Yael Averbuch on forming the NWSL Players Association, learning to love a new position and dealing with a rough offseason

Three-time All-American Yael Averbuch has been playing pro soccer since finishing her collegiate eligibility at North Carolina in 2008. She has won three league titles (two in Women’s Professional Soccer, one in the National Women’s Soccer League) and last May spearheaded the formation of an association for non-allocated NWSL players, those not under national-team contracts funded by U.S. Soccer or the Canadian federation.

Averbuch, 31, grew up in Montclair, N.J., and started her pro career in her native state with Sky Blue FC. Last January, she was traded to the Seattle Reign by Utah Royals, who secured her rights when FC Kansas City folded. Averbuch won her third pro title in 2015 with FCKC. In Seattle, she is reunited with former FCKC head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who converted her from attacking midfielder to defender.

The NWSL kicked off its sixth season last weekend with nine teams. Each team has several player representatives who are overseen by Averbuch as president of the players’ association. She is assisted by Meghann Burke, an attorney and former teammate of Averbuch on Sky Blue FC.


The formation of a players’ association is just the first step of a longer process. The players do not currently have the right to bargain as a group with the league, as can MLS players. They are represented by the MLS Players’ Union and have negotiated several collective bargaining agreements with the league. NWSL players can file grievances in regards to disciplinary decisions and compensation disputes.
AVERBUCH: "Eventually, we will need to form an official union. Right now, we are a players’ association. Down the line, we hope that the league will work with us to voluntarily recognize us as an actual union so we can have a collective bargaining agreement and all that. For this season, we want to be able to deal with some of those issues and if we have good rapport and good communication it should be fairly easy to get done.

"We actually have a pretty good system in place at the moment. We had a conference call with all the team representatives and the front office of the league, just so we’re all on the same page about how it will work moving forward. We’ll have two more calls: one kind of midseason and then another one towards the end.

"Our feeling is we want to work with them and make sure it’s a collaborative effort and that our experience continues to get better in certain, important ways. We want to make sure they know where we’re coming from and if we have questions about the rules and the contracts and things like that."
One goal of an NWSL players’ union will be to upgrade standards throughout the league for such issues as working conditions, per-diem payments, travel accommodations, etc., many of which right now are determined by the individual teams.
AVERBUCH: "There are standards set out by the league about what should be provided and how things work that all teams should be meeting. Outside that there is a range. Teams that are affiliated with MLS teams have access to things that teams that are not affiliated probably don’t, like certain facilities and a bigger staff. So it does vary across the board.

"That’s why it’s important to communicate with our player reps and find out what’s happening with their clubs. How do they deal with this situation and who do they go to. It’s opened up conversations about areas where maybe some clubs are a little behind and can improve.

"Obviously Utah and Portland have kind of separated themselves as places that are doing an amazing job. They are the examples that everyone else is trying to follow. Being here in Seattle with the Reign, I’ve been very impressed with how professional things are run and how well we’re taken care of. It’s good to see examples of teams around the league that are doing things really, really well. And we have a few teams that don’t have that much infrastructure in place and we kind of have to help them along."
Averbuch left the United States after WPS folded in 2011. She played briefly in Russia and spent part of a season in Sweden with Kopparbergs/Goteborg, for which she scored six goals in 10 games. 
AVERBUCH: "I’ve seen a lot of different environments, a lot of wonderful things and some pretty tough things, so I do think I have a pretty good idea of what can go wrong and what can go right. I’ve definitely seen my fair share of good and bad.

"It was very interesting. It’s always great at first being the new person. You’re treated very, very well and when you first get there it all seems wonderful. And every single place has its issues and its struggles. But I really loved living in Sweden.

"The month I spent in Russia was the worst!"
Several American stars – Michelle Akers, Christen Press, Hope Solo and Meghan Klingenberg among them – as well as Brazilian star Marta have played for Swedish clubs. Organized league play began in 1973 and the Damallsvenskan started up in 1988. Its teams do not pay salaries equivalent to the major clubs in France, England and Germany, and most games are held in very small stadiums.
AVERBUCH: "The one thing I took away from that is their grassroots approach. Nearly all the clubs  have grown from very small organizations and all of them have players who have been there for six, eight or 10 years. That’s so valuable because the fan base and the people in the city know the players. They know them as “their” players.

"That’s something we have here in some places with some players, and we can work towards in our league: to get that homegrown, community feel where players stay for a long time, the fans know them and they become kind of the backbone of the club. The closer we get to that model the more successful we will be.
It takes time. There’s no quick-fix for that. It takes time and it takes quality organizations that people want to be a part of for years and years. I think we’re getting there. But it’s not going to happen overnight."
There are some signs of establishing those community ties in a few NWSL cities, for which players have helped bond the fans to the teams. It is a vital factor in the league’s stability and opportunities for growth.
AVERBUCH: "We have some of that now. You look at players like Joanna Lohman and McCall Zerboni who are loved in their team’s communities. There are players on every team I could name but those are two who stick out and have built really wonderful followings in their teams. The more that happens, the more successful we will be. That should be an aim down the road. It’s going to take a little time, but yeah."
The NWSL is also providing national-team opportunities for certain types of players, either late bloomers or players who didn’t find their way through the traditional pipelines of youth national teams.
AVERBUCH: "Our league has proved that. Look at someone like McCall Zerboni, who’s been a solid professional for years and year and finally got her first callup at the age of 31 at the end of last season. That’s an example kind of on the older end, but there’s also players like Lynn Williams, who maybe wasn’t a top player coming out of high school and on the national-team radar but proved herself in our league. There have been a number of players who fall into that category and they are a huge testament as to why we need this league and why we need it to grow and improve."

Photo: Brad Smith/, courtesy of NWSL.
Burdened by fatigue after the 2017 season, Averbuch decided to take a month off and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine which can cause abdominal pain and bleeding as well as form ulcers. She has been working during the winter to regain full health and fitness and did not make the game-day roster for the Reign’s opening game Saturday against Washington Spirit.
AVERBUCH: "I’ll be really honest and this is not something I try to hide. I had a pretty rough offseason. This past year has been challenging with some health problems. I have something called ulcerative colitis – people can Google it if they want more details -- and I was really struggling with my health.

"So I decided to take off a month and it started out by choice, and honestly I was so sick I needed a couple months of taking a step back. It was kind of a wake-up call for me in my life. I’ve always wanted to be doing all these things but now I’m taking time to make sure I’m relaxing and taking a day off, things that never even crossed my mind before.

"It was a tough past year and a tough offseason for me. I’m hoping I’m on the tail end of that rough spot and that I’ll be healthy and able to manage the stress of everything I’m doing. I definitely have a new take on hard work versus taking a little time off. It’s a battle for me. I’ve always just wanted to go and go and go. My body told me, ‘Nope! You’re not doing that anymore.’

"Yeah, when I got to 30 it was like, ‘Oh my God, now it’s all downhill.”
The trade to Seattle reunited her with Andonovski and has given her insights into the advantage some NWSL teams have in terms of staff, resources, and infrastructure.
AVERBUCH: "I knew what to expect on the field because I’ve played for Vlatko, but I really love it here. The city is just a lovely place. I’ve only heard good things about Seattle and it has turned out to be true, and like I said before, the Seattle Reign organization is a really good setup. We’re treated very professionally and I’ve enjoyed being around the staff and the players and all the people with the club. It’s been a very positive experience and I couldn’t be happier to be here. If something comes up, the team deals with it immediately. They want the players to be happy."
Like most attackers moved closer to their own goal, Averbuch didn’t welcome a change in position. But at FCKC she formed a solid partnership with U.S. women’s defender Becky Sauerbrunn and has adopted the different mindset necessary as a defender.

AVERBUCH: "It’s funny. At first I was kind of opposed to it, then I went through a phase of, ‘Okay I accept it,’ and actually now I do officially enjoy it. It took me a few years but I do see myself as a defender now. I appreciate that Vlatko kind of saw something in me that I definitely did not see in myself or trust myself with. It’s been a fun challenge at this later stage in my career.

"It takes a completely different mindset. That whole defending thing was kind of new to me. I didn’t do much tackling in the midfield, I’ll be honest. As you get older you get moved back. I clearly didn’t understand myself well enough. I thought I could play up there with the attackers but I got pushed back.

"I’ve a tough offseason so for me with my sickness, so right now my number one concern is my health. I’m doing everything I can to be as ready as possible for the team. Our team has had a really great preseason and whether or not I’m involved from the get-go I feel really strongly we’re going to be very successful.

"I’m doing everything possible but it’s been a very interesting road for me."
One of the most important objectives is for NWSL to sustain itself and not rely on the American and Canadian federations to pay the salaries of national-team players. That goal won’t be accomplished any time soon but it is a crucial factor in growing the women’s game.
AVERBUCH: "We have such talent in this country, and the league has the most parity than anywhere in the world. The women’s game everywhere is growing with really quick strides and it’s very, very impressive to be able to watch from afar.

"I do think the next level for us will be to kind of re-format the system. Traditionally, as most people know, the national-team players have been paid by U.S. Soccer on a contract system, which has totally made sense because we didn’t have a stable league and needed the luxury for those players to be full-time pro athletes. If there’s no league and no contract system, they have to get other jobs and that’s really not possible. In order to maintain that No. 1 spot in the world for all this time, the contract system was really necessary.

"Hopefully in the next four to six years, we can get to the point where our league is stable enough and can support the salaries for those players, and the national team works more like it does for the men’s team or places in Europe, where you get paid for appearances and bonuses when you get a callup.

"It’s obviously still a huge honor but that’s not your main salary. That will be the next step for us."
Averbuch would also like to see the league take the initiative to interact with foreign leagues and establish regular international competition as there is for the women’s national teams.
AVERBUCH: "Even something like having an all-star game against a team from another league; things like that are really exciting and a good way to move women’s soccer forward. The more visibility we can get and the more we can collaborate with leagues around the world the better we will be."
Averbuch says there is no schedule for the formation of a players’ union that can initiate discussions on a collective bargaining agreement.
AVERBUCH: "It’s hard to put a timeline on that. We learning more about that process because it is a rather in-depth process. To give you a really rough estimate I’d like to say that by the end of next season we’d be at that point, but we don’t have an actual timeline because our main concern is to make sure we do things right and in a collaborative way with the league as opposed to pushing it forward quickly."
Like most players -- and fans and journalists as well -- Averbuch knew little about the U.S. Soccer presidential election process until candidates to oppose Sunil Gulati began to emerge. She is hopeful that the election of Carlos Cordeiro, whom she regards as a staunch advocate of the women’s game, is a big step in the right direction.

AVERBUCH: "The whole thing was, like for a lot of people, a little confusing to me. I don’t know if I have a great understanding of how it works in the leadup, but I had a couple of conversations with Carlos Cordeiro leading up to the election. He was one of a couple of candidates who reached out to me to talk about where the women’s game needs to go.

"I haven’t talked to him since. I’m sure he’s swamped and I’ve been swamped but I do plan to follow up, because I think he’s someone who is looking to continue to support the women’s game. U.S. Soccer has played a huge part in funding our league and making it sustainable for these years and obviously that’s going to be an ongoing conversation about U.S. Soccer’s involvement and maybe how they can help us get the infrastructure to run things on our own as the NWSL. He’s somebody who is a big proponent of doing whatever we need to do to continue the progress of our league.

"It was comforting to know that he was one of the ones who initially reached out and really did care and does care."

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