How food can be the USWNT’s secret sauce at the World Cup

Caitlin MurrayESPNJul 23, 2023, 9:00 AM ET5 minute reading

SC Selected: Naomi

For U.S. women’s national team defender Naomi Girma, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, her path to a soccer career, let alone the national team, has been anything but standard.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — For the players on For the U.S. Women’s National Team, being in camp for a tournament as big as the Women’s World Cup means all of their needs are met, so they can focus on one task: winning.

For the more than a month that the players will spend here in Auckland during the World Cup, US Soccer handles all the details and anything that can give the players an edge when the game comes to play. A big part of it? Food and lots of it.

With a staff of about 10 dedicated to preparing meals and feeding the players around the clock here, a motto inside the camp of seeing “food as fuel” has taken root.

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“The meals give all the players all the fuel they need to perform at each practice, recover after each practice and sleep through the night,” USWNT sports dietitian Lindsay Langford told ESPN.

With a highly structured and regimented schedule during this camp, the players look forward to mealtimes as a highlight of their days. Since arriving in New Zealand, several players have cited it as a key time to socialize with teammates and relax – every night the players and staff even do a “cheer” along with a shot of juice.

But players are also looking forward to what’s on the menu.

“The food here has been great. I love when it’s barbecue night – it doesn’t happen very often, so that’s probably why,” forward Lynn Williams said, laughing. “We have an Asian fusion bowl situation – there’s poke bowls and then there’s a teriyaki bowl – I feel like those are very popular.”

Players are offered a large menu that changes every day. There will always be two protein choices, a few starches, a few vegetables, and then stations where players can make their own salads, fruit platters, yogurt bowls, and more.

The staff also creates what it calls “player spotlight meals,” where a player gets help designing a meal under the supervision of the team’s nutritionist and chef.

Williams is a fan of the breakfast offerings and admits she’d like to have it for dinner if she could.

“I’m a breakfast girl at heart, so I love being able to have an omelet station or an egg station and get every single thing you could possibly want. I wish we could have breakfast for dinner, so maybe I’ll put that on the menu,” she said, laughing.

Players with special diets are also accommodated. Forward and co-captain Alex Morgan and defender Sofia Huerta have openly discussed being vegan, a diet that involves not eating animal foods, including dairy or eggs. Alana Cook also maintains a plant-based diet, and a few players are specifically dairy-free, Langford said.

The composition of the meals depends on where the players are in the cycle of games they want to play.

The day before a match, called “Match Day Minus-1” in World Cup parlance, there will be a carbohydrate-heavy selection. Langford said, “You can find the menu built with a starchy vegetable, an extra ready-made sandwich or open-faced toast, or an entree that screams higher carb.”

American stars Naomi Girma, left, and Alana Cook go to practice in Auckland, New Zealand.Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF

The post-match meals are when the players are spoiled a little more.

“The day after a game is often times for more ‘fun’ food on the menu without as much of a ‘functional’ side,” Langford said. “They have to live a bit like everyone else – pork bacon, Danish breakfast, but you’ll also find smoked salmon or chia seed pudding to help with the anti-inflammatory aspect of recovery.”

The staff do their best to appeal to everyone’s palettes while striking the right nutritional balance—it’s perhaps as much art as science.

“Tacos or anything Mexican and poke bowls are definitely the most popular meals,” Langford said. “I continue to push beets on the menu, but they’re definitely not the most popular item.”

US Soccer brought its own supply of protein powder and supplements to New Zealand, but otherwise all the ingredients are sourced locally from Auckland.

Each team participating in the Women’s World Cup was given $960,000 for tournament preparations, which can cover operations and training. US Soccer spent a significant portion of it adding extensions to their base camp in Auckland and renovating the space to suit their needs. The private chef and round-the-clock meals are something US Soccer has done anyway, such as during World Cup qualifying in Mexico last year, where a chef designed and prepared all the players’ meals for that tournament.

It’s a luxury that maybe not every team has chosen to invest in, but for defender Emily Fox, she’s glad she and her teammates have it.

“We’re very fortunate that, one, we have a nutritionist and two, we also have a chef,” Fox said. “I look forward to going to the dining room every day to get some food.”

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