Michele Vasconcelos didn’t sleep well. She had no energy. She couldn’t adjust to the speed of the game. She doubted herself. She called it “pathetic” that she scored only one goal in her first National Women’s Soccer League season.
“I just felt like I had completely lost myself as a player,” Vasconcelos told The Salt Lake Tribune recently.
It’s unlike Vasconcelos to lose confidence. The Sandy, Utah, native was a star at BYU, scoring 30 goals and adding 27 assists in her career there — numbers that still rank in the top 10 in school history. At Alta High, she won three state championships.
Those closest to Vasconcelos say she’s constantly brimming with positivity. Friends, family and former teammates describe her as “bubbly,” a joy to be around, and the type of person who consistently lifted those around her.
But this was different. Vasconcelos had just moved to a new city. She had just given birth to her first child, Scarlett, now 3 years old. She found it difficult to act as both mom and pro that first year.
Vasconcelos spent two seasons with the Chicago Red Stars before coming back home. Utah Royals FC acquired Vasconcelos last month in exchange for $55,000 in allocation money.
UTAH ROYALS AT OL REIGN
At Cheney Stadium, Tacoma, Wash.
When • Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
Part of her had always wanted to play for the Royals. But what she got in her return was the type of family stability she was missing in Chicago after spending two years rediscovering her game, finding herself and building a new identity as a mother.
“The big thing she wanted to come back for, too, is just to have her family here and just have the interaction and the connection for her daughter to be with the rest of her family,” said Nate Murphy, Vasconcelos’s brother.
Vasconcelos was in Brazil visiting her husband Pedro’s family when Chicago picked her 11th overall in the 2017 NWSL College Draft. Upon returning home, she felt off.
After some convincing, Vasconcelos took two pregnancy tests, both of which came back positive. But she still wouldn’t believe it because she’d been using birth control.
Nonetheless, Scarlett arrived that August. After spending her entire pregnancy in Utah, Vasconcelos moved to Illinois to start her career in earnest, husband and daughter in tow.
While she was able to take Scarlett to practices, she often couldn’t train extra. She weighed about 15 pounds less compared to her BYU days because she breastfed during the season, she said.
Fortunately for her, she had support from every angle. Her husband and mother, Renae, served as her rocks off the field. Renae Vasconcelos said she spent about three months in Chicago cumulatively in her daughter’s first professional season so she could help with Scarlett while Vasconcelos traveled for road games. Her father, Jack, would sometimes join Renae.
Even when Vasconcelos tore her ACL and meniscus last season and couldn’t put weight on that leg for four weeks, her mother spent two of those weeks in Chicago driving her to physical therapy, taking Scarlett to the park and then picking her daughter up after the appointments.
“That was a huge blessing,” Vasconcelos said.
Vasconcelos also had instrumental help on the field during her first year. She said an assistant coach went out of his way to go over film with her or stay after practice so she could work on specific drills.
It took the entirety of the 2018 season for Vasconcelos to fully adjust, she said. As Scarlett got older and her sleeping schedule normalized, Vasconcelos could focus more on getting back to the soccer player she once was, particularly during the offseason when she went back to Utah and trained with her brother and husband.
“By the time I came into preseason my second year, I felt like I was just a whole new person,” Vasconcelos said.
Moving to Illinois represented a significant life change for Vasconcelos and her new family. She had spent her entire life in Utah before getting drafted.
But a new team and city meant she would have to get out of her comfort zone. Make new friends. Find new restaurants.
Vasconcelos, though, had little trouble adjusting.
“I feel like she popped Utah’s bubble,” said Bizzy Phillips, a former BYU teammate of Vasconcelos and one of her closest friends. “I feel like she really was exposed to a whole new world. And she really embraced it, which I feel like a lot of people might be scared to do. But she just did.”
Phillips and Vasconcelos became inseparable shortly after meeting at Alta. They still remember their tradition of grabbing ice cream in waffle cones at Baskin Robbins the day before games.
When the pair went to BYU, they met Ashley Hatch, who now plays for the Washington Spirit. Hatch and Phillips both saw growth in Vasconcelos whenever they’d catch up with her while she played for the Red Stars.
Hatch said she and Vasconcelos kept in touch by congratulating each other on scored goals via text. When one of them was on a road trip to play the other, they’d try to eat dinner together.
Hatch said she never heard anything negative from Vasconcelos about how she was adjusting to life away from Utah.
“I think she grew a ton, not only because she moved away from home, but also, she also now has a little girl that she had to take care of and play soccer professionally for her first year,” Hatch said.
Phillips saw Vasconcelos mature not only as a person, but also as a soccer mind. Their conversations about the game became much more sophisticated, she said, as a result of Vasconcelos being coached by the Red Stars’ Rory Dames.
“I feel like her soccer IQ went up a lot,” Phillips said. “The way she talked about soccer to me on the phone and things, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s really insightful,’ and those are things that we weren’t talking about in film in college.”
Vasconcelos said she and her husband befriended a couple who was also their host family in Chicago. The host couple’s daughter and Scarlett were born on the exact same day, she said, and the couple’s parents would watch the kids while the foursome went on dates.
Vasconcelos’s family lived in the couple’s basement for the better part of two years while she played for the Red Stars. She said the relationship with the couple was hugely impactful for them as they adjusted to living in a new city.
Vasconcelos said playing for the Red Stars and living in Illinois pushed her as a person and was uncomfortable at first. But she came out the other side of the experience with some life lessons.
“It was really cool for me to be in that different environment just because I feel like I’ve been in the same environment around kind of similar types of people who have also helped really shape me,” Vasconcelos said. “But being able to be with a new team and just a bunch of new ideas, personalities, opinions, it was really cool for me and I feel like I learned a lot as a person and definitely had to step outside of myself.”
Vasconcelos returned to Utah to play for a franchise currently in flux and mired in recent controversy. The Royals' coach, Craig Harrington, who was an assistant in Chicago when she played there, is on leave. Utah Soccer, which includes the Royals, Real Salt Lake and Real Monarchs, is going through a sale process.
None of that was going on when Vasconcelos and Dames discussed the potential trade.
“I thought I was coming to one thing, and it was another,” Vasconcelos said.
But the Utah native has been focused on just getting back on the field.
“It is strange and it’s a little worrisome not knowing kind of the future of the club, but I can’t control that,” Vasconcelos said. “So I just try to show up to practice every day, getting better and making sure I can do that and I continue get better so I still have a spot.”
Vasconcelos could get some playing time Saturday against the OL Reign, a game which marks the end of the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League season. She was on the game day roster when Utah tied the Portland Thorns two weeks ago, but didn’t play.
Vasconcelos’ time in Chicago mirrors what many young adults go through when they go away to college. After spending most of their life in their hometown, moving to a completely new environment helps them grow in ways they might not have otherwise.
Vasconcelos agrees with that idea from a personal growth standpoint. Now that she’s home, the lessons she learned during her two years in Chicago have her wanting to be completely engaged with every aspect of her life.
“If I’m at home with my daughter, I’m all in,” Vasconcelos said. “If I’m at practice, I’m all focus, I’m all in there. Even just being in the community and stuff, really diving into that and just trying to be an influence and example as much as I can and being all in in that aspect.”