Soccer -- and life -- through the eyes of the U.S. deaf women's national team

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- It's a Friday night, about 18 hours before the self-proclaimed "greatest team you've never heard of" plays its first game on home soil in the United States, nearly two decades after the program's modern era began.

In a corner meeting room of a suburban Denver Marriott, easels are holding up TV-sized notepads, the pages presumably ready to have any number of inspirational words or tactical diagrams scribbled onto them to discuss the next day's game. Next to them is a projector screen set up to review game film.

Watching in anticipation from the cushioned conference chairs are the 18 players in training camp for the U.S. deaf women's national team, or USDWNT, a program that has won every competition it has entered since 2005: four Deaflympics and three World Deaf Football Championships, amassing a 37-0-1 record heading into the historic friendly against Australia at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on June 1.

This friendly would be nationally televised (a first), and part of a doubleheader with the U.S. senior women's national team (another first) -- the clearest sign of what has changed for the USDWNT since joining the U.S. Soccer Federation two years ago.

The room is relatively quiet as head coach Amy Griffin wrestles with technology to get her laptop to sync with the projector. She is flanked by assistant coach Joy Fawcett and goalkeeper coach Meghan Maiwald, plus a staff that includes three interpreters who facilitate communication using American Sign Language, or ASL.

Griffin asks the USDWNT players to take 30 seconds to write down 10 things they are thankful for, a task some players appear to find ludicrous given the time constraint. Some can't even procure a pen before the clock expires.

Finally, the lights turn off and the screen in the corner of the room reveals a YouTube video in a web browser. There is no soccer highlight in sight. Griffin clicks play on a five-minute, closed-captioned video titled "Gratitude," which reminds people to be thankful for everything from the beautiful skies to accessible drinking water. The video ends, and Griffin asks players to make a second attempt at a list.

"You made somebody's day today, and you're going to make somebody's day tomorrow," Griffin tells the team, adding that she is grateful to have each player in her life.

There will be time to discuss soccer, but the U.S. deaf women's national team is not just a soccer team.

For just about every player, discovering the team allowed them to unearth a version of themselves they did not know, in a world they never knew existed. They have created a family -- not in the shallow way most sports teams have coined the term, but in a way that brings many of them to tears as they think of the everyday realities of life outside of these semi-annual events.

"It's one of those things where you don't even realize what you're going through out there because life is life, you just operate the way you operate," defender Sydney Andrews tells ESPN, listening with a cochlear implant in her left ear while also looking at an interpreter's signs for added clarity. Having access to an interpreter is not something she or other players regularly have outside of training camp.

"And then you come into this environment and you're like, 'Oh, this is awesome. I don't have to say anything. People just get it, and I don't miss out on things. This is a space that's safe for me.' Whereas out there, I'm constantly adapting in ways that I might not have to while I'm here. I really don't think that I would ever recognize that stuff if I wasn't in an environment like this, where it was a space that was designed and made for me."

The team's hope is that its recent exposure to the wider world is only the beginning of its story. That is why beating Australia's deaf women's national team 11-0 on TV was both the biggest moment of their careers and not even the most gratifying event of their weekend.

Players were eagerly looking forward to a soccer clinic for deaf children at a local deaf school the morning after the game. Hosting a youth clinic for deaf players is a tradition at each USDWNT camp, and this one, at the Rocky Mountain Deaf School, happens to be at the alma mater of team defender Mia White.

"Being able to go there and work with the community, and really being able to inspire other deaf youth -- and maybe not just in soccer, maybe it's other things, too -- but for them to see the possibility and that they can do it, too, and to connect with the community, that's part of our thing," White, who communicates entirely through ASL, says through an interpreter.

"Their thing" is a unique story that serves as a reminder for the world: They are great soccer players, but there's more to what the USDWNT is achieving than that.

Understanding deaf soccer

The first thing to know about deaf soccer is that it is soccer, and a match looks the same as at any level of the sport.

Instead of a loud, profanity-laced pregame speech from the most extroverted leader on the team, players gather in a circle and execute a synchronized movement of quick fist bumps and back-of-hand slaps. During the game, the center official raises a flag in addition to blowing their whistle for fouls and stoppages of play, and games are typically quieter than the average match that features more verbal communication.

From a technical standpoint, players must have hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in their "better ear" to qualify to play deaf soccer and, crucially, hearing aids are not allowed in games, ensuring all players are on a level playing field.

On a hearing team, communication often comes from the back. The goalkeeper and defenders see everything in front of them and can direct their teammates accordingly -- and verbally.

"For us, that's not possible, that's not realistic," Andrews says.

The process is more about inherent understanding and movement as a team. If a forward pushes high to chase a ball, everyone behind her must follow. Halftime or injury breaks become more important, Andrews says, because they represent rare opportunities to look at each other as a group.

White acknowledges that everyone has a different skill level with ASL, and there is also the issue of physical space: signs must be made larger and more exaggerated from a distance to effectively communicate.

Players and coaches each describe what can become a game of telephone when Griffin needs to send instructions. There is no shouting or whistling to gain a player's attention; instead, a coach or interpreter typically raises both arms in the air and shakes their hands. Griffin might need to deliver a message to the closest player on the field -- often via an interpreter -- for it to reach a specific player across the field, sometimes with several players in between.

"I think when Joy and I were watching the first time, we were like, 'Why are they letting that player go through?'" Griffin recalls. "It's because you can't say, 'Man on,' or you can't say 'Drop.' For us as coaches, there's different ways to solve problems. The concepts are the same, the cues are the same, but how to communicate them is different."

Griffin says she was "terrible" at ASL when she first took the job in 2015; Fawcett jokes that the term still best describes her ASL. Griffin recalls meeting players for the first time and doing her best to sign with them. The first player to arrive then told her she didn't sign, so the coach tried speaking to the next player... who couldn't understand anything and could only sign. Griffin and Fawcett describe their first day as such a disaster that they weren't sure the players would want them back in the morning.

Today, Griffin is much better at ASL. She learns from apps on her phone, and she still has an old book she used for ASL class in college in the '80s -- a copy of which she presciently gave to Fawcett decades ago.

Andrews says Griffin and Fawcett don't give themselves enough credit.

"They are some of the most curious and inquisitive, supportive and encouraging people ever, but also for the team, they're so interested in trying to understand us better as people not just as players," Andrews says. "And I think that that translates really well on the field. It's people first and then the soccer follows."

Still, Griffin says she coaches "bigger" than she would in other settings, skipping past the 1-v-1s and minutiae that coaches love, and instead focusing on full-team training and broader concepts. She must do that both because of the communication challenges and the infrequency of camps -- the team's gathering in greater Denver in late May was its first since winning the World Deaf Football Championship in Malaysia in early October.

Friday night's team meeting before the big match is about 20 minutes total, including the inspirational YouTube video. Griffin has only a few big talking points for the group: Look forward early to bypass pressure and move the ball quickly and cleanly. She plays a few minutes of clips of goals the team scored in Malaysia last year -- with limited interjection -- to set a positive tone, and she wraps up the meeting so everyone can go to dinner in the room next door.

There are other subtle differences in the flow of matches. During a closed-door scrimmage between the U.S. and Australia two days ahead of the main event, referee Andrew Kirst, who is also deaf, blows his whistle and raises his flag after his assistant raises his flag for an offside signal. A USDWNT player who had already latched onto the through-ball has her back to Kirst, and she keeps dribbling and shoots the ball into the net.

In a "mainstream" soccer game -- the word players on the USDWNT use to describe the non-deaf world -- that might have resulted in the player receiving a yellow card. But the delayed reaction in the deaf environment is understood and accepted, Kirst said. Sportsmanship runs deeper, as the joint post-scrimmage photo and interaction between the teams demonstrated.

Players from every team understand each other, and what it means to be playing soccer at this level at all.

Emily Spreeman is the USDWNT's all-time leading scorer with 33 goals in 24 caps after her double hat trick on June 1. Spreeman juggles local soccer five to six days per week (co-ed, plus two different semi-pro teams) and, like her teammates, she also juggles the realities of trying to keep up with -- and sometimes feeling left out of -- the hearing world.

"I just feel like I always have to be on and then when I come home, I take my implant off and it's like the world is just gone and I can just -- there's silence and [I can] just relax," she says. "And I feel that here, like we all just can just relax and be ourselves and not have to feel like anyone's ever left out, like we all belong."

Interpretation is everything

Interpreters are integral to everything in deaf soccer.

"They're our 12th man," USDWNT defender Beth Barbiers-Feustel says. "They are also our family. They really are a part of the staff, so they are with us all the time. We can't do anything without them."

While everyone on the team qualifies for the deaf national team based on their hearing levels, the spectrum of communication is wide and can be challenging. Some players communicate entirely through ASL, while others have minimal knowledge of ASL, having grown up in a hearing world with an implant or hearing aid their entire life.

Many players were deaf or hard of hearing from birth, although their families might not have known it. Maiwald was born in 1980, before universal newborn hearing screenings became widespread. At 18 months, her mother noticed that she was not responding to certain sounds, and her family had to fight for a hearing test.

Andrews was born deaf but not diagnosed until age 2, when she got hearing aids. She has no hearing at all on her left side -- aids only work if there's some level of hearing to enhance -- so she received her cochlear implant at age 21. A cochlear implant requires surgery to implant an internal receiver in a person's head. That connects with an external transmitter that, to the everyday eye, might look like an advanced hearing aid, but is much more complex.

Barbiers-Feustel was born hard of hearing, but in 2016 she abruptly lost about 40 decibels of hearing in one of her ears. It wasn't until she was 17 and trying to join the Marine Corps that it became clear something was truly wrong. Barbiers-Feustel failed the hearing test for admittance.

"I couldn't get into the Marine Corps because apparently, you need to hear when people are trying to kill you," she quips. She wears a cochlear implant adorned with a red heart on the transmitter.

The range of backgrounds on the team is a microcosm of the difference between the capital-D-Deaf community and the lowercase-d-deaf community, as Maiwald explains it. The former group utilizes ASL and is immersed in deaf culture, while the latter straddles the deaf and hearing worlds and may not have grown up learning sign language. Several players have learned ASL because of joining the national team, Griffin said.

Interpreters serve as the glue to the team, facilitating conversations between players at dinner or relaying information from the coaches on the sidelines and in team meetings.

During the USDWNT's 11-0 victory against Australia, one interpreter sprints out to the field with the trainer to help evaluate an injured player moments after helping direct the substitutes to go warm up. At one point, Griffin is mid-conversation with Fawcett and Maiwald when she jumps out of her coaching seat to get a point across to a player on the field. The interpreter, who had her back to the field as part of the coaching conversation, spins and joins Griffin at the edge of the coaching box before returning to the bench next to her.

Griffin and a rotating interpreter must be in sync. If the head coach sits down and the interpreter is still on the field, the coach can be red carded because it is seen as utilizing an extra coach on the bench.

By nature of the profession, interpreters prefer to be anonymous -- but without them the team does not function. The team's three gracious interpreters for this training camp take on a shadowing role, keeping in sync with players and coaches but rarely pulling away for individual conversation. It is a rewarding but taxing job, one that begins immediately in the morning and runs into the night, with no true breaks.

When Griffin first joined the team, there was only one interpreter for the whole team, a volunteer. The team started paying interpreters beginning in 2022, when the USDWNT officially joined U.S. Soccer as an extended national team, and added a third interpreter the following year.

The team's official recognition by U.S. Soccer was a turning point. Prior to that, they were unbeaten in all competitions despite their lack of resources.

Fighting for respect

Every team has a few defining stories in program lore, but those from the humble past of the U.S. deaf women's national team hit different.

The one that nobody can seem to forget is a training camp in Michigan in 2018, when team administrator and former player Laura Carlson Yon allowed the squad to practice on her family's private land. The team had no money, so they would meet wherever there was free field space, Griffin said.

This field was on a dairy farm.

"That's one for the books," Andrews says.

Players and staff woke up at 4 a.m. to help milk the cows before shifting into soccer. They'd help again around the farm during the day before a second training session. Griffin jokes that they had a true "farm to table" experience. One player, she recalls, was allergic to hay, but she didn't tell anyone because she wanted to be at camp with the team. The rest of the squad found out when the player had an allergic reaction and had to be hosed down to cool off.

The scene sounds extreme, but the circumstances were the norm for a team with little support. Prior to 2022, the U.S. deaf women's national team fell under the USA Deaf Soccer Association, a non-profit.

Players supplied their own gear, often just black-and-white shorts and whatever soccer ball they had. They fundraised for each event -- roughly $1,000 per player for a training camp and $5,000 per player for a major tournament. Multiply those numbers by about 20 for a full roster, then by four or five for the number of annual events, and the scale of personal financial sacrifice becomes apparent.

"We joked that we paid for our own medals," says Maiwald, who was the team's goalkeeper for three major championships.

The financial strain was (and still is) compounded by the players' need to take off from their day jobs to compete. Andrews is a physical therapist assistant. Spreeman was an esthetician until recently starting her own dog daycare business. Several players also juggle roles on USA Deaf Soccer's board.

Fawcett draws parallels with the start of the U.S. senior women's national team in the 1980s. The team wore hand-me-down jerseys and paid their own way to events, succeeding globally while remaining mostly anonymous back home. Fawcett was an integral part of the U.S. team that won the inaugural 1991 Women's World Cup, and the 1999 edition on home soil.

"It's a lot of what we had to do," Fawcett says, looking around the conference room before a team dinner. "You're working and you have to play and go away and take time off from work to go play your sport and represent your country. I did not want it to be that hard for them. I've been through it. I wanted to fight for them."

Neither Fawcett nor Griffin, who was also part of the 1991 World Cup-winning team, knew anything about the U.S. deaf women's team prior to joining in 2015. The board, which included Maiwald, called Griffin at the recommendation of the team's former coach and told her there was a World Cup coming up Italy and they needed a coach. Griffin said yes and called Fawcett, who also committed.

The pair wasn't alone in their lack of awareness -- most current players didn't even know the team existed, either. The Paralympic Games is perhaps the most well-known sporting competition for athletes with disabilities, but the Paralympics has no classifications for deafness, meaning deaf players don't qualify to compete.

Spreeman's dad saw an advertisement for the USDWNT in a newspaper in Southern California in 2005. It called for players to join a team headed to the Deaflympics in Australia that year. Spreeman was only 15, but she was good enough to start all six games in the tournament triumph. A year later, Maiwald discovered the team after reading a three-sentence blurb in Soccer America, which at the time produced a print magazine.

Today, the players are supported by the federation like other teams. Their training camp outside of Denver looks and feels like a senior women's national team camp, with matching red-white-and-blue gear, team meetings and coordinated transportation and meals, access to professional soccer fields, and a hotel that doesn't require them to put four players in a room sharing beds, as they did in the self-funded days.

The team follows through with an 11-0 win over Australia paced by Spreeman's six goals. It's the first time any player on a senior men's or women's national team scored six goals in an 11-a-side game.

"It's an honor," Spreeman says postgame, surrounded by a handful of journalists as is the norm for senior team settings. "Thanks to my teammates. This wouldn't have been possible without them. It's amazing."

Her sterling performance has broken a record that was jointly held by Spreeman's old youth soccer teammate, U.S. senior team forward Alex Morgan.

The day before the doubleheader with the U.S. women's national team on June 1, the two teams meet on the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. New USWNT coach Emma Hayes ends her first press conference by signing, "Good luck, go team." Players from both teams get to look at their special warmup shirt for the day, the back of which has ASL letters spelling, "CHAMP," a double entendre for the teams' successes and slang for "awesome" in sign.

They chat about life and soccer as they take pictures. U.S. senior team forward Trinity Rodman leads a dance for her latest TikTok video as teammate Emily Sonnett signs some short sentences. Spreeman and Morgan hug before exchanging laughs. They had caught up individually at a camp a couple years ago, but life is busier now for the two players in their mid-30s who played together in California half a lifetime ago.

Only a few hundred fans from the sellout crowd of 19,000 for the USWNT senior team's game on June 1 arrive early for the deaf national team's game, but it is still the biggest crowd the team has ever played in front of. Among the attendees are U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO J.T. Batson.

For many players, it is the first time their family and friends get to see them play live for their country, too.

There is a patch of prominent green-and-white jerseys in a section behind the USDWNT's bench, but they are not traveling Australia supporters. The backs of these five jerseys within the group read "White 19." White's family and friends, who live locally, are here wearing her club jersey.

White, 26, plays for a second-division club in Finland and is one of the only deaf national team players who also plays professionally. She describes her experience in Finland as "wild" and says the mainstream professional soccer world is far more challenging than being in camp, but she hopes she can inspire more kids to dream big. Playing professionally had long been an aspiration of hers.

"I hope that I won't be the last deaf pro player," White says. "I want to see more and more and because I think my experience is important and being able to share that is a big goal of mine."

White and her teammates take those sentiments seriously -- while they are in town for the game, they host a youth soccer clinic at a local school. There, the USDWNT players coach drills, answer questions, and autograph T-shirts for a few dozen deaf and hard-of-hearing youth players.

One of the standout players of the older-kid group is 14-year-old Noah Kapustka, a boy wearing shorts with the USA Deaf Soccer logo who jokes with White between drills. Kapustka says that he and his dad tried to start a deaf national team for futsal -- the small-sided indoor version of soccer -- but there weren't enough players. Kapustka recounts how, the day before the clinic, he snuck up to sit in the front row to watch the USDWNT take on Australia.

In this game, White starts the game as a right-center back in an aggressive 3-5-2 formation. There are fleeting defensive moments against an Australia team that is just restarting its program, but White frequently helps start the attack down the USDWNT's right side.

The final whistle blows, and the green jerseys join the rest of the fans who are leaning over the railing to greet players coming off the field. White embraces her loved ones from field level a few feet below.

"It's written all over my face: I can't explain what that felt like to see them," White tells ESPN after the match. "They've backed me the whole time I've been playing, and now, for them to see me play live, it means so much to me. It gives me chills."