Carli Lloyd doesn't play for the most dominant team in U.S. Soccer. In fact, you probably can't name a single player on the squad. Although Lloyd and her teammates are famous around the world for their incredible play, and the Women's National Team has won four Olympic Gold Medals and three World Cup Titles since 1991, the U.S. is home to another soccer program that's even more feared internationally—The U.S. Deaf Women's National Team.
The U.S. Deaf Women's National Soccer Team celebrates after winning the 2012 Deaf World Cup in Ankara, Turkey
You can probably guess the difference between the national team and the deaf national team. To be eligible to play on the USDWNT, athletes must have at least a 55-decibel hearing loss in their best ear. No hearing aids are allowed on the pitch.
Like Lloyd and her teammates, women on the deaf national team are naturally gifted, spend hours training, and travel widely to compete. But they do so without the financial support or resources our nation's hearing team receives. Most players pay their own way to attend camps, practices and competition. Some hold fundraisers to try and cover their costs.
"They'll do bake sales or car washes or whatever they can do," says head coach Amy Griffin, hired in September after longtime coach Yon Struble stepped down. Griffin is no stranger to high stakes international competition. She was a member of the U.S. Women's National Team that won the first women's World Cup in 1991.
Amy Griffin, a former World Cup winner and current assistant coach at the University of Washington, took over as head coach of the U.S. Deaf Women's National Team in September. "I guess the stars aligned. It seemed like a fun and interesting challenge," Griffin said.
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The U.S. Deaf Women's National squad's lack of resources off the pitch hasn't stopped them from flourishing on it. Since the team was established in 1999, they have never lost a game. They've never even had a match end in a tie. To date, they've allowed a total of eight goals. Ever. In all of their games combined.
"The tone is set by the rockstar defense in front of me," veteran goalie and team captain Meghan Maiwald writes in an email to STACK. "They get upset if I have to make a save. They are just so competitive and confident, which we all feed off of as a team."
Maiwald's teammates on the offensive end of the pitch have racked up 122 scores against opponents. That extreme scoring differential is part of the reason why the deaf national squad has brought home the gold medal at every Deaflympic Games since 2005—the first year soccer was included.
U.S. Deaf Women's National Team goalie Meghan Maiwald made her first start at an international event at the 2012 Deaf World Cup, when she was 21 years old. After the team won the championship with a 1-0 victory over Russia, Maiwald said, "The feeling was just relief and pure joy. I've never celebrated so hard."
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Griffin says the squad's decades of dominance simultaneously puts pressure on her and gives her confidence.
"I hope I am good enough of a coach to lead these guys to another World Cup," she says. "But these girls are the best in the world."
The team's next shot at a Deaf World Cup title comes this June, in Italy. If you think the squad will be able to practice around the clock between now and then, think again. Players live in different places around the country, so they can only get together at one or two camps before the tournament kicks off. With so little practice time, players are expected to come prepared.
"We have to show up fit, period," Maiwald writes. "Training camp will be a waste if we're not. Instead of working on fitness, we can solely work on playing together and building chemistry."
Chemistry is crucial on a team whose members cannot communicate verbally during games. Maiwald says players look to each other for feedback during breaks from play, or glance at the sidelines to get input from coaches. But for the most part, players must know their own roles and make educated guesses about what the other players on the squad are going to do.
"There have been times when I've run over my own teammates to get the ball," Maiwald writes. "That's part of the game."
The U.S. Deaf Women's National Team jumps for joy following the gold medal ceremony after the 2013 Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria. The team took gold by beating Russia 2-1. (Photo credit: Tara Lanning)
Griffin, who is not deaf but knows sign language, comes to games and practices with an interpreter—Melissa Allmann. The two are cousins. When Allmann's son Joshua was born deaf decades ago, it sparked Griffin's desire to learn sign language.
"I thought that he would appreciate that I was trying," Griffin says. "So when he was with his family, he would know what everyone was talking about, because we all would use sign 100 percent of the time in the room."
Allmann and the team's assistant coaches, Joy Fawcett and Tina Ellison, are volunteers. Players on the squad vary widely in age and ability. Several played Division I soccer; some spent time in the semi-professional WPSL. Athletes can join the team as early as 14 years old, although if they do, they may not see the field a lot at first. Maiwald, who was born deaf but can hear a little with the help of digital hearing aids, first practiced with the team when she was 15—an experience that helped her develop both as an athlete and a person.
"It was a big deal, being a scrawny 15-year-old goalkeeper and defending the goal from crazy, aggressive, fully grown and built players," Maiwald writes. "They really took me under their wings. After all of my life, I was now on a team where my teammates were just like me. I cherish the friendships I've built with my teammates. They are truly my best friends for life."
Unlike their rivals from Russia and Germany, the U.S. Deaf Women's Team receives no financial support from a national organization. As a result, Maiwald and her teammates must raise roughly $100,000 to be able to make the trip to Italy this June. Griffin says she doesn't expect the team will be able to cover the full amount, and that players may have to pay their own way again.
"I hate saying we need money, but it's true," Griffin says.
If you want to support the U.S. Deaf Women's National Team and their run at the 2016 World Cup, you can do so at their page on FlipGive.
The U.S. Deaf Women's National Team strike a pose after winning gold at the 2013 Deaflympics.
Griffin wants donors to know that every dollar counts—and is appreciated.
"Every time we get a $10 donation, players are like, 'I can't believe we're doing this. It's crazy!'" Griffin says. "These players do it 100 percent for the love of the sport. They're not there because of a scholarship. They're not there for their parents. They're there because they love soccer."
To help the U.S. Deaf Women's National Team make it to the 2016 Deaf World Cup in Italy, make your donation here.