Stephanie Cox attempting comeback
SAN ANTONIO -- Stephanie Cox was once the youngest player on a U.S. World Cup soccer team when she was still just a collegian on the squad that finished third in China in 2007. But when she ducked out of the locker room in the concrete depths of San Antonio's Alamodome last week after the U.S. beat Australia 4-0 in a friendly, Cox returned with an unbeatable replacement as the youngest person in the room.
Waiting in the hallway was husband Brian and their daughter, Kaylee, who was born this past April. Leaving Brian with the stroller, Cox, 27, disappeared with her infant behind closed doors, where Kaylee seemed to be in as much demand as Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach were in the stands.
Mixing strollers and locker rooms was not the world Cox necessarily envisioned when she made her international debut while still a standout defender at the University of Portland. The national team has its own well-chronicled history of world-class soccer moms, including Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf and Tina Ellertson on the 2007 team, but back then the young defender doubted that she would ever follow in their footsteps.
"I always thought that I would be done, that it would just be too much to balance both," Cox said. "But I think when we realized that, OK, this was a great time to start our family, my husband and I. I still loved the game, and I still loved playing. And I also knew that my husband was supportive, that had to be key."
A soccer setback when she was let go from the 2012 Olympic team, opened the door to starting a family. Now Cox hopes motherhood will open a door to the national team again.
The game against Australia marked the first time Cox had appeared on the U.S. roster since her pregnancy, but she will have to wait a while longer for her first cap as a mother. She wasn't one of the substitutes coach Tom Sermanni used in the win, and she won't be on the roster for Sunday's game against New Zealand in San Francisco, somewhat unfortunately for a player who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., a reasonable drive from the Bay Area. But getting a call-up and a chance to train for more than a week in front of Sermanni was a necessary first step if she wants to add to her nearly 100 career caps.
"It's only fair," Sermanni said of calling her back to the team. "I think it's my responsibility to look at those players and see where they're at because obviously she's got a great international pedigree. I had really never seen her play, never worked with her until [training in San Antonio]. So I think it's important, both from the national team perspective and her perspective -- and ethically -- that payers that have been involved in the national team, whether they're coming back from injury or whether they're coming back from things like pregnancy, that they get an opportunity."
A member of two World Cup teams, Cox was on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Beijing and began 2012 hoping to compete for a starting position in the London Games. It looked promising that she would be a part of the roster, considering U.S. Soccer interviewed her for an Olympic preview just a few months before. She said she felt like she trained harder in during that time than she ever had before. Then former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage told her she wouldn't be going to London.
"There wasn't really a complete explanation," Cox said of Sundhage's choice. "I just knew it was a coach's decision, just a preference. I was confident of how I'd been playing and that I had done what I could have done, and that was just her approach. And I had the respect of my teammates. It was really hard to leave my friends. That was the hard part, and that took a while to get over."
Children have long been almost as much a part of Cox's life as soccer. Her parents, by her count, have temporarily taken in more than a hundred newborns as foster parents. She has been involved with a variety of charities and fundraising efforts devoted to child welfare. Amid the disappointment over missing the Olympics, she wondered if it was part of a larger plan for her and Brian to start a family.
It also did not go without consideration that if she wanted to make a run at the 2015 World Cup, she would be well-served to be back on the field by the end of the 2013 National Women's Soccer League season in order to prove herself ready for a national team call-up, which would put her on Sermanni's radar in advance of a 2014 NWSL season. Timing is everything, after all.
Hence the April baby.
Of course, planning the timeline of a return is easier than executing it. She made it back to play in four games for the Seattle Reign about four months after giving birth, but regaining the speed, stamina and agility to play at that level -- let alone the international level -- was a challenge physically and mentally.
"I think there is doubt in a sense of did she really want to go through the pain to get back in shape," Brian said. "It's a different kind of level to play for the USA, obviously. So I think there were days where she doubted her goal of getting back, but I'm proud of her that she's where she is. She's here to play and earn a spot on this team. Otherwise she wouldn't be here. She's worked really hard. I'm excited and proud of her."
And perhaps motherhood offers its own benefits, if the initial physical hurdles can be overcome. Playing for the national team is stressful. It's stressful because of expectations. It's stressful because of travel. It's stressful because of the line of talented players waiting to take your spot. But consider the fitness test early in training in San Antonio that once would have added one more stress to the list.
"I felt like coming back, I could kind of reinvent myself a little bit and have more fun," Cox said. "Even when I was running, I got to run in the shade next to [Heather O'Reilly] and it actually was fun. Before it was something I would dread and get sick to my stomach. I think being a mom really helped that. I didn't get as far [in the conditioning test] as I would have wanted, but it didn't matter because I knew at the end of the day, when I got in the van, I was going back to get in the pool with my daughter and look forward to different things."
A year removed from World Cup qualifying and a year-and-a-half removed from the start of play in Canada, Cox faces long odds and a short window to make her case for a roster spot amidst a crowded collection of outside backs. She wouldn't be here if making that roster didn't matter desperately to her. But at the end of the day, as she put it, there will be two people waiting for her.
The day before the game against Australia, the press officer for the national team stopped by with a quizzical look as Cox fought back tears while she answered questions in the mix zone where players take questions from the media. She quickly laughed and allayed his concerns. It wasn't anything bad; someone had just asked about what Kaylee meant to her.
She was ready to be a mom when fate opened the door. She just wasn't ready to give up soccer.
"I think if it wasn't a good fit, if I was too stressed, I don't want soccer to affect who I am as a mom," Cox said. "But I think right now it's a great thing for Kaylee to see her smile when Abby is making goofy faces at her, to see [Nicole Barnhart] smile when she's holding her.
"I think it's a good thing for the team, and I think it's a good thing for Kaylee to be around different people."
People she hopes become familiar faces.