Interview with Soccer Star and Players' Rights Activist, Yael Averbuch
Note: This interview was conducted in August 2020, before the NWSL Fall Series was announced and Yael Averbuch West stepped down from her role at the NWSLPA.
260 million people watched on TV as Rose Lavelle scored a stunning goal, securing the US National Women’s Soccer Team its fourth World Cup. Three months later, the North Carolina Courage cruised to their second National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) title. The game netted 166,000 viewers, an NWSL record. Nine months later, despite the pandemic, the NWSL smashed that record, drawing 653,000 viewers to the final of its 2020 Challenge Cup, a one-month tournament held in a bubble in Utah. It was the first major league to return and completed its tournament with zero positive tests in the bubble. The league followed this with a short series of friendlies that averaged 383,000 viewers, even as stars headed overseas as a result of the pandemic. These successes, however, have been hard-earned. Yael Averbuch West knows that better than most.
In 2006, Averbuch joined the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, one of the most successful women’s college soccer teams. “I had always wanted to go there. It was my dream, and it did not fall short of everything I had heard,” Averbuch said. Among her teammates at UNC were a bevy of US Women's National Team (USWNT) stars. Even in such a star-studded team, Averbuch shone, scoring 26 goals from midfield. She made 77 appearances for the Tar Heels, winning the NCAA College Cup twice in 2006 and 2008. Her first national team cap came during this time, at a 2007 game against England. “It was like a fairytale,” she described. “Of course, I don't remember any of it. It was one of those moments where I was flooded with so much adrenaline. I couldn't even feel my legs when I ran on the field.”
At the same time Averbuch graduated college, a professional league was founded, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). Averbuch was drafted fourth overall by Sky Blue FC in her home state of New Jersey. “It was really exciting. I felt really big-time there. All these international players, the level was so high.”
Sky Blue emerged victorious from their first playoffs, and Averbuch made fourteen appearances for the USWNT between 2009 and 2011. “I was always very honored and glad to be there. That was everything I wanted as a player, the level I wanted to be at.” Yet she could never cement a place for herself in the team. “It was a stressful experience. It was always like, one bad camp, one bad game... you're out.”
She joined the Western New York Flash in 2011, and scored the winning penalty in the 2011 WPS championship. “It felt so great at the time,” she said. But during the offseason, disaster struck. “A bunch of us were training together, and at a water break, we checked our phones, and we had this email that the league had folded. It never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t have a league.” This was a serious blow for US women’s soccer, but it wasn’t the end. “The majority of the players had the mindset of, ‘let me figure out what to do,’” Averbuch recalled.
Averbuch and many of her teammates made the transition to Europe. She played in Russia and then in Sweden for two years. While Averbuch was in Sweden, the US Soccer Federation began plans for a new league. This league would be smaller and less ambitious than its predecessor, but more sustainable and with room to grow. But Averbuch knew making the switch to this new league could be a risk, so she chose to stay in Sweden for the NWSL’s first season. “Once I saw there was something to come home to, I definitely wanted to come home and play.” She returned to the US in 2014, joining the Washington Spirit.
The mood in the new league was a mix of excitement and nerves. “[The newer players] couldn’t understand the feeling that this could not be here. Some of us who have a strong memory. and remember all the things that could go wrong or played for a team that has folded... those players have a little bit of scarring.”
Averbuch joined FC Kansas City in 2015, then coached by Vlatko Andonovski. “I loved it. I loved the soccer community there. The coaching, the team, it was such a good experience. Vlatko, he’s my favorite coach of all time.” Kansas City finished third and won the playoffs, their second successive title. “Winning the championship was special. Kansas City was my home club. I had said to myself, ‘I want to finish my career here.’”
Financial problems cut that stint short, and FC Kansas City folded in 2017, leaving Averbuch devastated. Like with the WPS, “we knew there were problems, but nobody actually thought it wasn't going to exist until it didn't. It was my one piece of stability in a very unstable career. It really affected me in a lot of ways, more than I even realized at the time.”
Averbuch followed Andonovski to Seattle Reign for the 2018 season, but the bad news was to continue. In 2012, she had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease. She played through it, but in 2018 it caught up with her, and she was sidelined. “I played through being very sick and have been digging myself out of a deep hole ever since.” She retired before the 2019 season.
Though her time on the pitch had ended, off the pitch Averbuch was still working hard. In 2016, Averbuch saw that the majority of players in the NWSL had no representation. A year later, she founded the NWSL Players’ Association (NWSLPA), ensuring that all players would have a voice in the league. Now a union, it has become a key player in the future of US women’s soccer.
During the 2020 Challenge Cup, Averbuch and the NWSLPA made sure that players’ safety was always key. They worked to make sure mental health resources and amenities were available to players. The tournament, won by the Houston Dash, was a victory for the whole NWSL, with players delivering quality on the pitch, while also making powerful statements for Black Lives Matter.
As the rush of the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series friendlies fades, the NWSL faces a future that is both strong and uncertain, as two new teams join the league. But the question of next season remains uncertain, and many of the leagues’ stars are now playing in Europe for the foreseeable future. Averbuch remains optimistic and excited for the league’s future, and the future of women’s soccer as a whole. But she knows that there is work to be done, too. “The more we can support our players to have positive experiences in the game, the better it is for the league, the longer the player is going to stay in the game, the better they're going to perform, the more they're going to be positive voices and give back to the league.” She has stepped down as Co-Executive Director of the NWSLPA, but will remain involved as the Chairwoman of the Advisory Committee.
Looking back, Averbuch views her career with both pride and frustration. “I had so many wonderful moments and so many great memories, but alongside those are some really tough ones, too. When I think about the highlights of my career, my two college championships were really special to me, and my experiences with the national team were sacred. But a lot of the things I think of are not anything meaningful. It’s the in-between stuff, spending time with my teammates, or the training sessions that were so much fun. I appreciate those smaller moments, just as much as the championships.”
How to cite this page
Bernstein, Alyx. "Interview with Soccer Star and Players' Rights Activist, Yael Averbuch." 18 November 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 1, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/interview-soccer-star-and-players-rights-activist-yael-averbuch>.