Last summer, when Team USA won the Women's World Cup, it was a striking display of female talent. In the first 16 minutes of the final match against Japan, Carli Lloyd scored three goals with as much skill as Pelé or Diego Maradona—including a shot fired with a sniper's accuracy from midfield.
For this series, Cait Oppermann spent time with members of five of the ten teams in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), the top professional organization in the US. The league—which gives professional players the opportunity to show their stuff more than just once every four years—has suffered its share of setbacks and criticism. For example, players are paid only about $32,000 per year (and sometimes as little as $7,200) and hold down day jobs to supplement their meager incomes. Some teams stay with "host families" to cut costs while they're on the road. But riding on the momentum of last year's World Cup victory, which attracted 20 million viewers on television, the NWSL is growing in size and popularity. Now, some players have considered trying to unionize. Over the course of three months, Oppermann captured the human side of these superhuman athletes—making dinner after practice, relaxing in front of the TV, getting coffee with teammates. "The work seeks to humanize the professional athlete," Oppermann said, "in a way that we don't often see—the downtime, the recovery, the boredom.