To look only at her resumé, Lauren Holiday's decision to retire from soccer doesn't make much sense. She was a star in college at UCLA under current national team coach Jill Ellis, and then earned a spot on the national team she's in no danger of relinquishing after eight years, 131 caps, and 24 goals; she's 27 years old, and at the peak of her abilities. For her club team, FC Kansas City of the National Women's Soccer League, Holiday won the league's Most Valuable Player award in 2013, led her team to the title in 2014 and was named MVP of the championship game, and has her team back in the NWSL playoffs in 2015.
After helping the U.S. win the World Cup this summer, scoring one of the remarkable early goals that helped bury Japan in the final, Holiday announced she was giving up soccer at the end of the NWSL season.
So last week, when Holiday was replaced by Mandy Laddish in the 60th minute of Kansas FC's final regular-season match, against Sky Blue FC, the road fans at Yurcak Field responded with sustained applause and cheers, even some standing ovations. Of course, the NWSL isn't really at the point where road teams are booed, and the cheering generally overlaps between club supporters when U.S. National team members do much of anything. This had the feeling of a goodbye.
Holiday explained her decision in July, saying that she was ready for "a new chapter of my life. I feel like this team isn't my identity, it's my choice. I think there's power in making a choice. I chose this team for 10 years, and now I'm going to choose my family."
Holiday is married to Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans. He is an excellent basketball player, a former first-round pick by the Philadelphia 76ers and an All-Star selection in 2013; his contract will pay him $41 million over four years ending in 2016-17.
Lauren is a better and more important player within U.S. Soccer than Jrue is in the NBA. That's not a slight, just a statement about the singular talent and versatility that have made Lauren indispensable on a national team that deployed her seemingly everywhere but the No. 10 spot, which happens to be where she is most comfortable.
Holiday, unsurprisingly, is tired of an arrangement by which she and her husband have, on average, five to seven days together each month. Something had to change and, for a variety of reasons, Lauren Holiday decided that it would be her.
Holiday returned to FC Kansas City after the emotional highs of the World Cup victory in July, a decision that in itself reflected her love of the game, and desire to grow it. This is Holiday through and through—she's the creator of the She Believes campaign, an effort to reach out to young girls on social media and through a weeklong series of events around the country featuring members of the national team. She's devoted to the NWSL. That devotion cost her any summer with Jrue.
"If I'm honest, coming back to NWSL and these victory tour games is one of the hardest things I've ever done," Holiday said, standing on Yurcak Field after Kansas City beat Sky Blue. "I am so excited for the next chapter of my life. This is such a bittersweet moment for me."
That next chapter includes many things in Lauren's mind: vacations with Jrue, a family. She'll be able to support him during his season as he's supported her, and without having to negotiate the constant, concurrent travel of the national team.
"Jrue's been phenomenal," Holiday said. "He's been to every major tournament of mine. I haven't been able to reciprocate for him. So I think what I look forward to most is being able to be there. When he has a tough game, or something to celebrate, he can come home, and I'll be there."
There are a number of economic reasons, and one compelling biological one, that hint at why it was Lauren, not Jrue, who gave up her sport so that the two could raise a family together. Women's national team members do well financially, but not nearly so well as NBA players; in this case, by a magnitude of roughly 125 times. While women can't play soccer at a high level while pregnant, many athletes return to elite form after becoming mothers. Christie Rampone did so, twice, and returned to the national team; she's the only U.S. woman on both the 1999 and 2015 World Cup-winning squads. Amy Rodriguez, another of Holiday's USWNT teammates, gave birth to her son in August 2013.
Just because it can be done, of course, doesn't mean being a mother and a USWNT player is easy.
"Right now, we live in a world where our national team is our club team," Holiday said. "We spend 260 days a year with the national team. Then we come back to our club teams and we play when we can. I think that lifestyle is almost impossible. Amy, I live with her, she does a phenomenal job. Christie, she's Superwoman, you watch her with her kids. But it is taxing—taxing emotionally, taxing mentally, taxing physically—and until we get to the point where our club team can provide an environment that allows us to grow the game even more, that's when it will be possible to start a family and balance that."
As Holiday pointed out, in men's soccer, the club team's supremacy means that players have a home team, and a home base. Jrue Holiday, for all the traveling he does during the season, has one. By playing for both the USWNT and Kansas City, Lauren does not. It's not any easier for a professional athlete than it is for anyone else.
"For me, I've been praying on this for several years, and I want to do so many other things," Holiday said. "I do think it would've made our relationship easier if there'd been some sort of stability, if there'd been some sort of home to go back to. But with the national team, you live out of a bag."
Holiday is in a far better financial situation than nearly all of her leaguemates. She and the other World Cup winners will earn at least $300,000 in salary and bonuses this season, while NWSL players not on the USWNT earn between $6,300 and $37,500. That's hardly an income that makes it easy to plan a family.
"It has to change," Holiday said of the salary structure. "We have to make more money. I know we inspired a nation, but it has to be more than that. Business plans have to be better. U.S. Soccer has done a great job of making this league viable, but it's not good enough yet."
While Holiday, and Rampone and other women's soccer players, have talked about parity with the men's game as a long-term goal, that's not what they are demanding right now. All they're asking for, for now, is a league strong enough to prepare players for World Cups and Olympics, and stable enough to give them a hometown and a livable wage while they play.
Until that happens, U.S. Soccer will lose its best women before their careers come to a natural end on a level that's not seen on the men's side. We can expect more early retirements for non-national team players, too, which lowers the overall quality of the league and puts the strength of future World Cup rosters at risk.
For the very best women's soccer players in the United States, the options are few: the lucky two dozen or so on the national team make enough money but give up the geographical stability, while the rest live in abject poverty (and still likely apart from family); if neither lifestyle appeals, you can hang up your cleats for good.
Lauren Holiday, one of the best women's soccer players of her generation, has made her decision—but given the nature of women's professional soccer in the United States, she never had much of a choice at all.