"What's wrong with her?"
This question, asked of her college coach Joel Person by a WPS league coach she’d barely met, sits just beneath the surface of Angela Salem’s professional soccer career.
The answer, I’ve found, is that there is nothing at all wrong with her, and so much right.
After a standout high school career in Copley Ohio near Akron, Angela Salem had found few suitors for her soccer skills. The college coaches that knew her thought she had promise, but most of them were local.
As a consequence, the northern schools that knew a little bit more about the northern Ohioan never had a shot. Nonetheless, she quickly found a good fit at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as playing for the packed-with-talent Tar Heels team across the state at the Chapel Hill main campus, but the coach at Charlotte liked her and it seemed like she’d have the opportunity to compete for a starting spot. But late in the cycle, the coach at UNC Charlotte who’d recruited her became the former coach of UNC Charlotte, taking with him most of the promises she’d received regarding playing time. An unknown coach and style would arrive as she began her first year, and she was concerned that her scholarship could be in jeopardy if she didn’t fit in to the new coach’s scheme.
She quickly looked elsewhere. At Louisiana Tech, UNC Wilmington, and other schools, she discovered that many of the recruiting classes were already complete. She got invited to a camp at the University of South Carolina, and her group workout was a success. She was offered a scholarship—a 25% scholarship. All of the full-ride spots had already been filled, but in order for her to be able to pursue soccer as a career, she needed her play to cover her education expenses.
Angela started scrambling to come up with other places that still had upcoming camps where she might impress somebody. Anybody. But another coach who’d attended South Carolina’s tryout day saw something he liked, and unlike the Gamecocks boss, he still had scholarships to give out. He called. They talked. And by the end of the conversation, Angela Salem was a scholarship women’s soccer player at renown soccer powerhouse, Francis Marion University.
Francis Marion is closer to the beach than South Carolina, just a short drive east on I20 from Columbia in Florence. No, you can’t name another professional player who has played there, as Angela is the only women’s soccer player from Francis Marion to ever make a pro roster.
Shortly after Angela accepted Francis Marion’s offer, the coach from South Carolina called Francis Marion’s coach. A full scholarship had materialized, and he wanted to award it to Angela Salem. Angela learned of this phone call only recently; her FMU coach wasn’t letting her go anywhere.
Coach Beall left after two years, and Joel Person arrived at FMU to coach Angela through her final two seasons. During the 2008 season, she led the team in scoring while repeating as team MVP.
As graduation approached, Angela wasn’t selected in the 2010 WPS Draft. She applied to nursing school, and was accepted. While she was still in class, she’d drive hours to compete in open tryouts for the various WPS teams, hoping for a chance. Frequently, a large morning open tryout would be winnowed down for the afternoon, and Salem usually made the cut. Her ball skills and desire stood out, but her perceived lack of pedigree—that she hadn’t played against top competition while at Francis Marion—seemed to stand in her way.
Why, the pro coaches seemed to wonder, had she gone there in the first place?
She’d had a great showing at Sky Blue FC’s open tryout and learned, on the last day of preseason in Florida, that she’d been selected as a development player for the team. Of the eight players vying for four spots, she'd made the cut. Each of the eight were individually called into a room to have a one-on-one conversation about their future. Angela's future was at Sky Blue FC. After, of course, Coach Person had been able to answer a certain question.
“What’s wrong with her?”
The question was code—an inquiry into why Salem had gone to Francis Marion University. Her future coach wanted to know about her leadership skills, whether or not she was a discipline problem, if she was trouble in the locker room, if she had the work ethic to be a successful pro. And again, why had she gone to such a small school?
Person’s answer was sufficiently convincing, and Angela was offered the spot at Sky Blue. She’d need to hurry back to FMU, pack, and continue north to New Jersey. Classes weren't over, so she quickly arranged to finish them. She decided to switch from nursing to psychology so she'd be able to play. She deferred her 2012 admission into Cleveland State University's nursing program. She was all in to become a professional women’s soccer player.
Professional women’s soccer players in the WPS in 2010 enjoyed a minimum salary of $20k per year. Unless, like Salem, they were developmental players. For developmental players, in addition to team-arranged host-family accommodations and opportunities to coach clinics and individual local kids, the pay was a mere $6k per year. It seemed a little less than a professional salary.
She logged three appearances for Sky Blue that season, before returning to school to finish one class in the offseason. Though she'd be invited to return to compete for a spot at Sky Blue the following year, the team's new coach called her and let her know he was releasing her before he'd had a chance to see her play. She ended up signing for the Atlanta Beat.
As the third season of WPS approached, the league made the decision to eliminate the minimum salary. So, even though she would no longer be a development player, she wouldn’t be guaranteed the $20k that she’d have made the prior year. Some teams took the opportunity to dramatically reduce player pay. Others had no difficulty paying more than ever before, because there was also no salary cap.
The Atlanta Beat played in a new, 8300-seat stadium built specifically for women’s soccer at Kennesaw State University, which is 25 miles north of Atlanta in the lush foothills of the north Georgia mountains. Civil war monuments abound nearby, telling the story of the old south beside the ever-spreading sprawl of the booming northern Atlanta suburbs. And there are golf courses nearby. Lots of golf courses.
Professional female athletes hoping to keep a low profile while making some decent extra cash might think working part time at a country club would be a great fit. Relatively wealthy patrons would keep reasonable, conservative hours and tip handsomely if they appreciated the service. The schedule would be flexible, and the upscale environment would be a classy place to work.
About that last part—the classy place to work part—not so much. As it turns out, professional female athletes and other fit female humans working at certain country clubs are sometimes assigned the title of “bev-cart girl.” The job involves transporting beverages, alcoholic and otherwise, via a bar golf cart around the golf course to locate and lubricate the primarily middle-age male club members whose thirsts were sometimes not fully quenched by said beverages. What could possibly go wrong?
When not piloting the booze-cart or making 11 appearances for the Atlanta Beat, Salem also worked in the banquet room of the country club as a server, which wasn't nearly as bad.
After the season, she followed several of her league-mates overseas to play in Europe. Salem signed for the 2009 Finnish champions at Åland United, where she got into seven games, and scored her first professional goal. The team pay was a big improvement from her Atlanta Beat wages, and she received a grocery stipend, free room and board and a secluded location on a remote island where she found it difficult to spend much money. Nonetheless, she took a job off the pitch to earn extra money that she’d save for a planned European adventure.
In case you’re ever in need of an opinion as to which onion to choose while shopping, Angela Salem may be able to help. She worked for part of the Åland United season at an onion processing facility, sorting onions. Such is the glamorous life of a professional women's soccer player.
Onions, as it turns out, can look just fine but be undesirably mushy to handle. It’s important to only send the solid, firm onions forth into the marketplace. Quickly. The onions hurtle down a conveyor belt, and must be assessed and sorted with Scandinavian precision. Finns grow and eat a lot of onions, and they’re consequently quite picky about which onions should be used for which purpose. Hundreds of thousands of Åland onions passed rapidly through Angela’s hands that year, and sorting them seems like a skill she hasn’t forgotten.
Her soccer career was hitting its stride, and she signed again with the Atlanta Beat for the following season. She decided to head back to Akron for a brief break, taking a job at a restaurant but mysteriously not seeking out bev-cart opportunities in Ohio. As she prepared to return to Georgia, news broke that the WPS would fold, and there would be no 2012 WPS season.
It would not be back.
However, the WPSL Elite emerged to fill the void, and Angela had connections at one of the teams. She’d head north to Buffalo for the 2012 season and join the Western New York Flash. It was a great fit. She played in 16 games, scored a goal, and celebrated a championship victory. The WPS Elite salary was an improvement, and she was eligible for bonuses as well. Still, she made extra money coaching for the academy teams and doing private sessions.
She joined the Newcastle Jets in Australia for the next two off-seasons, and learned from the southern hemisphere that she'd been drafted in the 2nd round by her current Western New York Flash team for the new National Women's Soccer League season.
She'd Finally Been Drafted!
Salem made a new home in Buffalo, traveling to Rochester with the Flash for games. She coached on the side and became a fan favorite during her 46 appearances over the first two NWSL seasons. The Flash won the regular season NWSL Shield in the first year of the league, but lost the Championship to the Portland Thorns on their home field. In 2014, the team dropped to 7th place, and changes were coming. Her time with the Flash came to an end when she was traded to the Washington Spirit.
Washington gave Salem 12 starts among 15 appearances on their way to a 4th place finish in 2015. It felt great there, until word arrived that the former manager of Sky Blue FC, Jim Gabarra, would be taking over the Spirit in 2016.
Her suspicions were correct, and she'd soon be traded. Through her connections, she figured out that a few teams would be interested in bringing her on if Washington was interested in trading her. But Boston was not one of those teams.
The Breakers were in rebuilding mode, and Salem wasn't their only offseason acquisition. They'd brought in a new coach, Matt Beard, who'd won titles in England with Liverpool Ladies. They'd made lots of trades, letting go of some beloved stars and several draft picks to bring in proven pros like Salem. She'd be reunited with her former WNY Flash midfield partner and seasoned pro McCall Zerboni, who arrived in Boston with her own current midfield partner Sinead Farrelly from the Portland Thorns. Add Kristie Mewis to the midfield mix and the Breakers started to look formidable, all before knowing what could be expected from Beard's Liverpool Ladies recruit, Louise Schillgard.
But the early part of the season didn't go as planned in Boston. Farrelly missed the entire season recovering from an off-season automobile accident, and Zerboni was traded to the WNY Flash mid-year. Mewis missed a lot of time due to injury. Salem emerged as a key player, starting all but one game (missed due to a prior engagement), and scoring a goal in a losing effort against her former Sky Blue FC side in July. She's started and played 90 minutes almost every match, a composed and indefatigable presence who has been very difficult to beat 1-on-1.
Boston continued to adjust as the season progressed, bringing in another of Matt Beard's Liverpool Ladies in Natasha Dowie after shipping hometown hero Steph McCaffrey off to Chicago. Dowie produced immediately, and has rewarded the Breakers with 3 goals in 6 games. Though the Breakers aren't quite competitive with the top few teams, they've looked much better in the final third of the season, and have the chance to play playoff spoiler for the Western New York Flash in their final home match on Saturday night.
Will it be Salem's final match for Boston? The team has her rights for 2017, and she's proven her value time and again. Next season would be her eighth across various American leagues, but she shows no signs of slowing down. For an undrafted player from a small school to survive 7 years as a pro, she's obviously doing something right.
She's fought for success on and off the field, putting in extra hours and working extra jobs to make her dream of being a professional footballer come true. Plus she can pick a winning onion.
What's wrong with her?
What's not to love?