Fans of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) may have noticed some familiar faces wearing t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Many Voices, One Dream" and "I Love USA Deaf WNT" posted on various social media platforms.
That’s because players from every team across the league have been taking to Twitter and Instagram to show their support for the United States Deaf Women’s National Team (USDWNT). Players like Kealia Ohai of the Houston Dash, Danielle Colaprico of the Chicago Red Stars and Tori Huster of the Washington Spirit have all posted pictures in the shirts.
The USWNT also showed their support by taking to their social media accounts, but some went a step further. FC Kansas City's Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O'Reilly appeared in a video with their club using sign language to show their support, and Hope Solo, goalkeeper for the Seattle Reign FC, also wrote a blog about the team on her website.
Several Sky Blue FC players, including former USWNT forward Tasha Kai, Taylor Lytle and Kristin Grubka, posted pictures wearing USDWNT shirts on Instagram to support the team as it prepares to compete in the Deaf World Cup later this month.
The USDWNT is thrilled to see the sudden outpouring of support from Sky Blue and other NWSL players, especially since they are fans of the players and the league as well.
"I never dreamed that a small deaf team would get such distinguished supporters and fans across the country," USDWNT player Fetlework "FedEx" Blitch, 17, said.
"It means the world to all of us. We have never gotten this much support before. Seeing our idols wearing the USWNDT shirts is truly amazing," Maddie Taylor, 21, added.
So what’s the story behind the shirts?
The USDWNT is comprised of 18 women between the ages of 15 and 28. The players hail from all around the country and include students, teachers, coaches and physical therapy techs.
All of the players have at least 55 decibels of hearing loss in their best ear, and many wear hearing devices. They communicate by talking, lip reading, signing or a combination. However, once on the field, all hearing devices are removed to help equal the playing field, so the team learned how to communicate with one another through alternate means.
"The key to communicate is to be visual. Keeping your head up and looking around is so important. We raise our hands when we want the ball. We always give each other eye contact. It's kind of cool because it's like when we step on the field and look at each other, we know what we are thinking. So it is easy to communicate on the field for us," Taylor said.
On Friday, June 17, the USDWNT leaves for Italy to compete in the Deaf World Cup. To get there, though, the players must raise the cost of traveling overseas for the competition.
"Unlike other countries, the United States government doesn't sponsor the deaf national team. Therefore, each player has to pay for the trip out of pocket. We have to do the fundraising to get as much support as we can," Blitch said.
According to the players, the cost to compete in the Deaf World Cup is over $5000. To help cover the costs, the team has started a GoFundMe page and opened an Etsy shop to sell t-shirts supporting the team. Everyone on the team—players, coaches and even trainers—take a hands-on approach to the fundraising, going as far as to print the shirts and ship orders to their supporters themselves.
"I think it means more when others see that we work together to create the shirts and send orders," Dani Wheeler, 17, said. "It’s unique to be able to see Twitter pictures of our team printing the shirts."
The team has relied heavily on Twitter to spread the word about the team and its fundraising efforts leading up to the Deaf World Cup, which is one of the reasons the social media support from USWNT and NWSL players has been so important.
With a record like the USDWNT’s, it’s no wonder professional players are supporting it. Having formed in 1999, the team has never lost or tied an international match, has scored 122 goals and only allowed eight. They have won three Deaflympics gold medals and the 2012 Deaf World Cup.
This year will be the team’s second time competing in the World Cup, and the players competing for the first time are eager to bring home another title.
"I personally have never participated in a Deaf World Cup or Deaflympics yet, so I think it will be a wonderful experience and an amazing feeling to bring back gold. Our team is so connected because of being deaf and because we all love soccer. We are happy and proud to represent our country," Wheeler said.
Long-time fans of the USWNT may recognize a couple of faces in the team’s social media posts. Former USWNT goalkeeper Amy Griffin was named head coach back in September, and former USWNT defender Joy Fawcett is the assistant coach. Griffin played for the national team from 1987 to 1991, while Fawcett played from 1987 to 2004. Both women played on the team that won the 1991 Women’s World Cup, and Fawcett also won the 1999 World Cup and two Olympic gold medals with the team.
The two coaches bring an expertise to the team that is unrivaled for most teams competing at that level, and that knowledge and experience is definitely paying off.
"Coach Amy and Coach Joy inspire me to be a better person and play better on the field. They’ve been in a great place winning a World Cup, so they know how to lead us to win gold," Wheeler said.
"Being coached by two legends is a dream come true," Taylor added. "They have taken the time to learn about the deaf culture and learn to sign. It is truly a blessing to have two coaches who are willing to help us and to make us stronger as a team."
The team hopes to take that strength to Italy to help them repeat as Deaf World Cup champions. They first face off against Poland in group play on June 22 at 4:00 a.m. EST, and the final will be played on July 2. That means that if the USDWNT makes it to the finals once again, they will have played six games in 11 days, a rigorous schedule for any team. Although there is no confirmation of online streaming of the games yet, the team has said it will live tweet the games on the team’s Twitter account.
Win or lose, though, the team is already extremely grateful for the support from all around the country, players and fans alike.
"We are thankful for everyone who supports us. Not many people even know there is a US Deaf Team. We are all hard working players and even though we don’t meet up as much as other teams, we make it work," Wheeler said. "We don’t have a lot of time to get to know each other, but we are connected because we are all deaf and have the same story and love for soccer. We are soccer sisters!"
Although the team leaves on June 17 for the Deaf World Cup, other volunteers will be working on completing orders in their absence. USDWNT player Sydney Andrews said that, with the team away, orders would be filled just as soon as possible.
"Since it is player run and we will be hopefully winning another gold medal, orders and shipping may not be as efficient as it has been," she said. "I assure you and to anyone who would like to support us and buy shirts, we will get you your orders as soon as we can, and we encourage and appreciate all of your support! It means the world to us!"