by Mike Woitalla
Kate Markgraf's playing career for the USA in 1998-2010 included 201 appearances, three World Cups and three Olympic tournaments. At age 22, Markgraf (née Sobrero) was the youngest starter on the 1999 World Cup-championship team, and she also won a pair of Olympic gold medals. In August of 2019, U.S. Soccer named Markgraf to the newly created role of U.S. women's national team general manger.
Markgraf, who led the hiring process of selecting Vlatko Andonovski as Jill Ellis' successor at the USWNT's helm and Laura Harvey as U-20 women's national team coach, is charged with: managing "the overall technical plan for the women’s national team program."
"Playing for our U.S. women's national team gave me a lot of joy and happiness," Markgraf said. "It was lifetime dream come true. This was a chance for me to give back. There have been so many great people at U.S. Soccer and I think it's a privilege to be able to be in this role to help grow the program."
While a player, she saw that coaches had a heavy amount of administrative work. "Between myself and Ryan Dell, who's our administrator -- he's so helpful when it comes to managing the senior national team and the day-to-day logistics -- we're putting things together so Vlatko is in a position where he can just coach. And we're also executing a vision together."
We checked in with Markgraf as she headed to the Netherlands for the USWNT's first game 261 days -- a break caused by the COVID pandemic. "With COVID, it's moving goalposts every day," she said. "One challenge after another, putting out fires every day. We're managing this through the lens of our main concern always being the players."
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SOCCER AMERICA: When you were hired as women's national team General Manager, Earnie Stewart was promoted from men's national team General Manager to U.S. Soccer Sporting Director, a position described as overseeing the entire U.S. Soccer Sports Performance Department, including men's and women's programs. How does that work? He's in charge of both programs?
KATE MARKGRAF: I report to Earnie. He is the boss and approves all the big expenditures and initiatives. Vlatko [Andonovski] and I touch base with him biweekly. It's also, "Ernie, this is what I think we need. This is the direction I think we need to go."
U.S. Soccer also has a business arm and he [Stewart] is also the one trying to marry the business and the technical together. And he is our advocate and our vehicle with that [business] part of the organization. So he is someone we rely on and we refer to. He advises us, he gives us recommendations, he guides us. He will also tell us, "OK, I really like that idea. ... Oh, that's interesting." And he's also making sure that we're unified across men and women, so we're not recreating the wheel. Creating a gender neutral approach, but gender specific when necessary.
SA: As far as I know, Stewart didn't have experience in the women's game. How does that affect the dynamics?
KATE MARKGRAF: Between Vlatko and I, we're basically making the decisions from a technical standpoint, and he [Stewart] is very much supportive. He'll weigh in with his opinion, but ultimately the decision is a collective decision in which Vlatko and I are able to present our views and he [Stewart] supports us when he believes in it. And if he doesn't believe in it, he'll challenge us, but then we'll figure out a way to move forward.
But there is a gender neutral aspect to a lot of the issues that we deal with. When there's a gender specificity, he [Stewart] is the first to admit he doesn't know. That's kind of my role with the historical knowledge that I bring to the table -- "This is how it works. This is generally how we do it." Having a baby in camp, that doesn't happen on the men's side, but it happens on the women's side, right? This is normal. It's not a big deal. It doesn't interfere with performance. It's just those kind of things where he may not have first-hand experience, but he's more than eager to learn about it.
SA: The U-17 and U-20 World Cups, which were initially postponed from 2020 to 2021, have now been canceled altogether by FIFA. What impact does that have?
KATE MARKGRAF: It's absolutely heartbreaking for the players. It's heartbreaking for our coaches who have invested so much, especially U-17 coach Tracey Kevins, who's been with these girls for three years, having moved up from U-15 coach. Just heartbreaking for her and her players, not to be able to show how much they've grown. You usually have 50% of the 17s move up to the 20s, and from there a large proportion ends up part of our national team at the senior level.
Missing out on those meaningful experiences means that they don't have that exposure in the highly competitive games when they get to the senior national team. With all the work that the previous group did, with April Heinrichs as Technical Director, Jill Ellis, and all the coaches involved, Michelle French, Erica Walsh, you name them -- they created this program that when Lindsey Horan is stepping out in the World Cup, she's not rattled. Rose Lavelle is not rattled, because they've already played in youth World Cups.
In the September 25, 2000, issue of Soccer America, Coach April Heinrichs ahead of the Sydney Olympics, described Kate (née Sobrero) Markgraf as having "the wholesome discontent of constant eagerness and pursuit of excellence." Markgraf, who also won a NCAA D1 title at Notre Dame (under coach Randy Waldrum), spent 14 years in the national team program, including two years at the YNT level. "I got to see a lot of different stuff, which is vital for how I do the job," she says. "I remember the best practices from all the coaches that I played for." Her U.S. national team coaches included Clive Charles (U-20s), Tony DiCicco, Heinrichs and Pia Sundhage.
Markgraf's son, Keegan, was just shy of 2 years old when he accompanied her to China when she co-captained the 2008 Olympic gold medal-winning team. After her twins, daughter Carson and son Xavier, now 11, were born, Markgraf returned to the field and broke the 200-cap mark.
SA: In April, U.S. Soccer folded its Girls Development Academy, which launched in 2017 and tried to compete with ECNL Girls as top league for top youth clubs. Now there's the Girls Academy, which some of the former DA clubs that didn't move to ECNL Girls joined. What are your thoughts on the new girls youth landscape and what looks like a continuation of a splintered setup?
KATE MARKGRAF: I think both leagues are doing a lot of good things and we think both leagues, and all the leagues that are involved in training the players with high potential, can serve the mission of the national team program as well as serving their own mission, which is to create a positive environment for the girls who participate in the program. A lot of times that means with the goal of going to college. Or potentially people are going straight to pro, although we're not quite there yet.
So we all want to keep working together to make sure that players are in the best environment possible during those crucial times in their growth. What players are exposed to at younger age groups is vital in order to stay competitive.
When you're 16 in Europe, you can play for your pro team. You can go train with women who are 10 years older. That's an accelerated development that we can't recreate here, so we really need to make sure that our standards are high. And it's not about winning all the time, right? Like college coaches who want to see a successful player even if they're not on a successful team. It's about the development. We look forward to, and we enjoy, working with our peers at the club level. We just need to keep supporting them the best that we can, even though we're not generally in the club business anymore with the DA no longer being around.
SA: Can you describe U.S. Soccer's role with the NWSL in the past and the present? And what do you expect it to be in the future?
KATE MARKGRAF: Since the beginning, it's been a [U.S. Soccer] investment into the league of more than $20 million. ... The salaries, the monetary contribution to help league operations historically, and then all the other things: We support them from a sport science perspective. We provide all their physical testing and laptops and GPS and all that stuff. You're talking close to $3 million a year if you were to monetize those things. It's not just the salaries ... Every single team in the top eight at the World Cup has a viable domestic league. We need a viable domestic league for our players who can wear the United States jersey. Because the NWSL has been providing that, that has been the relationship and the partnership. We want to support them in their efforts but also, at some point the league -- the goal for any women's professional league -- is to stand on its own feet.
In her post-playing career, Kate Markgraf -- flanked by 99er teammates Julie Foudy (left) and Kristine Lilly -- worked as an ESPN, NBC and Big Ten Network analyst. Markgraf also earned master's degrees in kinesiology and educational psychology and served as a counselor charged with the development and management of the Student Employment Program at Cardinal Stritch University. She coached youth soccer and served as a volunteer assistant coach with four Division I college programs: Marquette, Harvard, Texas and her alma mater at Notre Dame.
SA: Would you prefer that U.S. national team stars played in the NWSL rather than move to European clubs, which seems to be the trend now?
KATE MARKGRAF: I think the players are their own advocates. It's a personal decision for each of them, and they all have their own unique path that they need to follow. Obviously, we'd like them in the U.S., in the NWSL, because it's easier to see them. But if a player feels she needs an environment overseas, we are not going to stand in their way. We will support her decision. And we'll continue following the players abroad, keeping in touch with them. The coaches touch base, watch the film, they're doing all that.
We are contributing financially and supporting, in other ways, the NWSL to continue to raise the daily environment. But having athletes be able to compete at ever-improving leagues around the world -- that going to raise the entire game on the female side and the level of the game. And it just becomes even better and better to watch every year.