By: Erica Cohen
American soccer coach dedicates her life to helping Afghan women living in Kabul and other refugees around the world come together around their love of soccer
To anyone walking down the street, Haley Carter might seem like any other normal mom living in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. Some may recognize her as a former NWSL goalkeeper for the Houston Dash, but what most people don’t know is that she is also a United States Naval Academy Graduate, United States Marine Corps veteran, and now the Assistant Coach for the Afghanistan Women’s National Soccer team.
Needless to say, she is anything but ‘normal’.
Carter has dedicated her life to soccer and service, finding a way to combine the two at almost every turn of her adult life.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love coaching and competition, but over the years I’ve learned that the sport of soccer is so much more than a game,” said Carter. “It’s a vehicle to do good things in the world.”
While she’s always had a passion for supporting her country and giving back to others, she credits the Naval Academy for opening her eyes to a different kind of service. She described the academy as a ‘leadership laboratory’ where the majority of lessons were centered around leadership and what it means to create and lead a life that is bigger than yourself.
“Learning what it means to be a servant leader in the military has changed a lot about the way I look at the world and things around me,” Carter said.
After graduating from the Naval Academy, where she played four years of NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer, she spent eight years in the Marine Corps where she was part of multiple combat deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Carter was one of the first groups to work with the Sisters of Fallujah, the first women police officers in Iraq that came together to help stop the smuggling of contraband into the city.
“It was so inspiring to support a group of such strong women who were willing to risk their lives for the safety of their community,” said Carter.
She described how one of the Sisters had a baby and was literally back at work the next day.
“They were such badasses,” she continued. “I was in awe of their dedication and work ethic. They didn’t make excuses for anything, which still to this day has a big impact on the way I look at work and other things in my life.”
While serving on active duty in the Marine Corps, Carter represented the United States in two International Military Sports Council Women’s Military World Soccer Championships (Ede, Netherlands – 2008, Cherbourg-Octeville, 2010). In 2010, she was named Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point Female Athlete of the Year and finalist for the United States Marine Corps Female Athlete of the Year. From 2010–2013, Carter was stationed in Hawaii and played semi-professionally for the Honolulu Bulls W1 Women’s team. Upon her end of active service in 2013, Carter returned to Texas and spent the next three years as a reserve goalkeeper for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League.
During her time with the Houston Dash she was approached by Hummel International, a Danish sportswear brand, who wanted to sponsor her. Hummel’s mission is “change the world through sport,’ which Carter described as a ‘perfect fit.’
It was through her relationship with Hummel, where she was introduced to Khalida Popal, the pioneer and programming director for the Afghanistan Women’s National Soccer team. Popal asked Carter if she would join the team as the Assistant and Goalkeeper Coach.
“Khalida is an amazing person who has risked her life in building the Afghanistan Women’s Soccer team,” said Carter. “It was an honor because it isn’t just any coaching job, it is really about supporting and empowering women around the world.”
Carter started as the Assistant Coach for the Afghanistan Women’s National team at the beginning of the 2016 season shortly following the hiring of Kelly Lindsey as the Head Coach of the team.
The most shocking part is that none of the Afghanistan Women’s team coaches are based in Afghanistan. Lindsey is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, Carter in Houston, Texas, and Popal in Denmark.
“Skype is definitely our friend,” said Carter when asked about how they make it work. “We make it work though and actually stay in pretty close communication with each other and the team. The hardest part is trying to find neutral meeting places around the world where we can host all of the team for camps and tournaments.”
The Afghanistan Women’s National Team members are made up of many women still living in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan, but also many refugees who are living in other parts of the world. Due to safety concerns and other travel limitations for some of the women, there are only so many places where they can meet up and train as a team.
Thus, Carter spends most of her days researching and coordinating camp and tournament logistics for the team, while also developing training materials they can work on remotely.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of barriers working against us whether it be geographical, financial or political in nature,” said Carter. “But seeing how much of a positive impact soccer has on their lives and how it can impact future generations is our driving force.”
Carter has built extremely close relationships with the players and considers them her family.
“These women hold a very special place in my heart and I want to do all I can to help support them,” she said. “Somehow we just find a way to make it work.”
On November 10, 2016, Carter became the first female professional player to receive the FIFPro World Players Union Merit Award for her efforts coaching the Afghanistan women. She used these funds to cover the team’s expenses and participation in the 2016 South Asia Football Federation Women’s Championships.
“Our program is extremely proud of Haley for not only continuing to pursue soccer at the highest level, but more importantly to use her skills to empower women all over the world,” said Carin Gabarra, Head Women’s Soccer Coach for the United States Naval Academy. “Soccer is truly a global sport that reaches all over the world, and Haley is using that platform to help better the lives of others.”
Carter and the team rely on a variety of organizations to help provide resources and financial support. Soccer Without Borders is a huge sponsor providing a significant portion of funding for the team, along with Hummel International who developed custom-designed kits with an attached hijab and full body base layer. Carter also said that United Soccer Coaches has been an instrumental resource not only for coaching information, but also broader development information. She participates in the Women’s Member Group that helps provide various education and resources that help her.
“We are obviously different than a lot of teams out there, so sometimes it’s hard for people to relate to what we are going through,” said Carter. “It’s great to have organizations like Soccer Without Borders, Hummel and United Soccer Coaches that can help support us on an international level.”
While Carter’s ultimate goal is to help the Afghanistan Women’s National team break into the top 50 FIFA rankings, she is focused on keeping the positive momentum they have going right now getting as many events lined up as possible. She is also dedicating a significant amount of time and effort around growing awareness of the game and establishing a stronger youth development pipeline throughout Afghanistan.
“Winning is great, but at the end of the day I want to help build a program that will continue to serve as a platform to empower young girls in the years to come,” said Carter.