(JTA) — It’s a struggle for many women who play professional soccer in the U.S. to make a living. The minimum starting salary for players on a professional club team who don’t also play for a U.S. or Canadian national team is $22,000; many of these players are forced to take on additional jobs.
In 2017, Yael Averbuch West felt compelled to do something about that.
At the time a professional club player, she formed the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA), which was legally recognized as a union in 2018 and began negotiations for its first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2020. Those negotiations are still ongoing. The group is pushing the NWSL, or National Women’s Soccer League, to offer better compensation, benefits and safety requirements for its players, and launched a campaign in 2020 called #NoMoreSideHustles.
“It’s going to be really historic for the women’s game when we come to an agreement,” Averbuch West told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And I believe that the relationship between the union and the league is so crucial to the continued success of NWSL. Both groups need each other to be strong for ultimate success.”
Averbuch West is no longer the union’s executive director because she is now the interim general manager of NJ/NY Gotham FC, the NWSL club that she used to play for, when it was called Sky Blue FC. Gotham heads into the playoffs this weekend, sitting fifth in the standings. They play the Chicago Red Stars, and the winner faces Portland Thorns FC in the semifinals.
And that’s not her only gig: Last month, she launched a new podcast, “Football Americana,” that dives into American soccer culture. In 2016, she founded Techne Futbol, a soccer training app, and still serves as its CEO.
She’s proud of being one of the only Jewish power players in the women’s soccer world, too.
“There are not too many Jewish athletes at the elite level, unfortunately. I realize more and more that just being me — a Jewish woman — and especially with the name I have, is setting a really important example for other Jewish athletes who aspire to play high level sports,” she said.
In all, Averbuch West, 34, has become a leading figure in the campaign to popularize women’s soccer in the U.S. and galvanize support for its athletes. She’s still involved in the bargaining process, even from her current side perch, advising the league’s CBA committee.
She was born Yael Friedman Averbuch in New York City to Jewish parents Gloria Averbuch and Paul Friedman — her father’s surname became her middle name, and her mother’s maiden name became her last name. Both parents are runners — her dad was a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials marathon qualifier in 1980 and 1984. Her younger sister, Shira, played soccer for Stanford and played for Team USA in the 2013 Maccabiah Games, the international competition for Jewish athletes that takes place in Israel.
“Neither of my parents played soccer so we all learned the sport together. I remember saying I wanted to be a professional soccer player when I was nine but I had no idea what that meant,” Averbuch West told Fatherly in 2018.
But learn, she did: She would play for top team University of North Carolina in college, and set an NCAA record for fastest goal scored in a game — in four seconds. Her sophomore year, she was honored by the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, and she helped UNC win the NCAA Division I women’s soccer championship in 2006 and 2008. When she graduated, UNC retired her college jersey number, and her hometown team Sky Blue FC chose her with their first draft pick.
She played in New Jersey for her first two seasons, then went to the Western New York Flash in 2011, helping them win the championship that year. 2011 was also the year the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league folded — so Averbuch West, and many other U.S. professional soccer players, went abroad to play. She headed to Moscow, then Sweden, before returning to the U.S. and the newly formed NWSL in 2014 to play for the Washington Spirit, FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign. Her professional career ended earlier than she perhaps intended, due to her battles with ulcerative colitis, ahead of the 2019 season.
But that year she married former Davidson College soccer player-turned-commentator Aaron West, under a chuppah. As the mom of a Black Jewish daughter, with another baby on the way, she has been reflecting on her Jewish identity lately.
“This is certainly a very strange and divisive time in the world. Many groups of people, especially Jews, have been the target of a lot of anger and hate. I’m constantly aware of my privilege in certain areas of life and also aware that in other ways, my people are the target of misunderstanding, hate and violence,” she said. “It’s very complicated.”
Nevertheless, she’s looking forward to creating new traditions with her family.
“I’ve never been huge on traditions, but now that I have a one-year-old daughter and a baby on the way, we’re going to have to step up our family Hanukkah traditions,” she said. “Last Hanukkah, my daughter was still a newborn but helped us light the menorah, so this year we’ll absolutely be continuing to involve her and also explaining to her more of what Hanukkah is all about.”
It has been a tumultuous season in the NWSL on the player advocacy front. Averbuch West became Gotham’s general manager earlier in the year after the harassment-related firing of GM Alyse LaHue. (Despite that, Gotham FC made the NWSL playoffs for only the third time in the club’s history — the first time since 2013, the NWSL’s first season in existence. The last time they won the championship, and the only time they won, was Averbuch West’s inaugural year with the team.)
Then, in late September, a shocking report was published in The Athletic about Charlotte Courage coach Paul Riley. Players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly accused him of sexual coercion and said the league failed to respond to their claims.
As Athletic writer Meg Linehan wrote: “As the sport tried, failed, and tried again to gain traction in the United States, any controversy was viewed as a threat to the sport’s existence, with the potential to shut down a team or even an entire league. Women in the sport felt disempowered, understanding that they were to keep quiet about disrespectful coaches and mistreatment by front office staff, about poor pay and substandard facilities. Speaking about some personal relationships was also discouraged. And it was more than just hiding the truth, it was putting on a happy face while doing it.”
But that culture of silence is fading. NWSL players and teams began speaking out in support of Shim and Farrelly, and calling attention to other issues — such as racism that Black players have faced in the league. The NWSL’s commissioner resigned the following day after the Athletic report, and the player’s union led the charge calling for greater protection of players, writing in a statement: “We will no longer be complicit in a culture of silence that has enabled abuse and exploitation in our league and in our sport.”
The NWSLPA then issued a set of eight demands to the league, asking the NWSL to “adopt an immediate ‘Step Back Protocol’ whereby any person in a position of power at the time that a club either hired or separated from employment a coach who was, is, or will be under investigation for abuse be suspended from any governance or oversight role within NWSL pending the conclusion of an independent investigation, effectively immediately.”
Averbuch West has been out front applauding it all.
“Thank you to the players who so bravely came forward to share their personal experiences. The entirety of NWSL is responsible for the safety of our members, and we MUST do more and be better on their behalf,” she wrote on Twitter. And Gotham FC, like the league’s other teams, paused play the weekend after the report.
When games resumed on Oct. 6, during the match between Gotham and the Washington Spirit, both teams came together at six minutes in, in acknowledgement of the six years it took for Shim and Farrelly’s stories to be heard by the league. The players stood in the center circle, linking arms, in a show of solidarity and silent protest. The stadium rose to a standing ovation as fans held up signs that said, “PROTECT OUR PLAYERS” and “NO MORE SILENCE.”
It’s all “quite a lot on my plate,” Averbuch West said, referencing her main job, her side company and her advocacy work. The birth of her second child will see her step away for maternity leave, but she plans to keep her foot on the gas.
“I am so grateful to have a life full of amazing things to be doing,” she said. “I’ll absolutely take a bit of time off after having the baby, but I own and operate my own business, Techne Futbol, and I’ll be staying very involved with Gotham FC. So many fun days of family and soccer are on the horizon!”