can earn as a professional player.

“As a 26-year-old with two degrees in hand, I can kind of take a step out and start building myself financially, and start saving,” she said. “I’ve had to make some tough choices, and unfortunately, that meant moving on. But also, fortunately, I am excited for this next step as well. … All things considered, it was a really good option for me as far as location, next step, what I want to do, starting to build my life outside of soccer.”