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The remarkable career of Angela Salem

“I went to an open tryout and then just went from there.”

Stephanie Yang

On a slightly humid night in Boston, in front of a noisy crowd, Angela Salem was everywhere. The Boston Breakers were playing the Portland Thorns and Salem went from defensive to attacking mid as Boston tried to find an equalizer on a night when they were dominating play but unable to score. Whether she was building a calm eye in front of the defense or checking into the box to add another body to the attack, she was steady and professional, as she has been all season for Boston despite a seemingly unending series of dings to the roster.

But Salem didn’t start out as a seasoned pro, a tentpole player you could count on to hold up even when everything else might be collapsing around her. In fact, she didn’t really start out on a pro track at all, attending Francis Marion University, where she originally intended to get a nursing degree. But Salem was a student athlete, and she said she was steered away from nursing because of its heavy curriculum and the potential clash with soccer, which small school or not, was at the time a DI sport and would place big demands on her time. And so Salem didn’t become a nurse, and in 2009 when she graduated, there was a brand new professional league in the United States: Women’s Professional Soccer.

Salem couldn’t recall that she particularly had a burning desire to be a pro. “I kind of just came across [WPS] and I was like maybe I should just try it. I didn’t know what to expect really,” she said after practice last week. She had just won two rounds of soccer tennis in the team cooldown, a drill where the team lined up on both sides of the net and each player was allowed two touches without dropping the ball. Salem’s cooler head prevailed over all comers, including one rookie goalkeeper who fumbled her serve short of the net.

That cool head seems to be one of Salem’s hallmarks, both on and off the field. Throughout the interview, she repeatedly described her career moves as moments when she just decided to see how things played out. She hit open tryouts for two WPS teams because she wasn’t drafted. “I was coming from Francis Marion, then you see all these girls wearing hoodies with like UNC or UCLA, Florida State, so you’re kind of like oh my god, where do I stand, and once you start playing you kind of figure it out,” she said. And yet her easygoing words and attitude belied the kind of determination that kept her playing through one failed league’s collapse and across three different countries. In fact, there were times when she was preparing to move on from the sport, but somehow kept climbing from opportunity to opportunity. When WPS collapsed in January of 2012, Salem, like so many other players, was completely thrown for a loop.

“I remember I woke up to the email like, eight in the morning and it had said it was from our owner saying I’m really sorry to tell you guys this, but the league’s folded and there’s going to be no team,” Salem recalled. She had already signed a contract for the upcoming 2012 season with her team at the time, the Atlanta Beat, and had no backup plan. After phone calls with her friends, she found a place to land while she sorted out a new life plan: the Western New York Flash would be playing in a new league, WPSL Elite.

WPSL Elite was an interesting attempt at papering over the massive hole left behind by WPS’ demise. Some former WPS teams jumped over to Elite, like the Flash, the Boston Breakers, and the Chicago Red Stars. Some lower-tier teams were brought up to help make up the difference, and the disparity in professionalism and talent levels was obvious. After one such game with Boston taking on a team that did not come from WPS, the entire opposing team posed for a picture with USWNT player and then-Breaker Heather O’Reilly.

For Salem, at least, the Flash were a godsend. “It was as professional as it could be. We trained every day. We were getting paid. We had meetings. We did it all,” she said. And despite Elite’s rougher edges, Salem pointed out it was an important placeholder for the women’s game. “I think it really helped continue to give hope to have another league come back and maybe inspired owners to stick around.”

But Salem couldn’t have known Elite would end up being a bridge from WPS to NWSL. At the time, she had finally pieced back together a new plan: return to nursing school. “I applied to nursing school again at Cleveland State,” she said. “I was kind of preparing to just be done because I didn’t know that was what was going on behind the scenes, and there was obviously rumors but after the league folded with the WPS you couldn’t really count on anything.”

But even while Salem was contemplating the rest of her life, she still had room for soccer. She managed to grab a spot with the Newcastle Jets in Australia’s W-League with a bit of hustle and a connection through Australian national team player Emily van Egmond, Salem’s teammate on the Flash. “I was planning on going to Australia just because I wanted to go to Australia,” she said, another entry on her list of just-roll-with-the-punches career. “I thought it would be a good way to end my career. So I got accepted into Cleveland State and then I went to Australia so I deferred, because I was like, I want to go to Australia and I’ll just go to nursing school the following year. And then when I was in Australia it was, oh this new league is coming back! And there’s going to be a draft and I was like, oh maybe I will, you know? I guess I’ll play.” She laughed good-naturedly as she described this tectonic shift in the women’s pro soccer landscape that once again changed the track of her life plans.

As Salem discussed her emotional reaction to learning about the creation of NWSL, she rather endearingly swore, then promptly looked apologetic and changed it to “oh my gosh.” It was still a very unstable period for her, as she was in Australia trying to coordinate talks with several teams and figure out if she was going to get picked up off the initial draft list. The Flash’s then-head coach, Aaran Lines, wanted Salem back after WPSL Elite, and did end up picking her for NWSL’s inaugural season. That’s not to say Salem didn’t have reservations, having lived through the collapse of one pro league. But she’d been hopping along for several years now, still playing, and was now a desired player who didn’t have to skip from open tryout to open tryout just to wedge her foot in the door.

That was 2013. Now here we are in 2017, nearing the end of NWSL’s fifth season. Salem left the Flash after 2014, traded to the Washington Spirit for the 2015 season. And then after 2015, Salem came to Boston in another trade, and here she’s remained, eventually earning her 100th NWSL appearance while in the white and blue.

There’s several things Salem said she couldn’t have predicted when she first joined NWSL, especially with the specter of WPS in her mind. “You just aren’t sure if the league’s going to be able to stick around, and obviously with US Soccer backing the league you had more confidence but you still don’t know,” she said. “I guess I didn’t predict the salaries starting to go up for the rookies at least, which is great, and the expansions. I didn’t know that teams would end up popping up, the MLS partnerships with having a [female] and male team, I think that’s great.”

“And,” she said, laughing, “I didn’t predict myself to still be playing. You never know.”

Salem is 29, and definitely still playing. In 2017 she’s started 22 of 22 games for Boston and played nearly every minute of every game, and played them with consistency. She is the kind of player whose presence doesn’t seem remarkable for its lack of flashy moves, but whose absence would leave a smoking crater in the formation. For someone who claims to have a “guess I’ll see how this goes” attitude, she has built a suspiciously long career and earned the respect of her teammates as a veteran and just all-around nice person. There is a core of determination in Salem that might seem less intense because of her easy smiles and cheerful attitude, but nobody builds an eight-season career coming out of a tiny non-soccer school and playing her way onto a pro team through open tryouts without some kind of inner drive to succeed. Sure, there was some confluence of luck and timing that gave us Angela Salem, veteran midfielder instead of Angela Salem, veteran nurse. But consider how many times Salem could have quit and instead chose to take the next chance, and the next chance, until she became a respected starter who is already planning how she’ll give back to the game.

Salem is working on her master’s degree in Athletic Counseling at Springfield College, which she described as a master’s in psychology with a concentration in athletics. She said she could be a certified sport consultant, or a counselor for collegiate athletes, with her degree. But she’s also coaching youth players, and wants to get her advanced licenses through US Soccer. “I know there’s some rule that if you’ve played for five years professionally you can opt out of some [levels] and then I think can jump right into my B or my C. I would probably try my C even if I could opt out, just to learn more,” she said. She’s onboard with the idea of the league partnering with US Soccer to reduce the cost of licensing and making the classes more flexible for busy players who can’t take two weeks off from work to complete a seminar.

“That would be another goal I think for this league,” she said. “I think that would be a good thing, especially with female coaches. I think there’s not as many female coaches in the game as there should be.”

“But,” she added, “The whole lifestyle, I want to have a family and I want to have kids and my parents were coaches growing up and I know it’s really hard to find that balance. So I haven’t decided yet if that’s something that I really want to dive into but it’s definitely in the back of my mind.” Salem knows having a family is more difficult for women who coach, with the balance of child rearing still placed more on women in American society, and so she’s still weighing out the pros and cons of it. But you can tell she wants to remain involved in the game that she loves so much.

Salem has hopes for that game, and for the league she couldn’t have predicted would still be around after five years. “I hope there’s more exposure,” she said. “I think not enough people still know about this league. I want people to be paid more. I think it’s hard, it’s really hard to survive and it’s fine, there’s no complaints, but you have to pick up other stuff and that’s the reality of it. But hopefully people can continue to get paid more.... Getting more players from overseas would be awesome, just to keep strengthening the league as well so we get more older and experienced players, not just so much of a younger feel. It should be a good mix of things.”

Salaries - yet another reason why Salem’s continued career at 29 is so remarkable, considering she isn’t a “big name” player or part of the coveted USWNT pool. But she is a vital player, not just to Boston, but to the league, which needs 200-plus players to function and not just the 25 or so that hover around the WNT roster at any given time.

"I'm 26, turning 27, and I make $16,000 a year playing in this league, and I'm in the fifth year of this league,” said retiring Orlando Pride midfielder Maddy Evans in her final press conference this past August. Salem politely didn’t talk exact salary figures, but she is basically in the same boat, both in terms of her and Evans being crucial yet non-top tier players and in terms of money.

“I think that role is interesting because it’s like you need these players, but then people feel like you’re also easily replaced,” said Salem. “So players like [Maddy], we need them in this league. And she represents so much that this league should be representing. like a hard work ethic and a good teammate and just heart and passion and pure love of the game, and it’s not necessarily rewarded all the time and that’s sad, but that’s just the reality of it. Hopefully more players can try and continue that kind of impression she’s left on the game because that’s kind of what the game needs too.”

Salem has helped build the game in the United States, brick by unexpected brick. Even today, the rookies who enter the league can expect a $15,000 minimum salary instead of the original $6,000. It’s not great, but it’s progress, and it was carried forward by players like Salem, who understood the conditions wouldn’t be ideal but that they would be laying the foundation for the future.

Right now, Salem may not necessarily be thinking so much about NWSL’s next five-year plan, considering the Boston Breakers are once again at the bottom of the table. The immediate concern is finishing the season on some wins, although the team’s general performance against Portland is a positive step. “We feel bad if we’re not getting results because the fans, we want to win games and we want to put on good performances,” said Salem. “The fans are so great here. They are so loyal and so die hard and I appreciate that about them. And I just think it does help when they come to the game and they are cheering. We hear and we feel the presence and even messages on social media, we see everything.”

“Hopefully they can continue to support us and believe in us and hopefully they know that we are very thankful for what they do for us,” she said. Salem is working hard on repaying that faith, doing her part to try and turn the ship at Boston.

“This is my eighth season and I still want to learn. I’m still learning and things do slow down and you become smarter. But you can never stop learning,” she said. “And you shouldn’t want to stop learning because there’s always room for improvement, and if you think you don’t have room for improvement then you’re not going to grow as much as a player.”

Angela Salem has grown as a player. From that unknown, undrafted college grad who thought she would just see how a pro career played out to a dependable fan favorite, Salem has pieced together a career in a sport notorious for forcing out players like her when they hit their mid-twenties, sending them in search of more stable jobs with better pay. For all the kind words Salem shared about Evans, they apply to her too. Hard work ethic, good teammate, heart, passion, pure love of the game. The league needs its Angela Salems just as much as they need the league. Hopefully five years from now it won’t be so remarkable that players like Salem have careers, but for now, Boston fans are lucky to have her.