Brynn Sebring’s first call to Racing Louisville FC management was just to say hi and to tell them how impressed she was with how the club was putting itself together.
“I was so impressed,” Sebring told me last week. “Honestly I just reached out to be like ‘Hey, I just want you to know I’m impressed, this is cool. Here’s something else, would you want to have a conversation about this?’ And they did.”
The something else turned into a new role for Sebring with the first-year expansion side in the National Women’s Soccer League. Her title is Director of Player Experience and Operations. Sebring performed similar functions during a four-year tenure at the Reign, but in Louisville is able to dedicate her whole self to making every players’ experience in the city and at the club the very best it can be.
“Basically I manage every single thing that touches the players when they’re here,” she said. “From how they get picked up at the airport to what they’re living in to how we communicate our schedule to how we prepare and support them off the field. It’s a large scope.”
Sebring arrived in Louisville in January giving her less than a month to organize housing arrangements for 30 players, some of whom had yet to be drafted or picked out of head coach Christy Holly’s open tryouts. The transition was made easier by the fact Racing Louisville is under the umbrella of USL club Louisville City FC.
“People forget that this organization has a men’s team so they’ve done all this before,” she said. “It’s not like they’ve never housed a player before. They had all that groundwork in place before I got here and I just kind of took over.
“It was a lot of long days setting up apartments. A big thing for me, just that attention to detail, like you should put rolls of toilet paper in their apartment. People come in, the first thing they do, and they’re not stuck like ‘Oh chute and I don’t actually have any toilet paper.’ Making sure that every single piece that a player could not have to go to the grocery store or to the department store. If they landed at 11 p.m. they’re set for that night. Tiny little things like that, all really add up and all make a huge difference of what that player’s experience is with the club.”
“It’s really nice coming into a new market and a new place and feeling like you don’t even have to run to the store the first night,” goalkeeper Michelle Betos said, unprompted. “Little things like having a garbage bag in the garbage to having a roll of toilet paper. The bed was made. You could walk in and take a deep breath and settle in on your own time.”
Betos said that not only did she move into a fully furnished apartment, but that items she had shipped from Tacoma were there and unpacked for her. Erin Simon got an apartment that allowed her to have her dog with her for the first time since she played for Sky Blue FC and lived with her parents. Sebring also set Simon up with a rental car to drive with her dog from her home in New Jersey to Louisville. That car went back, but Simon now has a team car to drive for the season.
“She’s been awesome the whole time,” Simon said. “She’s been really helpful in making us feel integrated and at home and making sure everything is set up for us. She’s really about the players which is all you can ask for from someone in her role. She has to take care of 26 to 28 girls and she is sticking her neck out for every single one of them.”
Prior to the players arriving, Sebring sent out roommate questionnaires to everyone whose contract called for living with another player. It sounds like something out a dating game as players were queried on everything from how late they like to stay up to whether they prefer cooking to eating out and even how warm or cold they like to keep their homes. It’s early days but there have been no reported issues with the roommate setup so far.
Soccer, what’s soccer?
Sebring does not have a background in soccer on or off the field. She fell into a job with the Reign in 2017 and spent four years there, eventually rising to Associate General Manager in 2020. She claims to have no knowledge whatsoever about what makes distinguishes a good soccer player or a good training session from a bad one.
“One of the benefits of me is that I have zero understanding of soccer,” she said. “Zero understanding whatsoever. And really like no aims to have understanding.”
“She literally really doesn’t,” Betos said, chuckling. “I mean I think she knows it’s good if you score goals and vice versa, but I think genuinely beyond that she really doesn’t know. And I think that’s nice. It’s nice for people to just be valued for who they are and feel like somebody cares about them no matter what they do on the field.”
“I actually think that’s a benefit to people,” Sebring continued. “They know that I am completely impartial on their actual soccer abilities and all I care about is who they are as people and how their lives off the field are.”
“Inevitably in professional sports, the better you’re playing, the more minutes you’re playing for your club, the more valuable you feel,” Betos said. “It’s not anything negative it’s just logistics. That’s going to happen in pro sports. But I think that when every single person on the team feels valued as a person it actually leads to more team success and better individual performance. So when someone like Brynn is taking the time to invest in player one through 35, that creates a very special environment because people feel cared for by the club. They feel invested in. When those cusp players get lost it actually hurts a team and an environment more than people notice.”
At the very least, Sebring says she is now a fan, and obviously roots for her team to do well. But she knew little about soccer when the Reign hired her in 2017. Before that she worked teaching outdoor recreation to people with disabilities. It was that work that moved Sebring to approach working in the NWSL in a way that served the players.
“To me, a player’s experience really does a couple of things for a team. One, it gives them a competitive advantage in recruiting because word of mouth in this league is fast. And players, while they don’t have a ton of rights in where they go, players — especially U.S. national team players — can really influence where they’re going to be playing. The more a player wants to play for a club, the more a club has a reputation as a good place to play, the easier it is for recruiting.
“The other side of it that is equally important is that this is the right thing to do. Players deserve to have good experiences when they’re with a club. And if you want to set the standard for women’s soccer this is a huge part of it. The way players talk about your club when they leave or when they retire is going to be important to your perception.”
Sebring said when she pitched the idea to Holly, (President) Brad Estes and (Executive Vice President of Player Development) James O’Connor, it became an easy sell in the end.
“(They) were like ‘you know what, absolutely. That’s exactly what we want, and we want you here to do it.’”
As her role with the Reign evolved, Sebring found herself in a similar role as she holds now in Louisville minus the title. When Covid restrictions prevented the team from training at home last summer she organized a trip to Montana where everyone lived and trained for three weeks. In moving to Louisville she saw an opportunity to start from scratch and dreams of setting a precedent the entire league will soon adopt.
“Louisville had said they wanted to set the tone for women’s soccer, and this is an area that needs some tone-setting. It’s just a huge opportunity for the club. My dream is that in the future we have player experience standards set by the league across all teams. I want to be a part of that. I want to set what those are and I have a vision of what those are. I want Louisville to be the ones that are pioneering that path. I just saw a really good opportunity to build that from scratch. Sometimes when things are set in stone and there’s a way things are done, it’s harder to change that. If you can get in from the ground and really build it correctly from the beginning it can be really impactful.”
An early challenge
Sebring joked that she though the move to Louisville was a move “south” only to be greeted by snow, ice and generally some of the worst weather the area had seen in a decade or more. The weather combined with Covid restrictions made training anywhere from difficult to impossible. So the team — Sebring, really — planned a trip to Westfield, Indiana, last week where they had access to an indoor training facility.
“She found this awesome facility in Indiana and pretty much organized this entire thing for us,” Simon said. “She said up everything from getting the vans to transport us here to all the hotels, all the food arrangement. She’s been really good about setting everything up for us so that we’re comfortable and we’re able to get out on the field every single day and be at our best.”
Simon added that Sebring is quick to respond to any text and won’t hesitate to pick up the phone to address an issue if a more detailed explanation is required.
Sebring and the players spoken to for this story give Louisville high marks in their early days of living there. Once the weather and the restrictions calm down she is intent of familiarizing herself with the city which will make her even more effective at her job when future players come into market. She is dreading roster cuts, the first of which are due next week (though the team is already operating close to the March 1 limit).
Later in the season Sebring plans to line up guest speakers to aid players with the trials and travails of daily living as 20-somethings. Everything from trying to approach brands for marketing to helping players figure out what they’ll do after soccer, or even how to prepare their taxes will be on the table.
“A lot of people don’t realize that for NWSL players, their taxes are insane. They have to file individual state taxes for every state they play a game in.”
Simon and Betos were both Expansion Draft picks by Racing Louisville. That happened in December before Sebring was hired. At one point Betos contacted Holly to inquire about housing, something that felt odd because in her second Reign tenure (2018-2020) it was always Sebring that handled such requests. Never, she said, did they go through either of her coaches, Vlatko Andonovski or Farid Benstiti. Now that Sebring is in Louisville, Betos and her teammates need only to contact Holly for soccer things.
“From my first conversation with Christy, I really felt like player experience was a big focus,” Betos said. “Once that I saw they hired Brynn I knew that they meant it. I’ve been in this game a long time and have had a lot of interactions. She is absolutely the best at what she does. She has such genuine intentions and really just her entire goal is to help us perform at our best with no other worries but playing soccer.”
–If you’re wondering about the elephant(s) in the room that are Christen Press and Tobin Heath, Sebring told me her job is to deal only with players that are on the roster. But, she added: ‘If/when they show up, they will be taken care of like every other player on this roster. And I think the experience they would have here and what we have set up for our players would absolutely meet their expectations. I treat every single player on this roster like they are a World Cup winning U.S. national team player. Because that’s how they should be treated.”
–The SheBelieves Cup has been a good news/bad news scenario for Sky Blue. Evelyne Viens won her debut cap from Canada last week and Midge Purce is clearly in the mix to make the U.S. Olympic roster. However, goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan had to be helped off the field after an awkward clearance left her in significant pain. She has returned to New Jersey for further evaluation.
–Another Canadian casualty of SheBelieves is Bianca St Georges. The Red Stars outside back, who showed so much promise at last year’s NWSL Challenge Cup, tore her meniscus in training before the start of the tournament.
–The Reign waived Morgan Andrews last week.
–Crystal Thomas has been spotted training with the Orlando Pride.
–New Jersey governor Phil Murphy announced that outdoor sporting venues with capacity over 5,000 will begin accepting crowds as large as 15% of capacity beginning March 1. Murphy is co-owner of Sky Blue, but the club was not mentioned in his announcement.
–The Dash have teamed up with their MLS brethren Houston Dynamo FC to raise money to assist the city which was devastated by unusual cold, snow and ice in recent weeks. The fund raised $15,000 in the first few days.
“It makes me so happy and hopeful to see our community rally behind this fund because so many people have been affected by this storm and need access to resources as soon as possible,” Katie Naughton said.
Every little bit helps 🧡
Dash & @HoustonDynamo players are teaming up to help those affected by this winter storm.
If you are able, please consider helping out those in Houston who need it most.
— Houston Dash (@HoustonDash) February 18, 2021
–Hat tip to Jen Cooper and Paloma Alatorre for the Naughton quote.
–The NWSL reported that more than 1,000 Covid tests were taken between February 8 and 20 with one test returning positive. The identity of the positive test was not released but that person and all close contacts have been self-quarantining. The tests cover “individuals associated with NWSL teams.”