Welcome back to our 2021 NWSL preseason preview! Today we talk to league veteran and new Racing Louisville goalkeeper Michelle Betos. Betos had a lot to say about creating a club culture from scratch, seeing the league evolve from year one, and leaving behind a legacy for the next generation.
You can read our previous preseason interviews here:
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. It was originally recorded on February 7.
All for XI: Just trying to get a feel get the mood around the league from the player perspective. Obviously, it’s a little different for you guys with Louisville, new team. You’ve been through lots of preseasons before, but Louisville’s a completely unknown entity. So how does it feel?
Michelle Betos: You don’t feel the same. I think like every preseason I’ve been in, without fail, it is high intensity, 10 out of 10, frantic, like everybody just going 100 miles per hour. Just so excited to be back in with a team to prove themselves, to show all the work they’ve done. And then week two, week three, fatigue sets and comfortability sets in and it just like chills out, so right now I feel like the amount of times some of the older players are just like hey, just calm down. But also I’ll take that any day, you can’t teach that passion and excitement and that just falls into place. So that’s normal.
AfXI: Are there some kids in there in particular like, all right, guys, it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. We’ve got 10 weeks of preseason and then a whole season.
MB: Yeah, I mean it’s just the general output, especially the first day we got snowed out. We’re sitting in an intro meeting and brunch and people are expected to be on the field. And I feel like you can just hear people’s hearts pounding. But I mean, it’s normal, it’s good. You know, it’s excitement, especially from day one we’ve learned we’re going to be an intense team, we’re going to be on the transition, we’re going to be working, we’re going to outwork teams, that’s going to be part of our core values. Christy [Holly] talks about all the time how he handpick players. Everyone here, even from trialists to contracted players are here for a reason. And so I think as I look around I see how people fit that mold. They just want to work, they just want to get better. They just want to do all the things, take 20 steps, when preseason’s 10 weeks. So everything’s gonna be fine, but it’s good. It’s good excitement, and it’ll settle down, and it’ll be good.
AfXI: It’s been one week of preseason, literally, but if you had to describe the vibe or point out what you think the team identity is going to be like, how would you describe it?
MB: I think the number one word that comes to mind is commitment. I’ve been reiterating this so much, because I think it’s so important. But from my first phone call with Christy on expansion draft day till now, every single conversation, every single pre-practice meeting, every post-practice meeting - we have a lot of meetings - is about culture and commitment. We are going to be at a certain standard, we are going to commit to each other, we are going to work and we are going to follow these guidelines, and we’re going to find how that individually and collectively fits us. So the vibe is great and I think that it feels like we just got here, but at the same time we’re getting into routine. Everything is just so well laid out for us. We walk in, we have beautiful gear, beautiful locker rooms, beautiful stadium, beautiful training facilities. Every single person here I think feels like a real pro. And I think that that’s special. I think that that hasn’t always been the case in this league. I think that that’s where the league is headed now. And so I think that everyone coming in, walks into the building, is like, wow, I want to be a part of this, whatever it takes.
AfXI: You mentioned building culture and you’ve been with some teams who were day one teams. So you’re not unused to having to build a culture from the ground up. But does that make it feel different from walking into a preseason where the club is a little more established? It feels like there’s more or different work to do in addition to just being game fit.
MB: Absolutely. And there’s pros and cons. I actually think we have such an advantage because we come in and everyone here gets to create what we are. We take it so personally. You’re not just walking into a place and trying to figure out how you can fit in. Every single person is creating it. So we have an outline, we have a structure. Christy, GM, president, they have laid out who they want us to be, what Louisville is about. But then we get to say, how is this ours? And how are we going to make it ours and what are we going to commit to? And I think it feels really cool. I feel really, really lucky to be a part of establishing that and being part of creating that. The first time I was part of a new team was the Reign in 2013. And I was young, so having nine years in this league under my belt to come in and be like, hey, this is what I know and this is what I can bring, and this is what you guys bring and this is gonna be awesome, and this is how it’s gonna work in this league - that feels like a really cool opportunity for me and something I take real, great pleasure in being able to have that responsibility.
AfXI: You mentioned you were at the Reign day one; you’ve been around with the Thorns, I was actually in the stadium when you scored that header. I blacked out. I don’t really remember much else on that day. But yeah, you’ve had experience with building culture. It’s that new energy where you’re like, this can be anything we want it to be. We’re making the rules as we go along. For you personally, bringing that experience from previous teams into this brand new team, is there anything that you’re hoping that you can weigh in on or leave your imprint on to help establish what that team culture is from day one?
MB: I think that’s the thing that comes to mind is that I just want every person in this club to understand that they will be impactful, that we will need every single player. I’ve seen that happen. I’ve played in Olympic years, I played in World Cup years. 2019 Reign, we had 17 injuries. And so a player goes from maybe not seeing a minute to being a 90-minute starter. And so I think that just having every single player understand that every single day, they’re contributing to their own success and their team’s success and that that’s our job. That’s our responsibility. And that’s something that I want every single person to max out on so that we are the best team we can be and they’re the best individuals they can be. If I leave any legacy, I want people to just reach their full potential every single day to push themselves, to challenge themselves, to realize if they’re who they are now at the end of the season, we’ve done something wrong. And I think being a new team where the options, the opportunities, are limitless, let’s just go after it. We have nothing to lose, we have everything to gain, and we get to decide every single day who this club is and who we’re going to be in this league.
AfXI: What do you hope things will look like or feel like by the end of those 10 weeks, and you guys are ready to start Challenge Cup and regular season?
MB: I think that at the end of these 10 weeks, my ultimate goal or the best vision I can come up with is that the workrate and the intensity and commitment actually has not dropped a second. So this frantic energy has now been channeled to disciplined decisions. We are still as excited every single day to get out there, but now we’re playing within our system, within our plan. We’re calming down, we’re trusting ourselves and each other on the ball. We’re understanding at the end of the 10 weeks, what strengths and weaknesses we have, who we can play where. Maybe Savannah [McCaskill] wants the ball to feet, Yuki [Nagasato] wants the ball to feet, I can play somebody else in behind, you know, something like that. I think that at the end of the 10 weeks that we have the exact same passion and energy but now it’s us as a group doing it together instead of a bunch of individuals trying to put the pieces together.
AfXI: Yuki was such a fan favorite in Chicago. It feels like she’s a great locker room add everywhere she goes because she’ll buy into the culture - not knowing her personally but just seeing her, she feels like someone who you bring in and you’re like, this is going to be a good locker room add. What are you seeing from some of those core veteran players like Yuki that you’re hoping is getting passed on to the younger kids and the new kids? What are some of the examples of that locker room leadership that you’re seeing, yourself included?
MB: The young kids coming in, they know who Yuki is. If you’ve watched this league for a year, you know who Yuki is. And so I think the special thing about somebody like her, a Savannah, a Lauren Milliet, who’s had three years and really been on the rise in this league. I hope that they watch every day, and that they realize that they don’t just show up on game day and be great. They don’t just show up on game day and be good teammates, but they do it every single day. What are their habits, what are their commitments every single day, to practice, in the locker room, to recovery, to who they are as people, how they treat their teammates. Christy said it a bunch of times, every single person here was chosen for their talent, but also for who they are as people. And I think that when you’re someone like Yuki or Savannah, who’s been in with the US team, or these people that have achieved great success in this league, and you can look at them and how humble they are in the locker room, how hard they work, how much of a commitment they make, how much they’re striving to still get better, how are you a 20 year old kid and not trying to do the same thing? If they were dogging it, if they weren’t doing the right things, then they probably think, oh, I can do that too and be great. But that’s not the case here. And I think that that’s what makes this place special. And I think from player 30 to player one, right now, if you had to rank them, everyone has the same standards, everyone has the same expectations on the field every single day. And none of us, not a single veteran, wants that to be let up one second. If we’re not doing the work we want to be accountable too and I hope that’s the messaging that the young girls get when they look at a Yuki or somebody else in this locker room.
AfXI: It’s interesting that you mentioned if you watch the league for a year, you know who Yuki is, or Savannah, or yourself. Because when you guys all started the league and there were new kids coming in, it wasn’t the same. The league is almost 10 years old now, which is like, [mind blowing noise]. Do you see that there’s any difference between the young kids coming in now versus at the beginning of the league? They’ve had the benefit of kind of a generational, institutional memory now that’s in place? Or is it kind of the same energy where they come in and like, it’s not NCAA soccer anymore! Help me!
MB: I think it’s both. There’s undeniably a transition period. And I don’t think you can expect, no matter what the experience of a young player, to not have that period of time. They’re granted that, but I think the thing that I envy in them, and that I think is so cool is that since some of them were 10, 11 years old, they’ve been like, oh, I’m watching it and I can do that and I want to do that. I was talking to somebody the other day, when I was 10, 11 years old, my only dream was to play the WNBA because that’s what I saw. That was one incredible moment in time. But if I wanted something tangible it was going to be women’s basketball at that point. That’s what had visibility to you. So these girls have grown up with the benefit of seeing what the standard is, what the league is. What’s the difference between an Emina Ekic and a Sam Mewis? How does she have to close that gap? And she can start doing that when she’s 10, 11, 12. How do I go play with Yuki? When I was in at the Reign, [Nicole] Momiki’s biggest idol in the world was Megan Rapinoe. So I think that’s incredible. I think that they have this feeling of achieving a dream that they’ve had for so long. It was a dream for us too but we didn’t know what that looked like, you know? And so for them, especially at this moment in time, I think this is the greatest moment of women’s sports thus far.
I feel like such a grandma sometimes preaching about my generation, but I’m like, I want you guys to demand more, to expect more, to grow this league. But you have to take a second to appreciate where we’ve come from, what we’ve done to get it here, how far we’ve come, from WUSA to WPS. I was on a field running fitness getting ready for a WPS season and I came up to an email saying hey, the league’s not happening this year. These kids have been preparing and they’ve been doing the work too, but now they get to see it come to fruition and it’s set up for them and it’s here and now all they have to do is attack it, to learn, to grow, to be invested every day and they will get better and they get to live their dream.
One of the most rewarding processes or parts of being part of that year one, the year two, the wildness - you know, there were just some crazy times that no one will even understand - is seeing what we have now. It’s such a reward. So I think that they have everything set before them. And now they have to do it for the next generation, because in 10 years, I want Emina Ekic to be like, hey, when I was at Louisville, we only have this and now we’re here. I think it’s an incredible opportunity. And to see the growth of it, I mean, I don’t take that for granted any single day.
AfXI: I want to end on a more fun note, ask some rapid fire questions. What kind of cleats are you wearing? And do you have any favorites that you prefer?
MB: I have Adidas cleats. They are the Nemeziz and I wear the same pair every year no matter if a new model comes out or not. I will only wear these cleats. I’ve had Achilles issues. They make my feet feel great. I will only wear these cleats.
AfXI: What are you watching or reading or playing right now?
MB: I’m always watching soccer. I was actually watching the WSL this morning, the English women’s league. I’m always watching that. I am listening to a ton of podcasts. I’m a huge nerd. I listened to like Huberman Lab and Ben Greenfield. And I just want to know all things like nutrition, brain advantage, EMDR. I want to know every single way I can maximize my optimal performance on the field. I’m such a nerd on that. No one likes to drive in my car because I’m just like boring them to sleep.
AfXI: The player on your team right now who deals the best with winter and who deals the worst with winter?
MB: Oh, that’s tough. Deals the best with winter? Cece Kizer has shown up straight out of Houston in shorts every day and I don’t understand it, so I’ll go with Cece on that. Deals the worst, I don’t know. I mean, it’s been a pretty cold Louisville. I’ve had some numb feet. I don’t have a specific name yet, I think people are still trying to put on a brave face.
AfXI: If you had to sum up your 2020 and a few words or a sentence, can you?
MB: Never. Again.
AfXI: And if you had to sum up your hopes for 2021 in a few words or a sentence.
MB: I just want to enjoy it all. I think that last year taught us - this is more than a sentence - but I have never been more grateful for just being with the team, for playing, for having a season, for all the things we’ve always taken for granted. For being able to see my grandma you know, all things like that. I think just being grateful for every day. Never taking it for granted cause you just know it can be taken away so fast. When we came out of quarantine - we had a week quarantine before we could get tested and come in - and I was just saying I actually think I’ve declined socially. Like, I don’t know how to interact with humans sometimes. You’re just with you and your roommate and that’s about it. So, yeah, it’s a weird time, but then, really thriving in that social setting, even if it’s just in the locker room.
AfXI: Well, I appreciate the time. Enjoy the rest of preseason, and I’m really looking forward to Louisville.
MB: Thank you. Yeah, you’re gonna love it. You really will.
AfXI: Is that a promise that I can print? You’re gonna love it?
MB: You are. You will love it, I promise. If I’m wrong, I owe you a coffee.