Soccer

Sam Mewis, NC Courage ready to sink their teeth into the Triangle

Posted April 11
Updated April 14

At just age 24, Mewis has already earned innumerable individual silverware and won a FIFA U-20 World Cup, USL W-League title, NCAA Women’s College Cup, and, last October, a NWSL Championship.

— It seemed fitting to interview Sam Mewis at an eatery named Trophy. At just age 24, Mewis has already earned innumerable individual silverware and won a FIFA U-20 World Cup, USL W-League title, NCAA Women’s College Cup, and, last October, a NWSL Championship.

In two days, Mewis would leave for Texas and her latest U.S. Women’s National Team camp, held in conjunction with a couple of Lone Star friendlies against Russia. In the meantime, there’s dinner to coordinate.

“I have a very Type A personality,” Mewis warns. “For instance, I have a long to-do list, but I may have things on it like vacuuming my car. That’s not a pressing issue, but I need to write it down because it makes me feel better.”

After nixing the notion of splitting a single pizza, we instead opt for personal pies, each conditioned on table-sharing. Mine is best suited for a carnivore. Preceded by a salad, Mewis selects one topped with arugula, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and brie.

The speciality pies at Trophy—a part pizzeria, part nanobrewery on the fringes of downtown Raleigh—come with quirky monikers. Perhaps unwittingly, the gregarious Mewis chooses the one named “Most Outgoing.”

Flash Drive

The Buffalo Flash women’s soccer team, founded in 2008, was originally part of the USL W-League. Renamed to Western New York after two years, the Flash won three varying league titles from 2010-2012. In 2011, their roster included the likes of Marta and Alex Morgan. The Flash was a charter member of the NWSL when it launched in 2013, boasting a squad that featured Carli Lloyd and hometown luminary Abby Wambach.

The Flash’s year one NWSL success, which included a regular season crown, precipitously dropped along with their attendances over the ensuing two seasons. Aaron Lines, the only head coach in club history, stepped down after the 2015 campaign. Paul Riley—himself recently jettisoned from the Portland Thorns—was installed as the new manager.

Mewis was part of the Flash’s bountiful 2015 draft class that included her UCLA teammate and All-American Abby Dahlkemper, Lynn Williams, Jaelene Hinkle, and Sabrina D’Angelo. When Riley arrived in Western New York, he saw the team’s unrealized attacking potential and tailored his approach around his players.

“I think that Paul looked at us as a group and said this is the style that this team will excel at, and he adapted his whole coaching philosophy to us,” Mewis says. “One, that takes a very special coach, to not just come in and say, ‘No, this is what I do.’ Paul also knows how to put a team together. He picks the right players, not always the ones he’s told to pick or look the best on paper. He picks the right team with chemistry in mind. People are very drawn to him, he very charismatic and makes practice fun.”

“We had great strengths,” Riley remembers. “One was our speed, another was our fitness level. So I took my purist approach, dropped it in the trash bin, and left it there for the season … Last year, we did what we had to do to develop the players we had. I played to their strengths, as opposed to what the plan was when I first game in.”

Riley says that approach paid dividends last year with the NWSL’s youngest roster. The Flash led the NWSL with 40 goals during the regular season, 16 more than the previous year and five more than their nearest competitor.

“We have a little bit different training, a little bit out of the box training,” Riley explains. “Knowing [the team] could improve, we set zero goals. We didn’t talk about scoring goals, playoffs, or championships. We just talked day-in, day-out about the process, our mission, and growth. ‘Process’ was the number one word I used all season.”

The Flash won eight of their first 12 matches in 2016, then stumbled when Mewis missed five games to join the U.S. national team for the Rio Olympics. The Flash mustered only one victory over its final eight games of the regular season, even after Mewis’ return. That win, on the season’s final weekend, secured a postseason berth. Then two playoff victories—an extra time win over Portland and a championship over the Washington Spirit decided by kicks from the spot—gave the Flash their first NWSL title.

“What I felt with the Flash last year and what this team has going for it made my club one of my top priorities,” Mewis says. “I have such a connection with this group of girls … I don’t think, at the professional level, you often get a group of people who are selfless and want to be friends with each other and always want to hang out.”

That camaraderie was tested in early January when Steve Malik, the owner of North Carolina FC, purchased the Flash from owner Joe Sahlen. The club was relocated to Cary and rebranded the North Carolina Courage.

Mewis said the players learned of the sale, prior to its formal announcement, during a conference call that included Sahlen, Malik, and league representatives.

“The general tone was gratefulness to the Sahlens,” Mewis recalls. “McCall [Zerboni] spoke a lot on the phone and said just how grateful we were for everything they had done. The Sahlens impacted women’s soccer in a really big way in this country. To bypass that would have been a mistake. What they did was really important. But we were excited to come to Raleigh, and we were excited that we were going to be together.”

The Courage brand harkens back to the Cary-based women’s soccer team that played from 2001-2003 in the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the world's first professional women's soccer league. Reared in the Boston suburb of Hanson, Massachusetts, Sam Mewis was nine years old when the WUSA kicked off its inaugural season.

“I went to the original Boston Breakers games when I was young,” Mewis says. “My sister Kristie and I had this VHS tape called "WUSA: History in the Making." And it was just highlights of the whole season. We used to watch it four times a week. I probably have the commentary on the tape still memorized.”

Sister Act

I’m reluctant to wade into the topic of the Mewis sisters, a well-trodden subject three years ago after Sam and Kristie subbed on together against Sweden during the 2014 Algarve Cup, becoming the first sisters to take the field together for the U.S. national team since 1997. It was Sam’s first cap for the senior national team.

“I love the sister questions,” Mewis assures me, observing my reticence.

The Mewis sisters’ shared passion for soccer propelled both to success in the sport. Kristie was a national All-American in high school. Sam, two years younger and equally skilled, harbored low-grade resentment towards Kristie fueled by their clash of competition and personalities. To hear Sam tell it, Kristie is smart, funny, and loyal, yet she wears an outward confidence that sometimes borders on abrasiveness. Sam is more garrulous and “surface nice,” a self-described nerd and “whole-hearted hippie” with an ear for indie rock and happiest with her nose in a book.

“Growing up, we were very different, and everyone always commented on that,” Mewis says. “And it pushed us apart. We were also competitive, and I was always trying to catch her and that pushed us apart. So we just weren’t close. We fought. When we were both away at college, we would go weeks without calling each other. We didn’t get along well. I don’t think I was contributing anything positive to her, and she wasn’t contributing much positive to me, so we were just sisters and not that close.”

Sam’s turning point came after Kristie left to play soccer at Boston College. Sam discovered her own identity and became a leader on her high school team. When it came time for Sam to choose a college, she journeyed to the opposite side of the country to attend UCLA.

Sam claims she’s never focused on one-upping Kristie. Yet even at a subcortical level, the evidence is striking. Kristie finished her time at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School with 74 goals and 34 assists; Sam left there 77 goals and 34 assists. Kristie was a Hermann Trophy semifinalist; Sam was a finalist. Kristie led Boston College to the Women’s College Cup semifinals in 2010; Sam and UCLA won the College Cup in 2013. Kristie made the NWSL playoffs with FC Kansas City in 2013; Sam won the league championship last year. Kristie earned 15 caps for the U.S. national team; Sam now has 22 caps and counting, most recently starting all three matches in last month’s SheBelieves Cup and both friendlies against Russia.

Today, Kristie competes for the Washington Spirit, the Courage’s season-opening opponent this Saturday. Sam, Kristie, and their friend Stephanie McCaffrey, a forward for the Chicago Red Stars, recently launched Sporting Chic, a lifestyle blog about female athletes. Recent posts tackle everything from fashion trends to the NWSL preseason to the U.S. Women’s Hockey National Team.

The sisterhood Sam found with her soccer teammates has finally extended to her relationship with Kristie.

”Kristie has always known who she is and has an inner confidence,” Mewis says. “She stayed close to home [for college], and I went on this journey to figure it out. Once I figured it out and found myself, we were able to repair anything that happened, and now we’re literally best friends. I talk to her four times a day.”

For Club and Country

The NWSL recently raised the team salary cap to $315,000 and doubled its minimum annual salary for 2017 from $7,200 to $15,000. The minimum salary was $6,000 in 2013. Yet even with the increase, its salary floor doesn’t represent a living wage.

“For a rookie, [the league] is fun and exciting,” Mewis says. “But the older you get, the more aware you are of your financial situation. If you’re on the lower end of the salary scale, you’re probably thinking of getting another job or doing something else. But I think there’s a big core who just loves soccer and we make enough to get by. If you have an outside footwear contract, that’s very helpful … But my hope is that the financial side will continue to grow so that more people can do it for a longer period of time and not have to get a side job or struggle.”

Mewis believes change is necessary for both the good of the players and the vitality of the league.

“Getting to play professional soccer is such an accomplishment unto itself,” Mewis says. “But in order for the league to continue to get better and have better competition, not only do we need the incoming college seniors to be improving, but we need players to play longer and have more experience.”

Despite the Flash’s success last year, and given the league’s room for improvement, it’s a bit surprising when Mewis allows that today she views her soccer career on equal terms between club and country.

“If you had asked me that a year ago, I would have said country,” Mewis explains. “Growing up, there wasn’t any league, or it was on-and-off at least. So the dream was to play for the national team. My childhood visions were to go to the Olympics, play in the World Cup, play with the national team. As I have played in the [NWSL] for two years, I realize how special and important and great playing for your club can be. The club hasn’t overtaken the country. It’s just also become important to me.

“It’s so fun. We get to travel the country, we get to play soccer for a couple of hours a day, then we hang out. It’s kind of like being in college, except it’s definitely more adult because you are not drinking nearly as much and you don’t have school to worry about.”

The complete picture of last year lies beyond just fun and fellowship. Mewis was one of four alternates who accompanied the U.S. national team to Brazil for last year’s Summer Olympics. The experience left her both gratified and frustrated.

“It was an incredible experience overall to be there in support of the team,” Mewis says. “But individually, it was a challenge. I think knowing I wasn’t going to get to play even after going to practice every day and being the supportive teammate is kind of exhausting. Your own performance isn’t really the priority, so at times I remember feeling like I was just there to help everyone else, which I was.

“Our fitness as alternates was separate from the team. We felt a little on our own, at times. I want to be clear: it was a huge honor to go. But I do feel like it’s important to understand that it wasn’t easy being there as an alternate. I would never change that, and what I went through and learned there has made me a better player and teammate. But at the time it was tough … If you have this Olympic dream as a kid, I haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t feel like I achieved what I’ve set out to achieve by being an alternate.”

Riley has undoubtedly heard Mewis’ musings, and he has a different take on them.

“Maybe the best thing that happened to [Mewis] last year—and she will probably say not—is that she didn’t get picked for the Olympic roster,” Riley contends. “I think that left a little piece of her missing and she had to find that extra piece with our club last year. Maybe that was winning the championship. It’s not about being happy, it’s about fulfillment. She’s fulfilled a lot by not making the Olympic team, and now she’s so much more hungry.”

Mewis’ hunger remains. But it’s tinged with her experience last summer, and perhaps the example of Kristie, whose budding national team career has dissipated over the past several years.

“I probably will never feel like I’ve ‘made’ the national team” Mewis says. “I will play anywhere [U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis] will let me play. I don’t feel like I’m finding a niche. I feel like I’m trying to do good during practice on Friday.

“I want to make a World Cup roster and win a World Cup. I want to make make a Olympics roster and win an Olympics … I feel like this cycle through 2020 could be a really important time for me.”

One realizes that Mewis’ angst reflects a restless drive more than actual discontent. She’s the soccer player who just wants to play. She’s the little sister trying to discern what’s beyond her sibling’s shadow. She’s the budding activist with an interest in weighty issues. She’s the Type A personality who is most outgoing, but with a to-do list that’s never completed.

“Sam’s now a box-to-box, prototype midfielder who can do everything,” Riley says. “She’s really grown immensely in the last year … I said to Jill a while back that I think she will captain the national team one day. She’s a great leader, and she’s only 24.”

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