When professional team sports restart in the United States later this month after a lengthy delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Durango will once again have a team to support.
The National Women’s Soccer League will be bring athletes back onto the field June 27 for competition with the NWSL Challenge Cup, a 25-game tournament to be held entirely at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
Among the nine teams in action will be the two-time defending NWSL champion North Carolina Courage, which will play on the opening day of the month-long tournament against Portland Thorns FC. In a Courage uniform for a second year will be Durango’s own Lauren Milliet.
While golf and motorsports have now resumed in the U.S., the NWSL is the first pro league for team sports that will get back to action.
“I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for women’s sports in general. It gives us a platform maybe we haven’t had before being the first American sports league that will be back,” Milliet said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I’m just excited that we have the opportunity to play this year because, obviously, the circumstances have been a little bleak. I am excited to kick things off and just get to show the world what the Courage is made of.”
Milliet, who was drafted 14th overall by the Courage in 2019, is a 2015 graduate of Durango High School. She played Division I college soccer at Colorado College.
As a rookie last season, Milliet adjusted to the sharp learning curve of playing at the highest level of professional women’s soccer. She saw action in two games, highlighted by the 45 minutes she played in the second half of a 5-2 regular-season win against the Houston Dash.
Milliet, daughter of Charlie and Janis Milliet, recalled the exciting feeling at halftime of that game when head coach Paul Riley told her to go get warmed up for her first action as a pro. With Milliet on the field, North Carolina held Houston to only two shots in the second half and stretched a 3-2 halftime lead to a 5-2 advantage at the final whistle.
“I joke with my dad all the time that I was literally clinging on for dear life at times,” Milliet said of her rookie campaign. “It is such a fast process, and if you aren’t willing to adapt and grow, you definitely won’t make it at the pro level. My main goal last year was being willing and open to learn and grow amongst some of the best players in the game.
“It was a dream come true being drafted to such a high-quality, high-caliber team. With all the leaders we have on the team, all the types of people, it made my experience that much more rewarding. I feel like i grew a lot last year, and I’ve learned a lot about myself since I started playing with them. It’s been an awesome experience not just soccer wise but personal growth wise as well. I’m definitely much further along in my life right now than I would have been had I not come to this team.”
Though Milliet, a 5-foot-1 midfielder, did not log a point in her rookie year, she played her role well and earned her place on the team. And that gained her champion status when the Courage defeated the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 to win the NWSL Championship on Oct. 27 in Cary, North Carolina.
The win capped off a dominant playoff performance from the Courage a week after a 4-1 semifinal win against Washington’s Reign FC.
“I’ve never won something as big as that in my career, so I was soaking it all in,” Milliet said. “I remember looking up at the confetti and being like, ‘I hope this never comes off. I hope that I find confetti in my bed for years to come.’ I think that it was just a cool experience to be part of because you put so much into the season.
“Coming from a college season that is three months long, you put in a lot of work. But transitioning to the pro season, it’s much, much longer. You think back to March and then you’re ending in October; it was kind of just crazy to look at your own journey and the team’s journey and how much progress you’ve made. For me, it’s always been about the journey and the destination is just a part of it. Looking back at how much you overcome has always been a huge part of soccer for me.”
Milliet, 23, went into the offseason ready to do anything but take time off. It was an opportunity for her to take what she learned from her rookie season and use it to shape her game going into a second year with the Courage.
She returned to North Carolina in March for one week of preseason training before the pandemic hit and shut down the season, which was supposed to begin April 18 against Chicago. Milliet was left wondering if she would even get a chance to play in 2020.
But as the NWSL made its announcement of a return to play via the Challenge Cup, she returned to Raleigh, North Carolina, to begin training with the team. Practices now include full squads after weeks of small group workouts, and she undergoes COVID-19 testing once a week along with numerous other health safety protocols taken on a daily basis.
“I trained extremely hard all offseason and was ready for the start of Year 2,” Milliet said. “I kept training and kept working hard through it even after everything kind of shut down. Even if we didn’t have a season, I was going to take the opportunity to grow individually. We are all very grateful we have this Challenge Cup, and the NWSL has worked extremely hard to get to this point.”
The month long Challenge Cup means teams will be asked to play more than once a week. Milliet hopes that will translate to some more minutes on the field with more players in the usual starting lineup getting some rest days.
“I think it will be tough because there are so many games in a short period of time, but I think it is an opportunity to reach into the depths of the team and allow other players who maybe haven’t had a chance to kind of get their moment to shine or get some minutes and help with the whole team dynamic,” she said. “It will be a great opportunity for everyone, but obviously it’s not going to be easy with sheer volume of games you’re gonna play in a short amount of time.
“I was obviously disappointed to not have the same season and opportunities as last year, but for me it’s about evolving and making sure I’m able to push through and use each moment as a growing opportunity. Now, hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to play in the Challenge Cup.”
Major League Soccer announced its own tournament to restart its season beginning in July in Orlando. Milliet is proud to be part of a league at the forefront of bringing team sports back to the U.S. and believes it will be a big stage for women’s soccer to gain more fans across the U.S.
The opening day of the tournament will be broadcast on CBS, as will the tournament championship. All other games can be streamed on CBS All Access.
“Traditionally, I think women’s sports are pushed to the wayside,” Milliet said. “I think it is critical and important that we can have this Cup and that we show people that women’s soccer, and women’s sports in general, are a force to be reckoned with. We are all very excited to have this type of platform that we traditionally may not have been able to share on such a wide stage when other sports have more of the focus.”