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1-v-1 with Shannon Mac

By Nate Abaurrea, 03/21/21, 3:15PM PDT


We’ve got a special treat for you this week, in the form of a World Cup Champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, and member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.

Welcome to The Final Third! We’ve got a special treat for you this week, in the form of a World Cup Champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, and member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. The one and only Shannon Mac Millan and I shared an in-depth conversation covering subjects such as Women’s History Month, the 1999 Women’s World Cup, San Diego Loyal, Angel City FC, the greatness of Mia Hamm, eternal sisterhood, motherhood, coaching, and a whole lot more. 

This is a lightly edited version of that conversation. 

Abaurrea: “Shannon Mac! How are you, my friend?”

Mac Millan: “I’m hanging in there, Nate. Just trying to keep a million balls up in the air at once and battling with some 6th grade math problems with my son. You know, just doing what I can these days. It’s good to be here with you.” 

Abaurrea: “Well, I want to start by wishing you a Happy Women’s History Month. These celebrations exist to raise awareness throughout the calendar year, serving as reminders to maintain these fights for equality. And so I have to ask you, with the great history of women's soccer in this country, and as the leader that you are in the soccer community, what does Women's History Month mean to you?”

Mac Millan: “It’s just such a grind and a continual effort to move the women’s game forward, obviously with the pay equity struggle that’s still going on, all that stuff. So when it's Women's History Month, it's nice to take a moment to really appreciate how far we’ve come, even though there's still plenty of work to do. Also, just a couple months ago, we watched the first female Vice President be sworn in, and that was one of the most powerful things, just to be sitting on the couch with my 11-year-old son, talking about it as it happened. That was such an incredible experience to share with him.”

Abaurrea: “You always talk about giving back to the game and inspiring the next generation, and I have to go back to 2017 when I had the great privilege of interviewing a certain Megan Rapinoe when she was a guest at one of your Sharks practices in Del Mar. I'll never forget asking Megan about the people who inspired her as a soccer player. She gave me one of those classic Rapinoe faces, and just said, “Shannon Mac, dude, come on!” So whether it’s during Women’s History Month or any time of the year, what does it mean to be looked at as a leader in the women's soccer landscape?”

Mac Millan: “Well, first off, Pino and I got that University of Portland connection. That purple blood runs deep and we keep that bond alive. I’ve got nothing but love for Megan Rapinoe and I appreciate the platforms she's using to really keep spreading these powerful messages, some of which are beyond the game. 

But to be a leader… it's a big responsibility. I was blessed, playing 12 years with the U.S. Women’s National Team. I was fortunate enough to succeed at every level possible. I've seen so much of the world because of soccer, and the game helped shape who I am as a person. It afforded me a college education I probably wouldn't have gotten otherwise. So for me to not want to give back or take a responsibility to really help grow the game, from youth levels all the way to the pro ranks, it would be a travesty. I think that's true for most every woman from my generation, the old ‘99ers as we like to call ourselves.

We had a big ‘99ers reunion a couple of years ago (for the 20th anniversary of the World Cup win) and one of the coolest things was being alongside the current U.S. Women’s team and saying to them “we are your biggest fans, and we want you to succeed and accomplish even more than we did.” It’s amazing to chat with them and see how they've picked up the torch and are pushing for more. That’s what it’s all about.” 

Abaurrea: “Shannon, how do we continue to elevate the women's game, not only in this country but around the world?” 

Mac Millan: “First, around the world, we need to keep investing in women's programs. I think you've seen the parity on the field develop a bit more over the years because other countries have started to actually invest. We’re seeing these leagues and prominent clubs providing real opportunities for female players. The opportunities to go play for a Man City, a Man United… That’s pretty cool in itself, and here in the states it's about continuing to raise that bar. I think that's a huge thing with Angel City FC and their platform coming into these next couple years. We are going to have these kick-ass women, and we're going to pay them what they deserve. It’s already having a ripple effect, and we’re seeing not just prominent female soccer minds investing time and resources into the NWSL, but also prominent female athletes from other sports (like Naomi Osaka in Carolina) movie stars, and more. It’s women supporting women, and it’s what we need if we’re going to see this league grow and be the best in the world. 

It’s a shame that the NWSL minimum salary right now is about 20 thousand dollars. So out of about 38,000 college players, 40 players get drafted each year, and if you're not one of the top players in the league, you're making 20 grand a season. What ends up happening is a lot of women play professionally for no more than a year or two, almost to just say they played professional soccer. It becomes a pride thing. Then they have to move on and find a “real job” that's going to pay the bills. A lot of these women, they go into these cities and live with host families, they're driving for Uber, or trying to just make ends meet, when to be a true professional athlete, you have to be able to focus solely on your sport.”

Abaurrea: “I feel like that type of investment has an added impact on young women, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds who may not have the resources necessary to dedicate themselves to the sport they love.”

Mac Millan: “Definitely. And I think that's where Angel City is coming in to push for that equity at the pro level, but also just making a difference in their community. Angel City won't kick off on the field until 2022, but much like Loyal here in San Diego, they are helping out with local food banks in and around Los Angeles. And they've just created a really special partnership with Nike, after reading a study that said most girls quit playing soccer around the age of 14, because they simply don't own a sports bra. So right now, with every season ticket deposit they get, Angel City is donating a sports bra. We're looking at almost 22,000 sports bras being donated within the L.A. area.

That’s really empowering those kids, those young women, who maybe don't have as many opportunities within their own respective communities. Just having those professional athletes, having that access and exposure to the game of soccer at a high level, it can do wonders for their confidence and dedication.”

Abaurrea: “Shannon, one of the coolest things I’ve seen with the USWNT, whether in 1999 or 2019, is ample young boys and even full-grown men and prominent male athletes looking up to these women, idolizing them. It breaks down a lot of walls, and shows that soccer can inspire us, regardless of who’s playing. Now, you also work with SD Loyal. You’ve been involved on the technical side. You’ve invested in the club. You’ve done television commentary work. You're very involved with SD Loyal, and with the “men’s game.” What's that like for you? Do you ever notice any kind of difference in the way you approach the men’s or women's game? Or is soccer simply soccer to Shannon Mac?”

Mac Millan: “That’s a really interesting question. And first off, thanks to Landon Donovan for believing in me on all those fronts. Thanks to Jack Cronin, who is just a phenomenal broadcaster, someone who made my life so much easier with the commentary stuff in the 2020 season. But as for that question you posed… at the end of the day, for me, it’s the same game. It’s soccer. I mean, yeah, it might be just a little different in terms of the guys sometimes taking a bit longer to get up when they get fouled, or anything like that. (Laughs) But other than that, it’s the same sport of soccer, and if you have what we’d call a soccer brain, then it doesn’t matter at all what gender is out there playing.”

Abaurrea: “We’ve talked SD Loyal and Angel City. What else is going on these days for you, Shannon?”

Mac Millan: “Well, I feel like I need to clone myself so I can finally get some sleep. I'm still Executive Director for the Del Mar Carmel Valley Sharks. I’ve been with the club for 12 years now, and I still love it with all my heart.

I've also been helping with virtual classes during the pandemic for my 6th grade son, Brayden. Like I was telling you, I’ve got a whole new perspective on 6th grade math. I do not remember math like that. And Bray, well, he's a Mac Millan. We've kind of butted heads a couple of times and had to go to our corners and take a breather.”

Abaurrea: “What do you mean when you say, “he’s a Mac Millan?” Is it a certain mentality in play, and if so, how would you describe that mentality?”

Mac Millan: (Laughs) “I mean… there’s certain looks, certain facial expressions. It all just comes back to being kind of stubborn and ultra-competitive. We’ve been playing a lot of pickleball in our backyard lately, and I swear, just the other day, we had a little McEnroe out there! We were cracking up, me and my better half, Michele.

Bray was so into it, and just short of throwing his racket, so we had to have “that” talk about sportsmanship. But there’s definitely a stubbornness, a competitiveness, an “I’m going to do whatever it takes to win” mentality, and if you tell him no, he wants to work that much harder. He’s got it in him. I love it. Now it’s just about making sure that energy is channeled in the right ways.”

Abaurrea: “I think you certainly channeled it in the right ways.”

Mac Millan: “It’s really funny though, because when we came here to San Diego for the WUSA years with the old Spirit, I had so many people come up and meet me and they’d be like, “you're so nice.” And I'm just like, well, yeah! Of course I’m nice. And then they’d say, “well, it’s just that when we see you out on the field, no offense, but you just look like this mean b**** out there.” And I’m just looking at these people going, you know you can have that switch, right!? Like, at game time I’m telling the whole world to get out of my way. But that doesn’t mean that off the field I'm a complete raving lunatic! I like to think I’m a pretty nice person.” 

Abaurrea: “You know, it’s always seemed to me that the people who are extra mean on the pitch are some of the nicest folks off the pitch.” 

Mac Millan: “And you want to know another random correlation I’ve found? I swear to you, Nate, I can go to any youth sports field, not just soccer, and after twenty minutes, I could tell you which parents have played the sport at a high level, because they're the ones more often than not that sit back and let their kids play, as they know the value of it beyond the game. I’m all for in-depth coaching, but sometimes, we just need to leave the kids alone and let them have fun.” 

Abaurrea: “Shannon, one of my favorite terminologies in the entire world is “football romanticism.” One of the things I love about it is that it’s open for interpretation. Everyone can have their own definition of what the words mean to them. Some people see pageantry and big crowds, cup finals and trophy lifts as romantic. Others see a 0-0 match in the 85thminute on a mud-patch in the driving rain with 200 people in attendance as romantic. What makes your career with the national team so fascinating to me is that you got to experience both ends of that romanticism spectrum, with many of the same teammates, from the humblest beginnings to epic glory and prestige. What significance does that hold for you?”

Mac Millan: “It’s powerful. It’s something I never take for granted, getting to see it all develop the way it did. We played lots of games at subpar high school stadiums with the raggedy old benches on the sideline, places where you seriously would get splinters in your butt because the benches were that bad. We played in mud pits, just like you said, into the mid 90s, and I think that's probably what made ‘99 so much more impactful and special for us as players. And some of the best football romanticism memories for me all these years later are those priceless locker room moments; Julie Foudy stepping up and challenging us all to a best/worst dance-move contest… all the fun stuff that kept us grounded.

I’ll never forget Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck telling me about 1991. They won the first official FIFA Women’s World Cup, and when they got back to the airport with the trophy, there were like a dozen people waiting for them at baggage claim… and they were all family members! No one even knew who they were. 

In ’99, the higher-ups originally wanted to play that tournament in smaller stadiums, but we insisted that we could pull it off in NFL size stadiums, and we promoted like crazy, ourselves, going all over the country before the World Cup kicked off and creating that connection with people. One of my favorite stories was being on the bus for the opening game in Giants Stadium. We're stuck in traffic outside the stadium, and I think it was Carla Overbeck who was looking out the window and called us all over. That was the moment we all went “holy crap… this traffic is for us.” And it gave me the chills. We started to realize what was happening, and so did the fans as they're hanging out of sunroofs, their faces are painted, they got our jerseys on… and that was really the first moment for us where we all looked at one another and said, OK, this is great, a World Cup, with my sisters, on our home turf… but now we have to win the whole thing.”

Abaurrea: “On that note, something y’all had on your side in obtaining that objective was one of the great American athletes of all-time, someone who just celebrated a birthday in fact, the legend herself, Mia Hamm.”

Mac Millan: “Yeah, we used to tell Mia throughout that whole summer that she must have the strongest shoulders in the world from carrying 25 other people.” 

Abaurrea: “Well, let’s expand on that. I remember growing up in that era, and Mia Hamm as an athlete was so comparable to Michael Jordan, that GOAT level. Maybe it’s the Tar Heel connection or the way the years of their respective primes seem to intertwine, but I’ve always seen this sort of spiritual, athlete kinship between the two of them. Here in the present day, with MJ, I feel like more kids, and even young adults, know him as the ‘Crying Jordan’ meme as opposed to a 6-time NBA Champion who changed the game of basketball, a player like no other. Thankfully, there’s no ‘Crying Mia’ meme or anything like that, but I still feel like Mia Hamm, the greatest women’s player this country has ever seen, doesn’t quite get enough appreciation in the modern soccer landscape, even just here in the states, from Twitter to casual conversations with USWNT fans. Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe I have a point. What do you think?”

Mac Millan: “Well, first off, you talk about the social media side of things with the current culture. I remember in ’96 at the Olympics, the whole team got pagers! We thought we were the coolest cats ever. You could even use it to send like a 15-character text. Just with the iPhones now, these current players are doing so much awesome self-promotion, and utilizing these platforms. People can share goal clips and highlights instantly. We didn't have those kinds of things back in the 90s, so it’s almost like… you just had to be there to experience it. 

And Mia was seriously the consummate team player. She carried us in so many ways because she loved the game of soccer. She knew it was her sisters she was doing it all for, her teammates, her family. And I don't know that we as players necessarily appreciated how much extra she did when we were playing, especially that Summer of ’99, until long afterwards. I’m realizing it even more right now.

That’s one of the jokes she always tells us when we’re reminiscing on old times or looking at old photographs. She'll say “Hey, wait a second, I'm not in that picture. Oh yeah, that's right, I was the one that got pee-tested, again! Oh and I’m not in this one either. Oh that’s right, I had to go do all those interviews. So yeah, sisters, how was that champagne celebration?” (Laughs) It’s always stuff like that but not in any kind of resentful way for her. She didn’t crave that spotlight. She realized her role was carrying the weight of all of us and growing the game of soccer, because she was the one who could actually do it. And guess what… she did it.”

Abaurrea: “Do you have a favorite Mia Hamm memory?” 

Mac Millan: “My God, there’s too many to choose from. I do find myself coming back quite often to that opening goal of the ’99 World Cup, that same day at the old Giants Stadium. I just think now about the pressure she had on her, not only from the fans but from me and all of her sisters. That was her goal to score. And I’ll never forget how high she jumped in celebration. That was her moment, and she did it for us. I’ll always be grateful for Mia. And I’m so excited to be working with her again here in 2021 as we continue to build Angel City FC.”

Abaurrea: “Whether it’s Mia or anyone else, that sisterhood runs deep, don’t it?” 

Mac Millan: “It’s a lifelong bond. We've helped each other go through divorces and marriages, births and deaths, ups and downs. We're bound together forever. We still got the ‘99ers group-text going strong. My son will tell me, “mom, your phone’s blowing up.” It’s usually that group-text. It never stops.” 

Abaurrea: “Alright, Shannon… we’re at the Rose Bowl. It’s July 10th, 1999. Briana Scurry has just made a crucial save in a penalty shootout against China, and after a successful attempt from one Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain is stepping up to the spot with a chance to win the World Cup. The ball leaves her foot. Top corner. Perfect placement. Bedlam. Her iconic flex in the sports-bra. And… freeze frame. 

What’s going through the mind of Shannon Mac Millan at that moment?” 

Mac Millan: “I knew she wouldn’t miss. I swear, I knew she wouldn’t miss. After Bri made that save, I saw the next two penalty takers, and I was so confident in them. When Brandi scored, I was just thinking, ‘I’m gonna be the first one to get there and celebrate with her.’ I was always one of the fast ones, and I used every bit of my speed to get there first. That was one of the fastest sprints of my career.” 

Abaurrea: “What goes through your mind when you see those photos now, specifically of that very moment in time?”

Mac Millan: “It’s crazy. It’s hard to put into words, honestly. One of the coolest things for me is just the amount of people who still remember it all. You and I have talked about how you got to attend that ’99 semifinal at Stanford against Brazil, as a little kid. And like I always tell you, it can make me feel a little older than I want to feel, but at the same time, it's so cool, because it was a summer that transcended the game.

So many people were touched by it, and so many people became soccer fans because of what that team did. And when we see our own families and friends looking at those pictures or getting their handprints all over our shiny medals all these years later, it’s such a special feeling. It reminds of us what we accomplished and shows that it still matters to this day.

I’m also going to let you know a little secret. I still have this nightmare every now and then that it's the night before training camp for that World Cup, and I’m not fit! I’ll have this freak-out, like how could I let myself do this? And then I’ll wake up and realize I’m dreaming about 1999 USWNT training camp! It’s not as frequent these days, but it still happens. It’s so bizarre.” 

Abaurrea: “Well, the person in charge of that training camp was a certain Tony DiCicco, the manager of that famous team. Tony sadly passed away back in 2017, but his legacy lives on. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tony when you were talking about coaching. It always seemed like he let y’all be yourselves.”

Mac Millan: “Absolutely. He helped everyone blend together. He loved team building exercises. And the guy just loved the freakin’ game! He would come out to training sometimes, on a hard fitness day, and as we’d be stretching, he'd just be in the middle of the field with his arms up in the air, yelling “I LOVE MY JOB!” And we’d just be like, “alright Ton’. Thanks!” But he would say stuff like that so often, and he was never afraid to just be himself and let his love and passion for the game pour out. That definitely helped us be confident in ourselves, in all our unique personalities. 

And it wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. Tony was our biggest supporter, but he also wasn’t afraid to tell the likes of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, or me, or anyone else that we’d done something wrong. He handled the situation with Michelle Akers and her health issues at the time with so much patience and care. He handled the situation with me becoming a “super-sub” really well. I’d gone from being a starter at the Olympics in ’96 to being a “super-sub” at that World Cup. He’d get asked about it by the media, and he never wavered in his decision, while never disrespecting me in any way. He knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted us to be the best we could be, and to be able to win a World Cup with him and for him… that was pretty cool. 

I'm thankful I got to see him before he passed. We got to reminisce on some stuff and that was really special, and really important. It was very sad to lose him, but Tony has left a mark on the game that will be here forever, through his family and through all of us. 

Abaurrea: “Last question, Shannon; what’s your best piece of advice to a young girl who wants to grow up and be a professional soccer player?” 

Mac Millan: “Figure out what you’re most passionate about and stick with those passions. It might be soccer. It might be music. It might be another sport. It might be multiple things. Value your passions and be willing to make sacrifices to get better. That goes for young girls or anyone!

Know that there's going to be adversity along the way. One of the greatest things about sports is hearing all the stories of these athletes, what they go through to be the best they can be. Everybody has a different journey. Some are easier than others, some are harder. But every single person has their own journey, and if you’re not passionate about what you do on that journey, those moments of adversity can be really damaging. But if you’re truly passionate, that adversity becomes fuel, whether it's someone saying you're not going to last one week in Division One college soccer, or a coach just out-and-out telling you that you’re not good enough for this team or not fast enough for that team. When you know your passion, that adversity can be harnessed in the best ways. And I can tell you, it is the coolest feeling to see those kinds of people years later, especially when they act all congratulatory, and all you do is just give them a nice smile and a nod back. Believe me, it’s awesome. I know from experience.”

Abaurrea: “Shannon Mac, this has been such a privilege to chat with you. Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with that 6th grade math.”

Mac Millan: “Thanks Nate! Always a pleasure, my friend.”