Lauren Gregg has had a storied career. A defender for the U.S. women’s national team in its nascent days, then both the first female assistant coach for an American squad and the women’s interim head coach, she also achieved success at the University of Virginia, as the first female to lead a team to the NCAA Division I final four, and the first to be named National Soccer Coaches Association of America Coach of the Year. She is now an assistant coach for Nigeria’s national team, Africa’s most successful women’s side.
That’s quite a resume. But Gregg – a mentor to many female players – is quick to mention her own mentors: men and women like Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco, Randy Waldrum (in photo above), Bruce Arena and Colleen Hacker. They paved the way for her, just as she paves it for players, here and abroad.
Her association with Waldrum – a longtime college and professional coach, who was named head coach of the Nigerian women’s team last October – is long and deep. She actually mentored him while coaching the U.S. U-21 national team; now their roles are reversed. “He’s got a great soccer mind, and he’s an incredible human being,” Gregg says.
After two stints as a State Department sports envoy to Nigeria, she has a strong affinity for the country’s people and culture. She has worked in the capital city of Lagos, and in the north where 200 players share one ball.
The Nigerian national team has tremendous potential, Gregg says. Some play internationally.
The situation is reminiscent of 20 years ago, when U.S. national team coach DiCicco and his assistant Gregg said that a viable professional league was crucial to consistent success. “We had to win to sell stadiums out, so a league could then prosper. That’s the next step in Nigeria: develop an infrastructure below the best players.”
The Super Falcons face challenges. COVID kept them apart for more than a year. As they gathered for the Turkish Women’s Cup in February, and three friendlies in Texas prior to qualifying rounds this fall for the African Women’s Championship, which they have dominated for years, some players met for the first time hours before game time. Others arrived at midnight, due to COVID and visa issues.
But, Gregg says, Waldrum has helped build a “fight for everything, never back down” spirit on the team.
Women’s soccer in Nigeria reminds Gregg of the U.S. in the 1990s. Players had to learn to become professionals. Administrators fought the entrenched male bureaucracy for support.
“I remember going to U.S. Soccer with a binder outlining a 10-year vision,” Gregg says. “Randy takes that same vision seriously in Nigeria. We walked the same road they are. This is my chance to give back.”
The American team’s success more than two decades ago had a ripple effect. “Young girls saw they had a future. They could aspire to play for the national team.” Yet work remains. Gregg cites a need for players below the superstar level to make a living playing soccer. Television deals and sponsorships for women still lag behind those in the men’s game.
The former UVA coach calls the college game “an important developmental mechanism.” She is pleased to see strong youth leagues, but worries that competition between the Girls Academy and ECNL might “tear each other apart.” She hopes there is a way for young players to compete with and against older ones – one of the keys to individual development.
Gregg adds, “there is still too much emphasis on developing the team to win,” as opposed to developing players. Great coaches, she says, can do both.
Her own list of great coaches starts with Dorrance. Their association goes back to the days of dreaming about winning a then-hypothetical Women’s World Cup. Five years later, they coached together, in that inaugural tournament.
Dorrance “brought a strong belief in women’s soccer,” Gregg explains. “Women were believing in an abyss; he believed in us. He expected us to be competitive, to attack and dominate.”
That 1991 team laid the foundation for American women’s soccer todays: “aggressive, front-footed, go after the game on both sides of the ball. That fighting spirit – when no one else cared, Anson celebrated it.”
The late national team coach DiCicco, whom she assisted with the 1996 Olympic gold medal and the 1999 World Cup-winning teams, brought an attention to detail that Gregg admired. “We thrived on watching countless videos, and having nuanced discussions. Tony surrounded himself with people who were better than he in certain areas. He was not afraid of other opinions. He gave me so much license to put my own imprint on the team.”
Sports psychologist Hacker, meanwhile, worked behind the scenes on the mental aspect of the game. “She was the glue that knit our team together. She helped our players and staff be their best. She was so insightful, in such a humanistic way. Her handprints were all over our success.”
It all began when Arena helped Gregg get the women’s head coach job at Virginia. She was 25 years old, but he invited her to staff meetings. He asked her opinion on a variety of topics – then challenged her to defend them.
Gregg says one of Arena’s major strengths is player management. “Despite his image, he knows and cares about every player and coach,” she laughs. “There are lots of ways to get the ball up the field. He knows how to get the most out of everyone, so they can do that.”
Gregg emphasizes, “I have been impacted by some great people.” Now, on a continent far from home, she does her part to pay it forward.