Inside USWNT’s World Cup base camp: ‘Everyone got their own little touch of home’

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When Crystal Dunn walked into her hotel room for the first time upon arriving for 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 away from the field.

“I’m like, ‘Are those goals for me? Am I practicing my tactical work here?'” Dunn joked. “But they put a couple of 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 everyone got their own little touch of home I would say.”

She added, “I think we all love the structure. We love the accommodations that we all have. The training facility is amazing. Sometimes I’m like, ‘We’re in New Zealand? I mean, we’re back at home.’ So it’s great.”

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For the first time in the history of 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 squad, but not all base camps are created equal, and in a bid to ease the path toward a historic third consecutive Women’s World Cup title, the U.S. Soccer Federation has spared no expense. The USSF has made numerous improvements to its Bay City Park training base in Auckland. The Federation even footed the bill for an additional half-sized training field to go with the one that was already provided.

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

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

USWNT GM Kate Markgraf doesn’t have to dial up the way-back machine too far to remember the days when FIFA would double up teams in the same hotel. It created some moments that were all kinds of awkward: Back in 2007, the Americans had to walk through the lobby in front of a Brazil team that had just trounced them 4-0. Let’s just say Brazil’s celebrations didn’t let up just because the U.S. team — and some of their family members — were walking through.

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

So why weren’t base camps used before?

Some of it was down to a lack of investment from FIFA. Even now, the $960,000 stipend that each team receives isn’t on par with the $1.5 million that men’s teams were given at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Another issue was logistics. At the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, there often wasn’t enough time between games to make a home base practical. This time around, there’s 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.

When the draw was announced in October, the site visits for every single hotel and training site — conducted by then-team administrator Ryan Day — were well underway, with the sites not only being assessed for what they had, but for possible renovations as well. There wasn’t much wiggle room in terms of requests, as every hotel was packaged together with a training site. Once the evaluation process was complete, the Federation submitted its list of preferences to FIFA. Markgraf called it a lottery, though the fact that the U.S. was going to be in Auckland for two of its three knockout games meant it was likely to get what it requested.

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Once the hotel/site combination was selected, the USSF went into planning mode, consulting the U.S. men’s side of the house to see how it fared in Qatar with a base camp of its own.

“We’ve sent a lot of Slack messages and questions to the men’s admin just to see what works for them and what was good,” USWNT interim team administrator Sophie Luks said. “And then functionally also understanding that it’s not entirely the same setup or same circumstances that the men were able to 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 game in Sydney; the men knew they’d be in the same location (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 benefit 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 constructed. Space was created for media and medical personnel, and accommodations needed to be made for a mixed-gendered staff as well. In addition to FIFA’s financial boost, the New Zealand government picked up some of the costs.

“I think being able to know which place we’ll be in — which hotel, which training site — for almost a full month of time, meant that for the planning process you can actually dedicate the time and the money needed to make sure it’s exactly what the team needs,” Luks said. “So I think there’s an obvious clear advantage in making it comfortable, getting the team in the bubble that it wants, getting everyone in the right head space as we go into games.”

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There’s also a disadvantage to having a base camp. Twenty-seven days — the amount of time the team would be in Auckland — is a long time to be cooped up in the same place.

“There’s the possibility of things getting a little stagnant,” Luks said. “You see the same people, you’re in the same place day-to-day. And I think the staff has recognized that potential disadvantage a while ago, being able to put things in place to prevent the feeling of boredom.”

That’s where personalizing the hotel space comes in. There is a players’ lounge and a coffee bar that has been a hub of social activity. The task of adding a personal touch to the hotel rooms was headed by the team’s equipment manager, Jake Schoch. Items like candles, robes, slippers and pictures of family were put in each player’s room — even the preferred room temperature of every player was noted.

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But even as that planning was taking place, they ran into a major unforeseen issue. A series of storms, including Cyclone Gabrielle, left the team’s original hotel choice, the Sofitel, unusable because of flood damage. Following the USWNT’s April training camp, Luks had to board a plane in April and scramble to find an alternative. Fortunately, the SO/Auckland, the hotel the team stayed in during a trip to New Zealand back in January, was available. Crisis averted.

With the alternate hotel secured, they could accelerate the personalization efforts. About three days before the send-off game 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 were running around for about 22 out of 24 hours for those three days, just to make sure every single one of the 70-something rooms was set up and had personal touches laid out,” Luks said. “So when players and staff arrived here, players could walk into that room and it was set up like it was always meant for them, which is the goal.”

The response from the players indicates that the efforts of Luks and other members of the staff have paid off. There isn’t a discouraging word to be heard.

“We’ve been treated absolutely like queens here, and it’s been a really, really amazing place to train in,” Dunn said. “Everybody 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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