She watched on television from hotel rooms and restaurants, or on a laptop while slouched on her couch. McCall Zerboni was filled with joy yet conflicted with jealousy. Ecstatic for her country but tortured because, as one of the final cuts from the U.S. team, she wasn’t part of the Women’s World Cup.
“It’s been sad and disappointing,” said Zerboni, a former UCLA standout. “But it’s taught me so much about myself and life and this game.”
Zerboni, a veteran of the National Women’s Soccer League, was a late bloomer. She didn’t make her national team debut until October 2017, at 30, the oldest American to earn her first cap. Still, many people expected the rugged ball-winning defensive midfielder to go to France anyway. Her exclusion was considered among the biggest snubs from the U.S. roster.
Zerboni used a metaphor to describe her frustration, likening the omission to being dumped by a boyfriend. “Not only did he break up with me unexpectedly,” she added, “but I have to see him every day at work.”
Though unable to bask in the limelight of a global stage, she chose not to wallow in the shadows either. She rededicated herself.
“I’ve dedicated my life and my craft to making sure soccer works here in America,” Zerboni said during a phone interview. “So that the next generations and these young gals that are coming in now will never have to feel what I felt.”
Like so many of her peers, Zerboni has suffered and sacrificed to navigate an unstable career. Growing up in San Clemente, there were some years her youth club didn’t even field girls-only teams. When she enrolled at UCLA in 2005, the United States’ first women’s pro league had already folded. Not until 2009, right as she graduated, did a new league, Women’s Professional Soccer, start up.
A seventh-round draft pick in the WPS, Zerboni played in Los Angeles and Atlanta before signing with the Western New York Flash in Buffalo for the 2011 season. She helped her team to a league title that year, then settled into an even busier offseason schedule.
That winter, she trained in the morning, worked a marketing and promotions job in the club’s front office during the day, and coached local youth players at night. Soccer was what Zerboni lived for, but this was the only way she could make a living doing it.
Then, in January 2012, the league went under.
“My heart just sank,” Zerboni said. “I have never felt so empty before.”
The feeling has become familiar in the U.S. women’s soccer community. The Women’s World Cup has captivated fans every four years over the last three decades, but cultivating permanent popularity in professional domestic leagues has been a struggle. Like a flower shunned from sunlight, the sport for a long time lived largely in the dark, fighting to fully flourish. The loss of the WPS — which wasn’t replaced by the NWSL until a full year later — drove many veterans from the game.
“It was a whole year of people not working, having no source of income,” said Danesha Adams, a former UCLA teammate of Zerboni’s who is an assistant at the University of Houston. “If you weren’t on the national team, then you weren’t making any money. We lost, my generation, the ’80s babies, it’s kind of hit or miss because of that league and the gap.”
Zerboni found a way to get by, spending 2012 at the semi-pro level before the NWSL’s inaugural campaign in 2013. Even in the new league, she was constantly on the move. She played in Buffalo; Portland, Ore; Boston and Buffalo again before finally settling in with the Courage in 2017. She earned a spot on the NWSL’s Best XI team the past two years and helped key North Carolina’s championship last season.
“You look around and you’re living out of your car and an apartment with no furniture. Those are the times that you say, ‘Is this really worth it? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?’ ” Zerboni said. “There’s been times where I felt like giving up, but there was always a flicker of a flame in my heart that told me to not give up, stay with it.”
As her career has started to soar, Zerboni is seeing the NWSL grow too. The league has averaged at least 5,000 fans per game since 2015 and last week, in the midst of Women’s World Cup mania, announced a media rights agreement with ESPN and a national sponsorship with Budweiser.
“I think the buzz of women’s soccer in general, the fight for equality, all this stuff going on, has had a huge impact on us and our league, in such a positive light,” said Lauren Barnes, another UCLA product who is a defender for the Seattle Reign.
Grass-roots efforts have paid dividends too, such as the “United for Girls” initiative — a partnership between the U.S. Soccer Federation and Adidas aimed at making the sport more accessible for young girls — that Zerboni has been involved with this summer. It eased the blow of her World Cup absence.
“There is an absolute reason that I’m here this summer with my club team,” she said. “There’s so many eyes on women’s soccer right now. And I think they’re really enjoying the product.”
This isn’t the year Zerboni expected. After her 2018 season was cut short by a broken elbow, the goal of earning a place on the U.S. roster for France fueled her rehabilitation.
At one point during her recovery, she received a text from someone she won’t name but has described as a former U.S. women’s national team “legend.”
“This country needs you,” it read.
Zerboni believes she has delivered on that request, proving that a lengthy, successful career in the sport is possible — even if she doesn’t have a World Cup medal to show for it.
“I knew I had to carry the torch,” she said. “I knew I had to keep the flame going for females to come.”