The United States women’s national team had just breezed through group play of World Cup qualifying – as they do every cycle – in Raleigh, North Carolina, and they were on their way to board a charter plane headed to Frisco, Texas, site of the decisive semifinal. They arrived at the airport tarmac in the pouring rain and received word that the weather was too unforgiving to take off that evening. They’d have to wait until morning to fly out.
This was a problem – and one that needed to be solved swiftly. Players and staff had already checked out of their hotel and now needed a whole new set of rooms for about 50 people. Enter Molly Downtain. Officially the team administrator, Downtain’s main task is to make off-the-field problems disappear for the players. By the time the players were back on the bus, they had new rooms waiting for them in a hotel they were already familiar with, thanks to some efficient work from Downtain. One problem gone.
“And then the bus windshield wipers stopped working at that moment,” she recalls.
Unable to drive in the pouring rain with no windshield wipers, the bus driver pulled over into the large parking lot of a distribution center. Nobody was going any farther in that bus.
“I told every single person who had a U.S. Soccer credit card to start calling an Uber. We got about eight Uber SUVs. [They arrive] and obviously the Ubers are confused because they’re like, ‘Why are we pulling into a FedEx shipping parking lot?’ I was just standing in the rain and I think one of the players was like, ‘I’ve never seen you more in your element.’ It was pouring down rain and I was standing outside organizing people in Ubers.”
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The entire team loaded into their impromptu rides, returned to their hotel and flew out the next morning on a beautiful, sunny day. A few days later, the Americans went out and torched Jamaica, winning 6-0 to qualify for the World Cup.
Welcome to Downtain’s daily life on the road. That situation was extreme, she admits, but “to be fair, that’s normalcy at this point.” That it didn’t snowball into a significant issue affecting player performance is exactly the point.
Downtain is one of a few dozen U.S. Soccer staff members in France for the World Cup. Her job is taking care of a little bit of everything logistically for the U.S. women. Day to day, she’s working out of U.S. Soccer’s Los Angeles office, planning for future training camps. During training camps, she’s planning one or two camps ahead. Her job is planning, more planning and making sure everything goes to plan.
“In my mind it’s like, her job is putting out fires, so it’s like every day there’s a fire.”
– USWNT forward Christen Press
At no time is that more important than during the World Cup. The Americans are the defending champions and at least co-favorites to win in 2019. Downtain’s task in France is simple yet complicated: make sure everything runs smoothly, and get the players to the right place at the right time.
The Americans play more home friendlies than any other team in the world, often only traveling abroad before major tournaments, to assimilate. Downtain has a more complete control over the planning for those friendly matches. The hotel, the transportation, the food – everything is planned by and specifically for the U.S. women’s national team’s needs.
But at the World Cup, that changes. Teams are drawn into groups at random, which tells them which cities they will play in. They are limited to the hotels pre-selected by FIFA, which also handles the logistics of transportation. Unlike in the Men’s World Cup, FIFA does not utilize base camps – a central site teams stay at for the entire tournament – for the Women’s World Cup, so U.S. Soccer didn’t even have the ability to select that.
It leaves Downtain and others in her role in what might be the most anxious position a detail-oriented person can find themselves: at the mercy of other people’s plans. Downtain and U.S. Soccer have some input – and plenty of communication – with FIFA, but most of the big stuff is taken care of. So how do you find a competitive advantage?
“I think our biggest thing is trying to replicate what we do domestically, so that they keep that normalcy and that standard,” Downtain says. “The hotels are controllable by FIFA, but we can give [the players] as comparable of an experience as they get domestically from us.”
A tangible example of that is food. The U.S. women have their own chef traveling with them to replicate the meals they eat at home, a far cry from the inaugural World Cup in 1991, when family and friends of the title-winning U.S. team brought boxes of pasta to cook so the team could eat more than just candy bars and soda (since most couldn’t stomach the local cuisine).
U.S. Soccer is not traveling lightly for this tournament. The core group of players and staff, shuttling from pre-tournament training camp in England, to Reims, then Paris, Le Havre and – they hope – deep into the knockout stage and into Lyon, is 55 people deep – 23 of whom are players. They also have two buses for people and another large truck to move around their equipment, which U.S. Soccer says weighs about 5 tons. They have just about everything in that gear truck: four sets of red jerseys per player, four sets of white jerseys per player, massage tables, cold-weather jackets, two printing presses to make jerseys with names and numbers. There are even two full sets of training gear – one with sponsorship and one without, since sponsored gear can’t be worn inside of stadiums for World Cups.
A U.S. Soccer spokesman said the federation has spent “well into seven figures” preparing for the World Cup since the start of 2019, including over $1 million since the start of May training camp. FIFA covers tournament expenses for 35 people (players included); teams are welcome to bring more, but they have to cover those expenses. Those financial figures include a 10-day training camp at Tottenham’s facilities in England, a site selected to help the team isolate itself and focus on soccer. FIFA covered flights from the U.S. to England; U.S. Soccer paid for a charter flight from England to Reims. U.S. Soccer says the trip to Tottenham was the most expensive 10-day camp they’ve ever done for men or women, but did not share specific numbers related to the camp.
Downtain oversees everyone in that 55-person traveling group. There are players, coaching staff, medical staff, the equipment team, the communications team. That doesn’t even account for scouts who travel the country and the “advancer” – the role Downtain held in 2015. That’s the person who goes to the team’s next city ahead of time to make sure everything is set up properly.
If a player has a problem, Downtain is likely to hear about it.
“Pretty much every question comes to me,” she said. “Whether it’s something going on in their room, or they have a question on meals or schedule or some of these pieces. A lot of that goes to me. And that’s an interaction that’s been like that for two years. That’s what they’re used to and I’m used to it.”
Downtain says she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, but she is certainly front and center of everything the U.S. women are doing.
“Molly’s not behind the scenes,” U.S. forward Christen Press exclaims. “Molly’s with us right in the lead, all the way. I think that she’s done an amazing job. We’ve definitely increased the resources that we have in order to be able to hyper-focus.
“I think that, if I recall, four years ago there was a lot more freedom and flexibility. I was running around with my family during the World Cup and now I think that everything is a little bit more professional, a little bit more locked down, and will be more regimented. And I think that, that’s because it’s really important during this time to have security in the things that you can, because there is so much that you can’t control.”
“Amazing,” U.S. midfielder Julie Ertz says, describing Downtain. “She probably does way more than I even actually know about.”
That’s very likely to be true. While U.S. players see Downtain in action often – in camps, and on the sidelines directing traffic before and after games – there’s plenty they don’t see.
With no base camps, there was little to plan for the World Cup until the U.S. found out which group it would play in, at the draw in Paris on Dec. 8. That’s when the real work started. Downtain, along with press officer Aaron Heifetz, toured World Cup facilities and lodging options for roughly a week, beginning right after the draw that day in Paris. Managing director of administration Tom King – who is Downtain’s boss and who has been part of World Cup planning for the U.S. men and women for two decades – joined them for part of that trip.
Downtain was back in France in January to check things out in Le Havre, where the U.S. meets Sweden to wrap up group play on June 20. Actually playing a match there against the hosts gave the U.S. a dry run in one of their World Cup venues. And Downtain made a third trip to France, with high performance coach Dawn Scott and equipment manager Ryan Dell, in April.
FIFA covers the cost of touring group-stage venues. Downtain and U.S. Soccer went beyond that, however, touring other cities to prep for potential knockout-stage games as well as making the additional trip in April. Preparation is everything.
“Most of my stuff runs pretty smoothly as long as I’ve planned it pretty well,” Downtain says. “Once I’m in tournament, it’s just making sure things stay as planned as possible. Obviously, you can only control the controllables, so I usually have a Plan B, C, D, E and F. I think some of these tournaments are so structured, too, that it’s hard to go outside of what’s already been planned.”
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She maintains constant communication with all departments – and that includes the coaching staff. Downtain says she speaks with U.S. head coach Jill Ellis a couple times per day when the team isn’t in camp; they speak regularly when the team is together. Downtain says Ellis is hands-on, but still allows each department to have autonomy.
“Molly is a critical part of this team,” Ellis said. “Her and I have a lot of interaction on a daily basis and it’s not just her ability to handle a complicated job like this, but it’s her qualities as a person that make it a really good fit. There are so many moving parts in running this team from an administrative standpoint and everyone on the coaching staff, support staff and the players appreciate what she does for all of us.”
Press echoed those thoughts, noting that Downtain is an integral part of the team.
“In my mind it’s like, her job is putting out fires, so it’s like every day there’s a fire,” Press said. “Our flight to England was delayed; we’re all grumpy. So, she not only has to solve it, but she also has to deal with us inter-personally. So, it’s a very hard job. We’re hard women to please. But she does everything with a smile on her face and she has a sense of humor in how she solves things. And she knows us really well; I think that’s important. I think that if she kept an arm’s distance, then it would be harder for her to put out so many fires.”
Thus far, there are no fires to report in France – at least, none of any significance. The Americans’ 13-0 victory over Thailand – a new World Cup record – on Tuesday would certainly indicate they are ready. And the reality is that Group F isn’t only a relatively easy one for competition; the Americans also have extremely favorable travel, busing between Reims, Paris and Le Havre to open the tournament.
Not that any of that means Downtain and the rest of the staff are planning any less. Scott and her high performance team monitor everything about players, and U.S. Soccer recently even had some staff members evaluated for their quality of sleep. Downtain said she only sleeps about five hours each night, but it’s “an extremely efficient” five hours. It has to be, to be ready to deal with the number of things on her plate.
Her job and the job of so many others – what Scott does to manage the team’s fitness, what Dell does to make sure the team has the right gear – goes mostly unnoticed to the outside world. Downtain is fine with that. As long as the players and staff are taken care of, she’s doing her part on the quest for a fourth World Cup title.
“As much as we try to make the players successful, we all try to stay in the shadows,” she said. “Just make the team as successful as possible on the field. The easier myself and the support staff can make it for Jill and the players, the better.”
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