Penn Stater Maya Hayes Is Trailblazing The Future Of Women’s Professional Soccer
On a field in Piscataway, New Jersey, a Penn State legend sharpened her craft. Before a crowd of 1,552 sitting in the metal bleachers parallel to the field, this legend ripped apart opposing defenders with her speed and ferocity up until the final whistle blew. Following the game — her team’s third-straight win — she grabbed a pen and tended to hundreds of young girls lined up along the bleacher railings seeking autographs from the local star.
This is a typical summer Saturday night for Maya Hayes. Once a prolific forward for Penn State women’s soccer from 2010-2013, Hayes now competes at the professional level for Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League — an organization currently in its fourth year of operation.
A standout youth player from West Orange, New Jersey, Hayes was recruited by Erica Dambach to play for the Nittany Lions and excelled from the moment she stepped on campus. Now that she’s returned to play in her home state, she credits the school with developing her into the savvy veteran she’s become.
“I can’t value that experience enough,” Hayes said of her time with the Nittany Lions. “The players that I played with and the coaches that I had definitely molded me into the player that I’ve become today.”
So who is this player that Hayes blossomed into? A versatile leader who has been asked to stray from her comfort zone and play multiple positions — from striker to outside back — and has always been up to the challenge. Her will is exceptional, and her drive unquestioned. This sensational playmaker can do it all, and it’s characteristics like these that are helping the young Hayes rise up the professional ranks.
If there was one thing that she was known for during her time at Penn State, though, it would be her knack for finding the back of the net. Whenever, wherever, in a tight game, or in a blowout. It didn’t matter. The name Maya Hayes ended up on the score sheet more than any other in Dambach’s time as coach.
Hayes had a good freshman season, but truly caught everyone’s attention during her sophomore year. Leading the nation with 31 goals, the Penn State forward was named to just about every first team honor and was selected as a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist for her breakout campaign.
Following her 2011 success, the Big Ten Forward of the Year was asked to continue her elite form into one of the most hectic years of her career.
Hayes departed for Japan as Penn State was beginning preparations for what might’ve been its best chance to claim the program’s first ever National Championship. The reason for Hayes, however, was for a shot at winning the U-20 World Cup alongside a collegiate all-star team. Hayes was a member of the United States U-20 World Cup team two years earlier that suffered an unprecedented quarterfinal exit. This time, following her incredible sophomore season, Hayes was expected to play a major part.
From the start of the tournament, the Penn State junior surpassed expectations. She scored a hat-trick in the tournament opening win and netted the equalizer in the second game to tie China 1-1. Led by Hayes’ commanding leg — she led the squad with four goals in the tournament — the United States reclaimed the U-20 World Cup.
Rejoining Penn State in time for the Big Ten slate, Hayes guided the Nittany Lions through the rest of the regular season without losing a contest until the Big Ten Tournament. The team’s stellar form continued through to the College Cup, Dambach’s first, but culminated in a National Championship loss to North Carolina.
“Insane,” Hayes said of her junior season. “That’s the best word I can come up with for that year. That was a huge year for me personally and us as a team. That was our first trip to the College Cup National Championship ever. Not many people can say they won a World Cup and went to the National Championship in the same year, so I’m very grateful for that.”
Hayes capped her Penn State career in 2013. She finished with 71 goals — No. 3 all-time among Penn State goalscorers. She would leave Happy Valley a legend and prepare to start over at the sport’s highest level of competition.
In January of 2014, Piscataway-based Sky Blue FC selected Hayes with the sixth pick in the first round of the NWSL Draft. This was seen as a homecoming of sorts for the up-and-coming star, but the beginning of her professional career was anything but consistent.
“Very up and down,” Hayes said of her rookie season with Sky Blue. “There was a learning curve and I think you always have to take everything you can. Going in I just wanted to be a sponge. There was so much information being thrown at me. Not playing in a system I was used to and not playing with girls I was used to, everything was a learning curve.”
Hayes, immediately inserted into the starting lineup as a striker, struggled to find her form and was quickly demoted to the bench. She did not score until the 13th game of the season in mid-June. Though her play benefited from the wave of confidence provided by her goal, her turning point came when goal scoring, the very foundation of her game, became a secondary focus for her.
Once again, Hayes began to broaden her horizon.
Late in her rookie season, Hayes was slotted on the right wing. The move allowed her to show elements of her game not entirely made clear early in the season, like her ability to go at defenders one-on-one or her eye for finding the right pass in the final third. The move to the wing accentuated other positive elements of her game, but also began to reshape her role with the team.
Since her rookie season, she’s filled in at outside back, rotated into the midfield, made appearances at striker when needed, and started on the bench, mostly due to injury, but took her speed to tired defenders and made a difference late. Through three seasons, Hayes has cut her teeth to become one of the most versatile players in the league.
As the importance of her role within the team increases, it’s expected that her future in the sport is more secure. Unfortunately in the NWSL, and women’s professional soccer for the most part, uncertainty is a constant factor.
While the United States women’s national team is in the news with its fight for pay equal to the men, players in the NWSL face a different struggle. Players in the league work for salaries ranging from $7,200 to $39,700 with teams’ payrolls capped at $278,000. Finding other ways to make money is a must for players, but at times they are limited as their soccer schedules often fill up most of their time.
One of the biggest struggles players in the NWSL face is how to maintain top match form during the offseason. Some players go overseas to continue to play in the other leagues around the world, while some stay local and try to balance a job with their training schedules. Hayes stays in shape by training with local team, and at times, tapping into her resources at Penn State.
There have been steady improvements since the league’s inception. Salaries have been incrementally raised since 2013, and the salary cap is up from the $200,000 mark it was at during the inaugural season. Hayes has noticed some significant improvements during her time.
“I definitely think it’s grown in a lot of ways,” Hayes said of the NWSL. “Speaking personally from our team, facilities have gotten a little bit better. Communication from coaches, managers, owners, what have you, is a little bit more close knit for us.”
Improvements have allowed the NWSL to become a more desirable choice, but there is still much to be desired in terms of leaving the uncertainty behind. Many young, talented players in the league have decided to retire well before they hit their primes.
This struggle is not lost on Hayes, but it’s not something she focuses on. “I try to take it year to year,” Hayes said. “I think it’s easy to get a little discouraged when you’re looking at it from ‘oh man, how long can I do this for?’ I’m thinking about today, and I’m thinking about tomorrow, and that’s about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the best way to handle it.”
It’s fair to say that strategy has worked out in her favor. Enjoying a solid season, Hayes has played a significant role in the rise of her young team. Sky Blue FC, beginning the year as the ultimate underdogs, find themselves in the playoff race partly in thanks to the tutelage of veterans like Hayes.
Yet if there’s an even more important role she plays, it’s that of just being part of this league. There were times in Hayes’ youth soccer career that there was no American professional league to work toward. Now, there’s the NWSL with players like Maya Hayes — driven leaders who are building for the future of the sport and fostering the dreams of youth soccer players around the country.