USWNT’s World Cup base camp: How the champs feel at home away from home

Jeff CarlisleAmerican football correspondentJul 25, 2023, 10:07 AM ET9 minutes of reading

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When Crystal Dunn walked into her hotel room for the first time when she arrived at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, she couldn’t help but feel like part of her home near Portland, Oregon, had traveled with her.

There was a play set for her son Marcel and a set of mini goals. Along with room spray and candles that Dunn brought herself, her comfort level was ultra-plush, at least off the field.

“I’m like, ‘Are they targets for me? Am I practicing my tactical work here?'” Dunn joked. “But they put a few toys in there so when I had my son over, he can have some things to play with. And everyone got different things. Rose [Lavelle] got a book collection because she’s a bookworm so she actually got a new series that’s cool to read that everyone’s reading now. So everybody got their own little touch of home, I’d say.”

She added: “I think we all love the structure. We love the housing that we all have. The training facility is amazing. Sometimes I think, ‘We’re in New Zealand? I mean, we’re home again.” So that’s great.”

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For the first time in the Women’s World Cup, FIFA established base camps for each of the 32 teams. They include a unique training facility and hotel for each team, but not all base camps are created equal, and in an effort to ease the way to a historic third consecutive Women’s World Cup title, the U.S. Soccer Federation has spared no expense. The USSF has made several improvements to its Bay City Park training base in Auckland. The federation even footed the bill for an extra half-sized training field to the one already provided.

With the help of Nike, the USSF also decorated its hotel to give it a personal touch.

“I think it makes us feel a little more like a daily routine and less like a traveling circus. And that’s a good thing,” American forward Alex Morgan said.

USWNT GM Kate Markgraf doesn’t have to dial back too far to remember the days when FIFA doubled teams in the same hotel. It made for some moments that were all kinds of awkward: Back in 2007, the Americans had to walk through the lobby in front of a Brazilian team that had just beaten them 4-0. Let’s just say Brazil’s celebrations didn’t stop just because the U.S. team—and some of their family members—went through.

“It was just absolutely brutal,” Markgraf said. “And something that I was like, ‘I’m never going to do this to another team.’ I was always like, ‘I’m never going to brag in front of another team. Ever.'”

So why weren’t base camps used sooner?

Some of that was due to a lack of investment from FIFA. Even now, the $960,000 scholarship that each team receives is not on par with the $1.5 million the men’s teams received at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Another problem was logistics. At the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, there was often not enough time between matches to make a home base practical. This time there is an extra day between games, making a base camp worth the investment. When FIFA said there would be home bases in 2023, the USSF was ready.

Crystal Dunn said the American players feel like ‘queens’ and enjoy the personal touches, right down to the thermostats in each player’s room.Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF

By the time the draw was announced in October, site visits to each hotel and training venue – conducted by then-team administrator Ryan Dell – were well under way, with the sites assessed not only for what they had, but also for possible renovations. There wasn’t much room in terms of inquiries as each hotel was packed together with a training venue. When the evaluation process was completed, the Confederation sent its preference list to FIFA. Markgraf called it a lottery, although the fact that the US had to be in Auckland for two of its three knockout games meant it was likely to get what it asked for.

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Once the hotel/venue combination was chosen, the USSF went into planning mode and consulted the US men’s side of the house to see how it was doing in Qatar with its own base camp.

“We sent a lot of Slack messages and questions to the men’s admin just to see what was working for them and what was good,” USWNT interim team administrator Sophie Luks said. “And then functionally also to understand that it’s not quite the same setup or the same circumstances that the men could have in Qatar.”

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One difference is that the USWNT will have to leave its base camp for its round-of-16 match in Sydney; the men knew they would be in the same place (Doha) no matter what happened. The USWNT also had a sense from previous tournaments what kind of setup would work and what wouldn’t.

From there, the USSF focused on maximizing the advantage of a base camp. It constructed modular buildings for office space and meeting rooms. The locker room was renovated and a high performance gym was built. Space was created for media and medical staff, and housing was also to be created for a mixed-gender staff. In addition to FIFA’s financial boost, the New Zealand government picked up some of the costs.

“I think being able to know what location we’re going to be at — which hotel, which training facility — for almost a full month’s time meant that you can actually dedicate to the planning process the time and money necessary to make sure it’s exactly what the team needs,” Luks said. “So I think there’s an obvious clear benefit to making it comfortable, getting the team in the bubble it wants to be, getting everyone in the right headspace going into the games.”

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There is also a downside to having a base camp. Twenty-seven days — the length of time the team would be in Auckland — is a long time to be together in one place.

“There’s a possibility that things could get a little stale,” Luks said. “You see the same people, you’re in the same place everyday. And I think the staff recognized the potential downside a while ago, that they could put things in place to prevent the feeling of boredom.”

This is where personalization of the hotel room comes into play. There is a players’ lounge and coffee shop that has been a hub of social activity. The task of personalizing the hotel rooms was led by the team’s head of equipment, Jake Schoch. Items such as candles, dressing gowns, slippers and pictures of family were placed in each player’s room – even the preferred room temperature for each player was noted.

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But even as the planning took place, they ran into a major unforeseen problem. A series of storms, including Cyclone Gabrielle, rendered the team’s original hotel choice, the Sofitel, unusable due to flooding. After the USWNT’s training camp in April, Luks had to board a plane in April and scramble to find an alternative. Fortunately, SO/Auckland, the hotel the team stayed at during a trip to New Zealand back in January, was available. Crisis averted.

With the alternative hotel secured, they could accelerate personalization efforts. About three days before the relegation match against Wales in San Jose, California, assistant equipment manager Angelina LoDolce and assistant team administrator Laura Lamberth flew to New Zealand in a mad dash to get everything set up ahead of the team’s arrival.

“I think they ran around for about 22 out of 24 hours for the three days just to make sure every one of the 70-something rooms was set up and had a personal touch,” Luks said. “So when players and staff arrived here, the players could walk into that room and it was set up the way it was always intended for them, which is the goal.”

The response from the players suggests that the efforts of Luks and other employees have borne fruit. There is not a discouraging word to be heard.

“We’ve been treated like queens here and it’s been a really, really great place to train,” Dunn said. “Everyone here has just been absolutely welcoming.”

There may be no place like home, but the USWNT’s base camp comes close.

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