It was the last minute of stoppage as the Boston Breakers played the Orlando Pride at home. Orlando had already gone up two and Boston was just looking to salvage a little bit of dignity in the 98’. Adriana Leon took a big tackle in the box and the ref pointed to the spot. Amanda Da Costa stepped up - and buried it. A few moments later, the ref whistled for full time. It was the last play, last goal, last kick of a seven-year career that spanned four different leagues and three different countries.
Amanda Da Costa has seen it all in her career. She played for women’s college powerhouse Florida State, had a stint in WPS with MagicJack, jumped to Boston for the bridging year between WPS and NWSL with WPSL Elite, then took an opportunity in the FA WSL to play for Liverpool. She was in the USWNT youth pool but eventually ended up with the Portuguese national team, and ended up back in the United States in NWSL, where she’s played for the Washington Spirit, the Chicago Red Stars, and finally the Boston Breakers. And to top it all off she was part of Portugal’s 2017 Euro campaign. Not a bad year to end on, if you have to end at all.
Da Costa seemed in an upbeat mood after the Orlando game. She had, after all, gone out on a goal, burying her penalty kick past Ashlyn Harris. She didn’t even look particularly tired, tossing a gifted scarf from the Boston Armada supporters group around her neck and swanning over to the bleachers in the building that serves as the Breakers mixed zone for press. “It’s been weird,” she said of the end of her career. “I’ve been seeing a lot of symbolism everywhere. Like I’m wearing number five and my first ever jersey when I played AYSO when I was like four was number five. And those were just given at random. And then literally look.” She pointed at the bleachers’ numbered rows. “Right now I’m sitting in row five.” Sure enough, we had randomly taken a seat in row five.
Da Costa made an expression that gave the suggestion of a good-natured but puzzled shrug. “I just feel like – I don’t know. I’m a big believer that whatever you put into the world you get out of it. And maybe it’s just a sign that the opportunity was given to me for a reason, kind of like the soccer world almost giving it back to me. I have no idea. I’m just happy that I was able to be on the field at all, let alone have that kind of a moment afterwards. It was pretty surreal.”
Da Costa is leaving soccer behind to pursue a master’s degree in school psychology at Mercy College in New York. The grad school application process being what it is, both she and Breakers head coach Matt Beard knew she might not be available for the entire season going into 2017. “I kind of knew this after I left Chicago last year,” she said of her plans to retire. “I think I just reached that point in my life where I knew I was going to be going to the Euros for Portugal and that was kind of like my big last thing, and after that I just felt like I had done everything that I have ever wanted to do with soccer. And I felt kind of fulfilled in a way. I could keep playing forever, I love it so much, but when I look at really what I want for my life and the future, I do want a family, I do want some stability. I want to go back to school, it’s something I always wanted to do.”
That future stability Da Costa mentioned is part of a stark reality for women’s soccer in the United States at the moment: if you’re not a USWNT player or a top-recruited international, you cannot make a lasting living from the game. Orlando Pride player Maddy Evans also announced her retirement last week and in her own post-game career reflection stated she was still making close to the league minimum at $16,000/year, despite being in her fifth season with the league. It’s a consistent problem, though admittedly one that used to be much worse. When the league first started, the minimum was closer to $6,000/year. But there’s still a lot of work left to do, and Da Costa, having played for three NWSL teams, is more than aware of the challenges ahead, as well as having her own point of view on ways the league can improve.
“I do wish the league would allow non-national team players a little bit more of the spotlight to get fans excited to come into town for everybody and not only when there are bigger names,” said Da Costa. Orlando, notably, carries world-famous names on its roster in Alex Morgan and Marta, and there were plenty of Morgan jerseys and signs in the stands of Jordan Field that day. “Obviously we take what we can get, and it’s just great that they’re coming and seeing such a great game because you just need people here. But I’m excited for the day where it’s a league for the players, a league for everybody, a league for the future. Right now I think they’re still working through a lot of that, which is why you see so many players retiring and retiring young. It’s unfortunate but it’s almost like you kind of have an expiration date in this league.”
“At some point, real life does kick in and you do need those things and you do need to pay bills,” said Da Costa. “I have a house in New York with my boyfriend. I do want to go to school. When should I start, when do I do these things?” At the same time, Da Costa emphasized that she’s seen the game grow tremendously during her career.
It was a hard-won career to start, though, drafted as she was right away to MagicJack. The problems that team created have been well-documented; for a 21-year-old fresh out of college, it was a hell of an introduction to pro women’s soccer, one that taught Da Costa a lesson she didn’t necessarily understand at the time.
“I played with MagicJack that first year in WPS and I literally thought I just should not be playing soccer,” she said. “I was like, this is not what I expected. I worked my butt off to become a pro. This is my dream and this was such a letdown and I thought I was never going to play again.... I just turned 21 when I was going to play with MagicJack. I was really young. I had gone through a lot up to that point that made me stronger but geez. To go through that at that age, I was having all sorts of questions. It was crazy what that experience was.”
It was bad enough that Da Costa even contemplated quitting the sport. “I think a lot of us felt that on that team. And you know what, sadly some people did end shortly after that. That was a really bad time.”
Da Costa said she tried to speak up about what she saw that was wrong at MagicJack, but it was hard as a 21-year-old rookie, and there was resistance to her objections. “I don’t even need to go into the things that was said to me...but I did try,” she said. “And it didn’t work. I got stuck in there and I wasn’t allowed to leave...”
But for all that, she doesn’t regret it, which is where that life lesson comes in. “That was part of my life and honestly I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that,” she said. “I look back on it, almost like, yeah that sucked, but I wouldn’t say I regretted it. Because how am I supposed to regret that? I was going after my dream and it didn’t go the way I planned. So just don’t turn your back on closed doors. There are other doors, and I did that, and I had an amazing experience because of it.”
That experience? Da Costa casually rattled off the bigger moves of her career, one that almost ended as soon as it started but for a gritty determination and a pure love of the game. “I got to play in England for two years and live in Europe and win championships and play in Champions League and that was amazing. So literally even when it looks like all the doors are closing, I didn’t give up, and that’s why I was able to have the career that I had. And then I ended up playing in Europe with Portugal in front of thousands of people and now I’m retiring and I feel amazing about it.”
“Don’t ever really give up,” she said with simple conviction. And because she didn’t give up, she was able to help build a third league that in its fifth year has already far surpassed its predecessors. “I’m positive that women will have a future,” she said. “The girls that I coach right now, they will have a future in this league.” This - the low salaries, the sometimes moderate crowds, the early retirements - Da Costa believes is all part of the steady march towards a healthy, sustainable league, and it was a burden she willingly shouldered.
“I mean...you look at the story of the 99ers and the World Cup,” she said. “What they had to go through, literally not having any kind of facilities, women bringing their kids to practice and having the kids run around the sideline. There are documentaries about it and it’s amazing what they did to blaze the path for us. So they had to do it. And then others after them have done it. I’m grateful to be a part of that as well. It’s probably going to just continue that way, because we never will settle. We’ll always be growing.”
Da Costa has definitely done her share to advance the game, not just through her play on the field, but through her training of younger players. “I have my own company I’ve had for a while,” she said. “I just train local girls. But I have girls who are signing their first letters of intent to go off to great colleges: Notre Dame, Florida State, UCLA. And that is such a great feeling. It brings me joy in a different way that soccer didn’t give me.... I want the girls that I am coaching now who are signing their first letters of intent, I want them to be able to sign their first pro contracts. I want them to be able to go into this thinking like, I can do this for 10, 15 years and have a life.... I want that for them so badly.”
Da Costa was noticeably animated describing the future she was helping put in place, which is perhaps why she shrugged off a question about maybe missing the flashier aspects of the game. Even though she just competed in a Euro that was noted for its viewership and has helped set a new standard for future tournaments, Da Costa wasn’t in it to see her name in lights. “I’m a pretty simple person, even though this is great,” she said, “this” being the sellout audience that had just watched her play. “The lights and the glory and scoring penalty kicks is amazing. But I don’t need a lot to be happy. I just want to see other people happy, so if I can continue advocating for the people around me and seeing them succeed I think I’ll be just as happy as I am now.”
The Amanda Da Costas of the game won’t get the hordes of shrieking fans, the big time endorsements, the household name recognition. But it is the Da Costas who are the lifeblood of the league, building the game brick by brick, season by season, minimum salary raise by raise. For as much as Da Costa was lucky to play the game she loves, the game was just as lucky to have had her.