Adelaide Gay Interview: From UNC to Sweden's Top Flight

Adelaide Gay is a professional goalkeeper for Kvarnsvedens IK in Sweden's premier league. After spending time at Yale and North Carolina, Gay played with the Portland Thorns and Washington Spirit before traveling overseas to her current club. Adelaide has contributed to Our Magazine multiple times and offers a unique perspective on playing abroad, development in the US, and the expectations on playing at North Carolina.

Photo belongs to Jeffrey A. Camarati

Talk about your introduction into goalkeeping. How early on did you realize that becoming a pro was a real possibility?

My dad was a goalkeeper, so I always wanted to play goalkeeper. We’d rotate through when I was younger but I was always willing to volunteer and that’s kind of rare in youth soccer so I ended up being in goal more and more. I think my first real introduction to goalkeeping was at SoccerPlus goalkeeper camps when I was 11 or 12. I remember I went in to it holding the ball like a football when I was trying to protect it and came out with a notebook full of detail that I didn’t really even imagine was possible. It was a great foundation because they went through every kind of save and how to make it using the proper technique. 

I think after I transferred from Yale to UNC it was just a natural thought that I would continue to play after college. After my first professional season in Portland, I’d gotten an idea of what playing pro actually meant and I changed my approach to it a little. And as strange as it sounds that’s when I realized it was a real possibility. 


I read that you threw shot put in high school. How did you get into that and what was your record?

*laughs* I did. I went to a school where you had to play a sport for the school every semester. Since I had a lot of outside commitments with soccer I chose to run track because it met every afternoon at the same time and didn’t interfere with as badly with my soccer schedule. I was not a great track athlete so our coach put me in the 800m with all the other girls that I’m pretty sure he was trying to convince to quit. I ran the 800m for two years, which was exhausting and I never came close to being very good at it. Then one day I picked up one of the shot put balls because I was curious how heavy it was. I threw it and the coach was like, "Hey that was pretty far." I trained a bit and actually won some events. I don’t remember my record to be honest, but for a couple years I was a pretty big deal in the world of Mid-Atlantic prep school shot putters.   


There have been recent waves with the USSF starting a developmental academy for the girls’ side, which would be in direct competition with ECNL clubs. So far the main difference between the two organizations is that DA players will be restricted from playing for their high school. How important was playing for your high school and if your club had put that limitation on you, how would you have responded?

I probably wouldn’t have responded. I almost didn’t play for my high school my junior and senior year to train more at what I felt was a higher level. I ended up enjoying those two years immensely but from a developmental standpoint they weren’t necessarily a big deal for me. For some kids, I know high school soccer is a big deal and at some bigger schools the teams and coaches are good. To me, it seemed like more of a social right of passage. I enjoyed playing with my friends and there’s an element of drama that’s different from playing for your club. To be honest though, I was the girl that was annoyed when players on our [club] team missed things to play high school soccer.


From the outside looking in, it seems that girls have a different perception towards playing for their high school over the boys. I've heard multiple times that the ECNL has been successful because they allow players to play high school, while the boys’ side doesn’t seem to struggle the decision as near as much. Now, you’re a few years removed from playing in high school but how important is it for the average player to play for her high school? And do you foresee the DA limiting or elevating themselves in competing with the ECNL?

I’m not sure that I can give you the best insight here *laughs*. I never really understood the allure of high school soccer but I agree that some girls find it to be a big deal.

I will say that I think playing ODP, club, and getting training from a lot of different coaches was important to me so I don’t think it’s best for overall development to have kids only learning in one system. High school soccer is not the best example because a lot of the programs are stuck in the stone age but I think having multiple leagues or programs to play in is actually good for players. Not only do [the players] learn to adapt but if one program doesn’t like their playing style, they can find a team or club that does. I’m not a huge proponent of "Let’s integrate everything together [in order to] make sure no one falls through the cracks". I think it ends up doing the opposite. That’s just my two cents as a player who wasn’t particularly “identified” but really enjoyed playing and was able to find specific coaches who supported and pushed me to grow as a player.


You one of the few, if not only, soccer players to transfer from Yale to North Carolina, where you ended up getting the bulk of your time your junior and senior year. What prompted the transfer and did UNC meet your expectations coming into the program?

I’m not just saying this because it’s the “right" thing to say but I think why I wanted to leave Yale had a lot more to do with me and less to do with Yale. It’s easy to put your unhappiness on others but I think at the time I didn’t really know what I wanted. I spent the summer before my sophomore year out in LA and I loved training with the players there and their mentality was just so centered around soccer. I love soccer more than anything else in the world. I’ve always gotten good grades and there are other things that interest me, of course, but being surrounded by people that loved soccer as much as I did made me really happy. That’s not to say that the people at Yale didn’t like soccer and that they didn’t work hard or want to get better. It’s just a cultural difference that is hard to explain but that maybe you can imagine? A good small example: at UNC we’d played actual games that counted before Yale was even allowed to start preseason.  

I don’t think people realize that every year and every team is different. People look at UNC and think that they get or have gotten all the best players and somehow the history of the program helped them to keep winning but to me, if anything, the burden of what came before you makes it harder.

UNC exceeded my expectations. A lot of people tell you when deciding where to go to college to think of the school outside of soccer because you might get injured, etc. But I think if soccer is one of the things that makes you happiest, you can sort of miss the mark thinking that way. I was so much happier just being at training that it made me love so many other things about the school. Before I even got the chance to play in a game, I loved it. I loved the school, the girls, the coaches, the program. When I transferred it was a difficult and confusing time and I’m not sure I really knew what I was signing up for except that that was the training environment I wanted if I only had a few more years to play soccer. In the end, through all the little things I loved about the school and program made it better than I expected. Playing and winning a national championship was a bonus.


What do you feel was the main reason UNC allowed you to transfer in? I just find the move very unique and am curious on how it unfolded. I assume they needed depth at goalkeeper, but what about a goalkeeper from Yale made you a player they were interested in?

I’d trained with Chris Ducar, the goalkeeper coach at UNC, before at different summer camps so he knew me both as a player and a person. They obviously made no promises to me in terms of playing time but he knew me pretty well. And like I said, I’d trained the summer before with three or four UNC players. Not to mention that I didn’t need any help getting into the school so I don’t think there was much downside for them. Maybe Anson was curious too. *laughs*


Looking back on your senior year, the Tar Heels won the national championship, which is almost something of rhetoric now. However, this last year was the first time ever that UNC did not win a national championship in a three year span. What’s something that outsiders don’t understand about UNC’s history of churning out championships?

I don’t think people realize that every year and every team is different. People look at UNC and think that they get or have gotten all the best players and somehow the history of the program helped them to keep winning but to me, if anything, the burden of what came before you makes it harder. Especially because the other teams are really good. I’m sure they always were but especially nowadays. You can’t just walk into any top ten team’s stadium and expect to crush them. My junior year we lost to Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen by three or four goals and I remember there being an article in the paper about how that was the first time UNC had lost by more than a goal in 15 years or something ridiculous like that. Any time we did anything bad during my tenure there was a record that we’d broken in a negative way. You have to carry that weight in the right way to being successful. And that means that you can honor the tradition while still looking to find your own way and realizing that the past only has a hold on what you allow it to.

So I think it’s important that fans and the players going to UNC realize that each team is unique and winning a championship is never handed to you regardless of what you did last year or the year before or ten years ago. It always takes a special group. I know Anson could tell you what was special about each of those groups, just like I could tell you what was special about ours.

Interestingly, when I played for Portland I got the sense that our team, as well as the fans, felt that we should be crushing teams. So we would win a game 1-0 in the beginning of the season or tie and it was this enormous let down because we felt like we needed to win by more to fulfill our “potential.” But going into a game thinking you should win is like going in a goal down, or multiple goals down. And it’s ridiculous because you could have the best players and not win. No team is just owed wins based on pure talent or history. You have to have a little fight in you and a lot of that comes from realizing that there will be things to overcome even if you are the odds on favorite to win.


You’ve spent time with multiple American clubs, crossing over NWSL and the W-League. While the NWSL is getting more established, there is still a limit of roster spots for players coming out college. A number of players are looking at the same route that you took and trying their hand overseas. What does American soccer need to do to retain more players from going overseas? Or are their more positives for American players going to foreign leagues?

I would recommend going overseas, especially out of college, for a few reasons. First, like you were saying it’s hard to make a roster even if you got drafted. If you do make the roster, it’s unlikely that you’ll be on the field and there is no reserve league that you can play games with while being on the professional team’s roster. 

Second, professional soccer is so different from college soccer. It’s better, it’s harsher, it’s longer. Coming out of college you have a lot of life decisions that feel like they need to be made right away. And the net result is that it’s hard to perform your best your first year. Having a guaranteed contract with a team that really wants you where you will get minutes on the field even if it isn’t with the first team is huge. You learn a different style of play. You learn to be flexible because you are away from home and the social conventions are different. You grow as a player, you get better, you gain experience. And you gain credibility back in the US a lot of times. 


You joined the Swedish club Kvarnsvedens IK in 2015 and earned promotion to the first tier (the Damallsvenskan) after last season. How did the move to Sweden transpire? Was going overseas the original goal or would you ultimately prefer to play in the US?

When I first decided to come over here I just wanted to play. I wanted to continue to grow and develop. There was a part of me that would have preferred to stay at home but I just knew this was best for my career for all the reasons I just gave you and more. Now I look at it completely differently. I feel like I’ve improved a million times technically, physically and tactically. I am getting great game experience and I’m around really great supportive people. Mentally I feel more prepared to be successful on a daily basis.

I’m not sure what the future holds for me. I think playing in the US would be nice eventually just because it’s home, but it’s such a tough league with the kind of contracts and league rules you’re really just at so many people’s mercy. I just want to focus on what’s going to make me the best goalkeeper I can possibly be physically, technically and mentally and right now that’s right where I am.


Aside from the rise in competition, what’s been the biggest adjustment from last season to this year’s?

We’ll the rise in competition has hands down been the biggest difference. I think we’ve been handling it really well but it’s just more about recovering for each game and giving it our best shot than last year when we had a little bit more latitude. Sort of related, I’ve never gone into so many games before where our team is not expected to win. It’s strange and oddly freeing to be honest.

The other small detail is that last year I felt very much like we were in a bubble. No one really cared what we were doing, which was nice in a way because we were just a very close team from the middle of nowhere that was giving it everything we had and overachieving in a lot of ways. The feeling within the team is very much the same this year but there is a little bit less of a bubble. We’re doing more social media and things in the community. We’re trying to build a team and program that can be successful in the longterm. And there is more interest in us from the media and the league. So it’s less of us against the world and a little bit more open to the traditional influences of professional soccer. 


Obviously you’re focused on your club play more than anything, but with all 23 players on the US World Cup roster coming from the NWSL, do you get the sense that players not playing in the NWSL are at a disadvantage with receiving a call up?

Probably. But I really believe that if you focus on your own development and being the best player and person you can be, things usually work out in the end, as hard as that might be to stick to with outside forces. I would hate to see a player think that they have to move back from overseas to play in the NWSL because that’s the only way they can get on the national team. I’ve actually seen that go very wrong for a couple of players that I know personally. I think players doing what’s best for their development and mental well being usually works out best in the long run even if they might not be on a roster right now.


Five years from now, what’s the ideal plan? Stay in Sweden, return to the US, or be playing elsewhere?

I really don’t know. I feel as though I’m still improving and that I still have a ways to go to get to my full potential. So I just hope that I can make decisions that keep me on that path, wherever that may lead me geographically.