“I’ve never really explained why the team means so much to me,” U.S. midfielder Samantha Mewis said, but the interviewer was affable and the setting right.
“I feel like what the U.S. women’s national team stands for and what it represents is everything that we fight for all the time,” she said. “It’s all these women that have come before us. It’s being role models for young girls. It’s not always about this patriotism, but it’s about what the team is, and the reason why I’m so honored is because of the women around me.”
There was an obvious reason why, this time, Mewis felt free to open up: That interviewer was her friend and teammate Lynn Williams, and that setting was “Snacks,” the podcast they co-host.
Over the past year, a cohort of American soccer stars have built their voices by taking control of the mic — and taking advantage of a medium “that allows the athletes just to speak and be them,” said U.S. and Washington Spirit defender Kelley O’Hara, host of the “Just Women’s Sports” podcast.
It’s a forum for “shedding light on experiences that I’ve gone through, shedding light on things that are also bigger than just the game,” said U.S. men’s center back Mark McKenzie, who since December has been the co-host of “Orange Slices.”
“Sometimes when you talk to the media, they feel like they’re trying to get you [with] I-got-you questions, and when it’s authentic with a friend, you’re just opening up,” said Williams, who joined O’Hara and Mewis on the expanded U.S. roster for Tokyo. “And I think that’s what makes [‘Snacks’] great, is that you feel like you’re in the living room with me and Sam while we’re just chatting.”
Athletes are often seen as “robots,” Williams said. A goal of “Snacks” is that listeners “start seeing us as human.”
Two companies are backing the three shows. “Orange Slices” is a product of For Soccer Ventures, which formed in 2019 to promote and grow the sport’s culture in the United States. Just Women’s Sports, a media ecosystem formed in 2020 to cover women’s athletics, is behind O’Hara’s titular podcast and “Snacks,” which just wrapped its first, six-episode season. A third Just Women’s Sports podcast, “Tea with A & Phee,” features Olympians and WNBA all-stars A’ja Wilson and Napheesa Collier.
When founder Haley Rosen was drawing up Just Women’s Sports, she recalled, she had envisioned a podcast as a centerpiece, and she “felt very strongly that it had to be peer-to-peer.”
“Only an athlete can provide that perspective of knowing what it’s really like and knowing how to kind of go deeper when talking about injuries or the highs or the lows,” Rosen said. Seeking out athletes’ input on the venture, Rosen met with O’Hara, a two-time World Cup winner and a fellow Stanford alum, came away impressed and offered her the gig.
O’Hara loves sitting down to gab and she loved podcasts, but she had no experience hosting one. “I was like, ‘You sure?’ ” O’Hara recalled. “But she eventually convinced me.”
Her “Just Women’s Sports” podcast released its first episode, a conversation with U.S. teammate Alex Morgan, a year ago this month, launching at No. 1 in Apple Podcasts’ sports category. Over three seasons, O’Hara’s guests have run the gamut: She has talked activism with track superstar Allyson Felix, perfectionism with gold medal skier Mikaela Shiffrin, being left off the 2016 Olympic team with two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker and playing while pregnant with beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings.
“I look back on all the athletes that I’ve been able to sit and talk to them about their lives, and I’m like, ‘This is insane,’ ” O’Hara said.
She may run into some of her guests in Tokyo, where the U.S. women will open Group G play Wednesday against Sweden. (McKenzie probably would have been at the Olympics, too, if the men’s team had qualified.)
Like McKenzie and Williams, O’Hara doesn’t consider herself a member of the media — “I feel like it’s very different,” she said — but she takes the role seriously, packing her mic to record at national team camps.
“I tell [producers] when I’m available, and sometimes it’s, like, a three-hour window in a week, and we somehow make it work with other athletes who also have a ton of commitments and scheduling restrictions,” O’Hara said.
Time zone differences can complicate things further for the athletes-turned-hosts. McKenzie moved to Belgian top-division club Genk in January, putting him eight or nine hours ahead of his California-based co-host, former MLS and U.S. left back Heath Pearce. He and Pearce, like Mewis and Williams, have had to record all of their episodes over video chat, which can be easier for audio mixing but tougher for chemistry.
In Mewis and Williams’s case, their rapport and mutual understanding, after four years of living together and six-plus years of playing together, have dashed any awkwardness.
“I think we just naturally have a good cadence and flow and voice,” Williams said. “I just know Sam and when she’s about to go on a rant or when she’s not going to want to rant. … I think we're both just very aware of each other.”
Their show is a balance: segments with guests and without, discussion of soccer and personal lives, the ridiculous and the deep. After Mewis acknowledged at the start of their second episode that she’s “a filthy, non-sheet-washing animal,” they proceeded to discuss the Derek Chauvin verdict.
Williams, who is Black, said George Floyd’s murder last year prompted her to become more comfortable speaking out about issues such as racial justice, and to discuss them with Mewis, who is White. “That kind of transformed into me being comfortable talking about things on the podcast,” Williams said.
And, for listeners, she hopes the substance and the symbolism of those conversations resonate.
“I think that not only does [soccer] need Black athletes and diverse people in higher positions so that everybody’s represented, I think that you need to see that Black and White can come together and be good friends and have a successful podcast and have a successful relationship and talk about the hard things,” Williams said. “I think that’s what America needs to see, is that it’s not Black against White. We need to work together to end all this corruption and all this disparity.”
The 22-year-old McKenzie, who has been similarly outspoken about social justice issues, has found space to speak about his own experiences on “Orange Slices.”
In June, McKenzie faced racial abuse in the stadium and online during and after the United States’ Nations League final victory over Mexico. Three days later, he used his platform to talk through the game with his co-host Pearce and denounce the hateful remarks targeted at him and his family.
“Progress is what I preach the most,” McKenzie said. “ … The more I can do, you know, I may spark an individual or a kid to speak up. I may give a kid who has no confidence the confidence to stand up to that bully. It may give somebody that little bit of inspiration to do something that they wouldn’t do normally. So I try to live by those words and try to live by that, whether I’m walking down the street or whether I’m on the pod or whether I’m on the pitch.”
“I think he’s grown in terms of finding his voice and how to best utilize it and use it and use his platform,” said Maurice Edu, a 2010 World Cup midfielder and a Fox Sports analyst who mentored McKenzie when he was coming up with the Philadelphia Union. From a young age, Edu said, McKenzie “was very active and aware of the value that he could bring in giving back to his community, and now he’s . . . doing it in different ways, using this podcast as a way to educate and influence in a positive way.”
Edu observed that growth firsthand: He made a guest appearance during the second episode of “Orange Slices,” followed by a parade of U.S. men’s players past and present.
Interviewing retired stars such as Tim Howard has helped McKenzie build his knowledge and his “network,” Pearce said, but the show is soon planning to move into the broader world of “soccer Americana.” McKenzie and Pearce are thinking coaches, executives, fans, Paralympic and youth national team players and, of course, women’s national team players.
O’Hara, Mewis and Williams, especially given their newfound expertise, would be perfect potential guests.
If, that is, they could all work out a time.