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Haley Hanson: Scoring Big with Her Soccer Career

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Haley Hanson’s soccer career can be likened to the weather. The 23-year-old mid-fielder found herself in somewhat of a drought early in her career. She was passed over for summonses to important camps to showcase her talent, while other young women, her contemporaries, received invites. Some had labeled the former midfielder at Olathe East an underdog, the winds refusing to bring her a shot at bigger and better.

“The term underdog seems to follow me because part of it is my attitude. People might look at me as a blue-collar worker/player because I always strive to be the hardest-working player on the field,” noted Haley. “My skill set can be overlooked because I am working hard on the field to do my best. Center mid-field is more defensive, but I do a lot of the dirty work and don’t get the recognition that others on the field may get. I don’t know if my first touch on the field will be perfect, but I can control my effort and my attitude.”

With that positivity of spirit and strong-willed determination, she landed at the University of Nebraska on a soccer scholarship. Her college career was solid and the coaching staff saw a remarkable player who wasn’t getting the breaks she deserved. “I wasn’t a prodigy; I just wasn’t getting that shot at the national teams,” recalled the Overland Park, Kansas, native. “I got a lot of development in my college years. But I do think by being at Nebraska, I was always bettering myself and enjoying the game. I wouldn’t call myself a late bloomer, but I wasn’t getting the same opportunities as others progressing in their soccer careers, but it all worked out in the end.”

Her optimism and keen, never-give-up attitude finally paid off. Coupled with some well-placed recommendations from mentors and coaches, the skies opened and sprinkled opportunities to advance her career. While still at Nebraska, she got a call that would forever change her life. The Houston Dash selected Haley as the number seven overall pick in the National Women’s Soccer League, or NWSL, college draft on January 18, 2018.

“I had been called into a couple of under-23 national camps, and I was preparing myself for the thought that I might not be drafted professionally but then I got the call,” remembered Haley. “I was a first-round draft pick, and it was completely surreal for me. My hard work was being recognized and the timing of it all was perfect.”

The good news continued to rain upon her. Then came the invitation to join a camp for the United States Women’s National Team in April 2018. National teams aren’t permanent squads but represent a country in the various international tournaments or games. It consists of the very best players in the country, and a solicitation from this team is an incredibly high honor.

Doubled Opportunity
“I had just officially made the team at Houston. Even though you’re drafted you haven’t earned a spot, but I had just solidified that. I’m proving myself to my teammates and earning their respect,” remarked Haley. “Then I get a call to be invited to this national camp. I was speechless, excited, scared. Every emotion you could feel I was experiencing. Am I ready for this? I’m set to be with Houston and now I have to prove myself on another team. I decided that if I can take this as an awesome opportunity I’ll just go, play soccer and enjoy it.”

While many have shared their congratulations with Haley for her accomplishments, she’s had to contend with doubters who attempt to block her shot at success along the way. “Many people think that being a soccer player is a profession and that it’s so cool, but I also received a lot of backlash. They’ll say, ‘You’re not paid well. Are you sure you want to continue?’” she stated. “One of my goals is to do what makes you happy and don’t sway from it. Control what you can control—your effort and your attitude.”

League Play
The winter marks the off season, which runs from September to February, for Haley and the Houston Dash. During the season, matches with the other nine teams in the NWSL can occur once or twice a week with 24 games in total. She may find herself in Houston or Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, D.C., or Orlando, to name a few NWSL cities. Many times, the women are playing mid-week games that don’t draw the same crowds that weekend games do. However, a hotbed for women’s soccer is Portland, where the team pulls in between 15,000 to 20,000 fans each game. When compared to other major league sports, the NWSL is a newbie with seven to eight years in existence.

“Our salary is livable but not where we want it to be, not where the men’s leagues are or the Women’s National Basketball Association, but they treat us well,” commented Haley. “The club also organizes our housing, and I live with a few other teammates so my living expenses are taken care of. When you look at the pay, sure I’m not paid a ton, but the team takes care of us pretty well.”

Haley shares it’s the love of participating on a team that drives her enthusiasm for the sport. “I love being on a team. What distinguishes soccer from other team sports is that you can be creative. There are no plays we follow; it’s how the game unfolds, a puzzle to figure out. Nothing quite compares to it,” she said. “A basketball coach calls a play and you play it. But in soccer, you go into a game and it’s a bit more freestyle that lets the player decide what to do. It’s unique and fun for me and offers more leadership opportunities. All sports have that potential but on the soccer field, the team dynamic is very special. The players decide on the field how the play will unfold.”

The Beginning
Haley’s drive to play soccer began in her childhood with a desire to be like her older sister.  “I have a sister who is about six years older and she stuck with soccer, and I wanted to be like her. I played all the sports, but soccer was the one I enjoyed the most,” she recalled. “Then I committed to play at Nebraska pretty early in my career, the summer of my sophomore year. I don’t even know if I was 16. I went to a showcase summer camp for five days in Nebraska that’s huge on player development. It seemed at the time everything fell into place for me to attend college there. Nebraska is just three hours from home and other local girls had played and found success there. I had no second thoughts about it.”

While many pursuing careers in the sports industry have clear-cut paths plotted for their success, Haley seems less focused on strategies and more about simply writing an account about playing a game she delights in, yet bringing her accolades along her journey. “My story is me taking it day by day and enjoying it. I don’t know how long I’ll play but I’ll do it for as long as I can, taking opportunities as they come. Even if you do have a plan, sometimes things don’t go according to that plan. I say, ‘You gotta live in the moment,’ even if that is a cliché,” she said. “I wanted to play soccer in college, but there wasn’t an ‘aha’ moment. It was simply a natural transition for me. It’s what got me to this place in my soccer career. When I got drafted by the Houston team, I didn’t realize it would be a possibility for me. This is an opportunity that not a lot of people get.”

The Future
As Haley continues to score with her soccer career, perhaps the biggest one may come soon—a call to join the U.S. Women’s Olympic Soccer team. It’s yet another opportunity to enjoy the warmth of the sunny skies now surrounding her bright career. Of course, Haley’s past experiences of being passed over make her well aware there’s no guarantee, but she continues with dogged determination to chart her way, perhaps to the ultimate reward, the Olympics. It would be a huge accomplishment for someone who’s been labeled an underdog in her sport.

“I do like the underdog thing. Maybe some people see it as negative, but I like that about myself,” Haley revealed. “It’s about my work ethic and the ability to go after what you want and not letting others sway you from your goals. It’s about living in the moment. When it comes to my future, I’m going to take each moment as it comes.”