Sporting Life

Captain Courageous

Meredith Speck '15 is the first Yalie to play in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Adele Jackson-Gibson ’13 is a freelance writer and former Yale soccer player.

ISI Photos

ISI Photos

Meredith Speck ’15 of the North Carolina Courage is the first Eli to compete in the National Women’s Soccer League. View full image

When Meredith Speck ’15 graduated from Yale, she took a risk: she decided to become a professional soccer player.

Why was that such a big deal?

Growing up, Speck watched two women’s soccer leagues fold for lack of funding. In 2015, the rookie salary in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was only $6,842. (It’s now $16,538.) Soccer wasn’t as stable a career as medicine or law, to say the least. And though Speck had been a big deal at Yale—she was team captain and was named to the All-Ivy first team three times—a spot on a pro team was not guaranteed.

But just three seasons later, at 25, Speck is not only the first Yale player to compete in the NWSL, but she can also boast two national championships. In 2016, her team won the title as the Western New York Flash; they then moved south to become the North Carolina Courage, and they won again in 2018. She’s played 19 games as a defender/midfielder for the Courage, and she’s currently training for her fourth season.

“Three years ago, I never imagined I would be here,” she says. “Going to Yale is not the stereotypical path people take to play pro soccer.”

Most who aspire to reach that level attend larger Division I schools, where they are more likely to train against the toughest competition. But when she chose Yale, Speck just wanted to study psychology and continue playing the sport she loved.

It was her coaches who opened her eyes to her potential on the soccer field. Former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith says he knew she would become a talented player for her tenacity and rare ability to strike with her left foot. “When I was assistant-coaching the U–23 [Under-23] National Team, we brought her in,” recalls Meredith. “She played a couple sessions, and I knew right away that she could compete at that level.”

In 2015, her former high school club coach, Paul Riley, also took notice. Then the head coach of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, he invited Speck to spring training, where she earned a spot on the preseason roster. She followed Riley to the Flash when he became head coach of the team. “I’ve seen her become such a great professional,” he says. “Even if she doesn’t get into the lineup every week, she’s one of those players we cannot do without.”

Speck says her biggest challenge, as a player who comes from the Ivy League, has been earning playing time. Many of her pro teammates have played together in conferences and national-team camps; she’s been playing catch-up.

Still, she adds, “the Ivy League worked for me. Some of my friends who went to bigger schools got burnt out. Soccer wasn’t my entire life [at Yale], so I was able to preserve the joy of playing. That joy is really important when you’re playing professionally.”

She may not be earning the big bucks yet, but Speck loves what she does. She also recognizes that she’s a part of a larger movement: “I’m doing something that will set the stage for a successful women’s league in ten years. One day, I’ll be able to say I was one of the pioneers to grow women’s soccer in America.”

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