(Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports illustration)

How the USWNT past and present blazed a trail for mothers in sports

Alex “Mommy” Morgan rises to meet a typical day around 7 a.m., with life’s most precious treasure still snoozing. There was a time when soccer would consume these days, when championships were the goal and chasing them the priority. But now, once Charlie Elena Carrasco awakes, there are preschool lunches to pack and 3-year-old outfits to pick. Morgan gave birth to Charlie in 2020, and ever since, her mornings have begun as a mom. Before she can cruise down the California coast to work, there are waffles to prep or yogurts to fetch. In downtime, there are swings to push or bounce-house birthday parties to plan — and the sapping joys of motherhood to savor.

But there is also still soccer.

Morgan, at 34, is still a U.S. women’s national team co-captain and starter.

She is currently in New Zealand, ready to star at her fourth World Cup — but her first as Mommy, and as a vocal representative of a worldwide, woman-made trend.


And she isn’t alone. There are three mothers on the USWNT roster. There were five, a program record, at the team’s previous training camp. There were high-chairs in the meal room, and strollers everywhere, and a Charlie-led dance party, and five kiddos scurrying (or crawling, or rolling) about.

Decades ago, their mothers might have waited. Countless athletes have retired because society presented them with a gut-wrenching choice. They could either continue careers or start families. The physical strains of pregnancy, insufficient maternity policies, and broader stigmas made giving birth and returning to work a Herculean task.

But pioneers proved it was doable. The USWNT, perhaps more so than any other team, fought to codify support and protections for moms in soccer. Their legacy now extends across continents, across multiple sports where mothers are more numerous than ever before; but it manifests most of all in the three — Morgan, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz — who could very well lead the U.S. to a third straight Women’s World Cup title.

“What they've done, and what they have paved for us to have … you're almost indebted,” Ertz says of her predecessors.

“I'm really grateful for the women before me that fought for mom athletes,” Morgan said recently. “I mean, Joy Fawcett was the OG.”

Joy Fawcett blazes trail for USWNT moms

Fawcett was an early USWNT stalwart who, at 25 years old in 1993, decided she wanted kids and a long soccer career. “I knew I could make it work — but I don't know why,” she says with a laugh. “I really had no one to look towards” for precedent.


So she approached Anson Dorrance, the national team coach.

“I’m gonna have kids,” she said, “and I want to bring ‘em with me on the road.

Over the three decades since that momentous day, dozens of sports officials have heard similar requests and demurred. Dozens of men have failed to understand a mother’s bond with her child, and prioritized rigid team environments that drove prospective moms away. “If I couldn't bring them with me,” Fawcett says of her kids, “then that would've made me choose to leave soccer.”

Dorrance, though, was amenable. Teammates were eager to help. Fawcett initially feared that babies would be unwelcome distractions, but ultimately found that they were lovable, welcome distractions in an oftentimes cutthroat or monotonous environment.

So Fawcett got pregnant, and ventured off into the great unknown. She continued training, running full-field sprints, to which her doctor exclaimed: “Oh my god, don't do that!” To which Fawcett responded: “Why?”


She continued playing, in pickup games and at a local Southern California junior college, but once her belly started to show, her male peers barred her.

Science was sparse, so disapproving stares were strong, and whereas elite athletes are now encouraged to maintain fitness deep into pregnancies, Fawcett had none of that guidance.

She welcomed Katelyn Fawcett into the world on May 17, 1994. Two weeks later, she returned to a soccer field, and “she looked like she could play an international match,” teammate Carla Overbeck marvels. A month after that, Fawcett did become the first mom to play for the USWNT. But the games, in a way, were the easy part.

ME.Joy.0807.AAG––Olympic soccer player Joy Fawcett (at right) with daughter Katelin, 2, is welcomed by sister Kelly Biefeld, left, and a crowd of family and friends at John Wayne airport. The U.S. Women's Soccer Team won the gold medal in the Olympics.  (Photo by Alex Garcia/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Joy Fawcett with daughter Katelyn, 2, is welcomed by sister Kelly Biefeld (L) and a crowd of family and friends at John Wayne Airport after winning the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. (Photo by Alex Garcia/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Alex Garcia via Getty Images)

The hard parts were everything else, the logistics and interrupted sleeps, the accommodations that nobody at U.S. Soccer had ever considered. So it was Fawcett who paid for a nanny plus an extra hotel room. It was Fawcett, with aid from teammates, who lugged around fold-up cribs and car-seats, strollers and diapers, baby formula and toys. When she relocated to Florida for an extended training camp, she had four days to find daycare for little Katey. On the first day, she dropped her off and headed to practice, then melted down in tears.


“Because I left my kid with these perfect strangers,” Fawcett explains. Head coach Tony DiCicco had to comfort her.

She initially had to share rooms with teammates, who swore they didn’t mind the baby’s 3 a.m. disturbances, but guilt still pinched her. When she went to check in at the Olympic Sports Festival, she says, organizers “wouldn't let me stay in the dorms, because of Kate.” There were also complaints, from bystanders, that Fawcett’s breastfeeding in the cafeteria was offensive. Many of the obstacles she encountered were societal, and soccer simply had no infrastructure to shield her.

But Fawcett, nevertheless, blazed a trail.

“I'm really grateful for the women before me that fought for mom athletes. I mean, Joy Fawcett was the OG.Alex Morgan

Overbeck — a fellow starting defender who once thought she’d “probably retire after [the 1991 World Cup], get married, and have kids” — saw Fawcett blaze it, and thought: “You know, I can probably do this too.”


She found, like nearly every mom who later followed in their footsteps, that it was immeasurably harder than Fawcett made it look. Overbeck encountered similar obstacles, and similar stares at her protruding belly as she leg-pressed or ran stadium steps at Duke.

Her toughest moment, though, came six weeks after giving birth to Jackson Overbeck in August of 1997. She flew to Germany for two USWNT friendlies without him — and immediately second-guessed herself. “What if something happens to me?” she fretted. “Who is gonna take care of Jackson?” The anxiety consumed her, and spoke to the essentiality of accommodating moms and kids on the road.

USWNT players understood this. And so, in their mid-’90s contract negotiations with U.S. Soccer, they began pushing for basic childcare benefits. Previously, Overbeck says, “we would get per diem, and the team would pull per diem together to help pay for the nanny.” By 1996, they began asking for the federation’s help. The team’s non-mothers would advocate on behalf of the moms, in part because the kids had become integral parts of the USWNT environment, but also with an eye toward the next generation.

“Listen, this is really important to us, even though we don't have kids, for the future,” Overbeck recalls players explaining. “We want to establish this system so that the future moms — hopefully there will be future moms, because they won't have to quit their careers to have children.”

U.S. Soccer, multiple players said, largely understood. It began subsidizing one nanny, which Overbeck and Fawcett would share, and later more. Its rationale was simple, albeit maddeningly rare throughout global soccer: Alleviating stress for star players and allowing them to continue long careers was a good thing, not a burden.


Fawcett and Overbeck went on to win the 1999 World Cup, and prove the support worthwhile. They inspired an entire generation of girls — and future moms, including teammates.

Kate Markgraf, a fellow 99er, wasn’t thinking about kids at the time, but once she did in the mid-2000s, she says: “I learned from Joy and Carla that it could be done.”

'You don’t just discount people. You give them a chance'

By then, the USWNT players had made incremental gains on maternity provisions. They’d established that kids were more than welcome at training camps, and that moms and nannies (often husbands or family friends) were entitled to solo hotel rooms. They’d also established a rhythm: The three-year gap between Olympics and World Cup was more than enough time for pregnancy and recovery. Markgraf had her first son, Keegan, in July of 2006; she returned well before the 2007 World Cup, and went on to win gold at the 2008 Olympics.

Then she got pregnant again, this time with twins.


Markgraf, now the USWNT general manager, says she actually planned to retire after those 2008 Olympics. But she hadn’t yet made firm plans when, in the summer of 2009, three weeks after she’d given birth to Carson and Xavier, USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage called to tell Markgraf that her contract would not be renewed.

Markgraf was shocked. She’d been on bedrest since Week 26 of her pregnancy; now she was relearning to walk. She needed grace and time to navigate postpartum life. Suddenly, both her salary and identity had been stripped away in one fell swoop.

So she called John Langel, the USWNT players’ lawyer and representative, who had the same incredulous reaction: “That’s pregnancy discrimination.”

Over the coming weeks, Langel presented Markgraf with two distinct choices. She could sue, and probably “make a ton of money,” Markgraf recalls, “and run away, and be able to buy a fancy house and put my kids through school.” Or, they could use the leverage of a potential lawsuit to protect USWNT moms from this cruelty forever. They could bargain for assurances that players would be paid while pregnant and recovering; and that they’d get opportunities to remake the team once ready.

Markgraf chose this latter option, and now, 13 years after her Hall of Fame playing career ended, she thinks it’s her “biggest legacy.”


“I'm really proud that I didn't take a bunch of money and make someone else have to deal with it,” she says. “And I'm proud that [former USWNT mom] Amy Rodriguez had time to come back. I'm proud that Alex Morgan, Casey Krueger, Julie Ertz — and not that they wouldn't [have come back], who knows. But I'm happy that no one had to deal with that phone call. Because it took me two years, and some mental health support, to get through it.”

BEIJING - AUGUST 21:  (L-R)USA team members Christie Rampone, Carli Lloyd, Kate Markgraf and children pose on the podium with their Gold medals after the Women's Football on Day 13 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 21, 2008 at Worker's Stadium in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(L-R) Christie Rampone, Carli Lloyd, Kate Markgraf and children pose on the podium with their gold medals at the Beijing Olympics on Aug. 21, 2008. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images) (Mike Hewitt via Getty Images)

Every USWNT collective bargaining agreement since has included some version of what then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati privately dubbed “The Markgraf Rule.” It’s now engraved in Article 18, Section C. During pregnancy and up to six months afterward, a player “shall be paid 100% of the Roster Appearance Fees that would have been paid to a [p]layer appearing on all WNT rosters during the period,” and “shall be invited to two (2) full WNT camps” once they are medically cleared to return, with a few caveats related to major tournaments.

Markgraf, meanwhile, still had one more point to prove back in 2010. After months of remolding her body and mind, she returned to professional soccer, and then to the national team. She earned her 200th U.S. cap, and then 201, and then, Markgraf says, over a year after Sundhage cut her, “Pia was gonna offer me a contract.”

She declined, because she’d be retiring at year’s end with her point well taken: “You don’t just discount people,” she says. “You give them a chance.”

CBAs, FIFA maternity policies change the game

Throughout the past two decades, in all but a handful of progressive countries, stale attitudes toward working moms have denied athletes that chance. Even in the National Women’s Soccer League, before its landmark 2022 CBA, mothers struggled — and oftentimes gave up. Annual salaries for players outside the USWNT pool could dip as low as four figures prior to 2017. And as NWSL veteran Jessica McDonald explained in 2019, “childcare is not cheap! If you look at paychecks, you look at childcare — there goes our paycheck; how are we gonna eat?”


Clubs, which were mostly run on shoestring budgets, often weren’t accommodating. The league, as a whole, “they don’t support us,” McDonald said in 2019. “We don’t have anything for moms in the NWSL.” She’d plop her son, Jeremiah, in a stroller and leave him on the sideline at training. If she brought him on a road trip, then played poorly, some coaches would blame the supposed “distraction” for her subpar performance.

The CBA changed most of that. Uncoincidentally, NWSL moms multiplied. In foreign leagues, too, policies have trickled in, and mothers have become more common.

What never fully disappeared, though, was the stigma. Even at Lyon, even after scoring in a Champions League final, Icelandic star Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir felt it seize her emotional well-being. She’d gotten pregnant and taken leave in 2021. The club subsequently refused to pay her, then threatened to freeze her out when she sought legal remedy. “I felt confused, stressed, and betrayed,” Gunnarsdóttir later wrote. “The worries just kept piling up. I felt like s***.” When she eventually returned to Lyon, “they always made me feel like it was a negative thing that I had a baby.”

What she also had, though, was the backing of new FIFA policy. In November 2020, the global soccer governing body announced that all female players worldwide were entitled to at least 14 weeks of maternity leave paid at two-thirds their normal salary.

AUSTIN, TX - APRIL 8: The children of Alex Morgan #13, Crystal Dunn #19, and Adrianna Franch #21 of the United States play with the ball after an international friendly game between Ireland and USWNT at Q2 Stadium on April 8, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erin Chang/USSF/Getty Images).

The updates to Article 18 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players also assured that any new mom has “the right to return to football activity after the completion of her maternity leave. Her club will be under an obligation to reintegrate her into football activity and provide adequate ongoing medical support,” including opportunities to breastfeed.

They were hailed as groundbreaking guarantees, minimum standards that would phase out the age-old either-or decision.

And to many in the United States, they sounded eerily familiar.

Markgraf would read about situations in Europe, and think: “Man, this already happened to us [over] a decade ago.”

“Across the world, they look at what we've done,” she says. “And club teams and federations are trying to replicate it.”

Working moms in soccer are here to stay

Crystal Dunn felt all this institutionalized support from the moment she announced her pregnancy in 2021. Coaches, Markgraf and other U.S. Soccer staffers reached out, and “it wasn't like, 'Alright, bye, fall off the face of the Earth,’” Dunn explains. “It was like, ‘Alright, what do you need? How do we support you?’” Her club, the Portland Thorns, welcomed her at training. It was understood, assumed by all involved, that “I'm just hitting pause on my career,” Dunn says, that giving birth was “not a death sentence.”

The USWNT’s CBA now makes much of that support a contractual obligation. It requires U.S. Soccer to provide flights, lodging and meals to caregivers and children until the age of 6. But it’s also seen as a mere minimum; U.S. Soccer often goes above and beyond. It provides stadium suites for matchday viewing — or for playing with toys. Krueger, a defender who gave birth last July and returned this spring, told Yahoo Sports that team nutritionists and administrators were “always checking in” during camp in April, making sure that both her breastfeeding body and her son, Caleb, had everything they needed.

None of which is to say that soccer-momming is suddenly easy. At USWNT camp, schedules are packed with workouts and meetings; add in a dependent human, and free time disappears. “I was a massive napper,” Dunn says. Now, with 1-year-old Marcel along for the ride, “I can't steal a nap if I wanted to.”

But of course, there are benefits. There is indescribable joy in the giggles and gleeful chaos that pervade the team hotel’s banquet hall. The kids, as Morgan recently said, “humanize this environment.”

They also give their mothers perspective. The moms no longer dwell on past mistakes or upcoming challenges, because they appreciate what’s really important in life. “That missed pass in training? Whoo caaaares,” Dunn says with a laugh.

Dunn, Morgan and Ertz will bring that perspective to the 2023 World Cup, each with her child along for the ride. Entering July, some specific plans were still in flux, because, as Morgan noted, “it's still kinda uncharted territory.” But Charlie will definitely be in New Zealand. She’ll hate that it’s winter, because “she really wants to go swimming all day, every day,” Morgan joked. But her 3-year-old brain will ingest formative memories.

And that, for Mommy, is the coolest part, “that I get to bring my daughter with me on all these trips,” Morgan said. “I get to show her what Mom does, and surround her [with] so many strong and confident women.”

None of them know precisely how this experience will shape their kids’ blossoming lives. But that, three decades on, is what Fawcett has begun to comprehend. Her youngest daughter, Madilyn, just graduated from college a year early; her second, Carli, is in vet school; Katelyn is now an occupational therapist and a mother. As they grew, they dabbled in a wide array of different endeavors. At times, Joy tried to tell them: “Stop over-stressing yourself.”

Until, one day last decade, the source of their limitless ambition struck her.

No, Mom,” Katelyn told her. “You showed us that we could do anything.”