This interview is one of my favorites and you’ll read why. Afterwards, I made the decision to start doing these as podcasts soon because readers miss so much of the fun and conversation in our Women in Soccer interviews.
Carla Swensen-Haslam debuted as the radio color commentator for Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate, Real Monarchs SLC, in March 2016. The game is remembered as the day Omar Holness suffered a seizure on the pitch. But it was a turning point in Carla’s career too. As a prepared color commentator, player and empathetic journalist, she rose to the occasion. Carla’s not just the first female commentator of the men’s game in Utah, she’s also a former member of the U-20 Colombian National Team (Las Superpoderosas), a forward at Brigham Young University, preparing for the LSAT this June and balances that all as a wife, daughter and sister. Somehow she still found time to talk to me!* I’ll let Carla do the rest of the storytelling…
Q: When did you first started playing soccer?
A: It’s one of my favorite things to talk about because I never thought I would become a soccer player. My mother is Colombian. In Colombia now, woman are just starting to play soccer. She never grew up with a soccer ball. My father is from the United States but he too never grew up playing soccer. So that was never in the plan for me. But I was a dancer, I did dance when I was a little girl. When I was 6 or 7 years old, the local city recreational league needed an extra player for the first grade team so my parents thought it would be a good way for me to meet some new friends and learn how to interact with kids my own age. And little did I know I would end up falling in love with it and that it would be me. That [soccer] would define my identity for the next however many years. I don’t think my parents knew how much commitment, time and energy they would put into it over the years.
I began playing competitively when I turned 8 or 9, and from there it’s turned into opportunities to play in college for BYU (they’re a top 10 program in Division 1). I’m a former U-20 Colombian National Team player. So I spent a lot of time traveling between here and Colombia. And I also found opportunities here (in Utah) covering soccer. So just a lot of opportunities that I never thought would come.
Q: Could you shed some light on your experiences with the U-20 Team and the wage issues in Colombia for the women’s game?
I haven’t been with them in the past two years simply because their training camps are in November and December. They do things are little differently where their training camps are months long. I can’t miss school and it’s in the middle of the college soccer season. I’m hoping when I graduate those opportunities continue.
But similar to in the U.S. there’s this idea I think that we should be paid more and the professional teams are saying we should be paid more. Because of that there weren’t any changes in the wages but the Colombian Soccer Federation created a professional women’s league. The first women’s professional league to come out of Colombia. As far as soccer development for women, a lot of those South American countries are far behind because they don’t have a lot of the same resources. They don’t have the same money going into their programs. So the argument was, “If we’re not going to get paid the same amount as men, provide for us resources and training facilities.”
[editor’s note: Liga Femenina Aguila was created by FIFA’s Forward Program. Conmebol and Dimayor, which runs Colombia’s professional competitions, are also helping. 18 teams compete.]
Right now in the U.S., part of the reason the USWNT does so well is because they’ve developed a system where they are identifying girls as early as 12, with their Olympic Development Programs. In South America you don’t have those systems. Players are identified at 17-18 years old. So you don’t have that training and identification that you do here.
Colombia is starting to catch up now. They’re starting to create national camps at early ages. They’re beginning to identify and organize who are the players that can be on their future team. I think it extends to more than just wages. It extends to focus and unfortunately there are a few cultural stigmas that come with women playing soccer. I’m referring to South American mainly. There’s trying to break that ground. We want our children to be involved in sports because that will make them better people. It’s resources, it’s cultural thinking. And luckily it’s moving in the right direction. More women are starting to play sports and be celebrated for their successes.
Q: What are your future roles/goals as a player – are you thinking about doing development work in Colombia?
I’m really passionate about the mental part of soccer, the sports psychology of it. I want to focus on making women more confident. I see how soccer has impacted my own life. Even if a girl doesn’t become an elite college player, doesn’t play for the national team, soccer provides for her an experience in which she can learn about herself, where she can grow. That’s the side I want to focus on after I’m done playing. Focusing on getting more women into athletics. Getting them into experiences where they can meet others that are like-minded, where they can work hard towards something, where they can learn how to fail and get back up. So that life perspective on soccer. I don’t know yet about how I would do that in Colombia, but I’d love to. I’d love to get into contact with people who are passionate about the same thing.
Q: How did you go from playing to wanting to pursue a career in broadcasting?
Similar to how I fell into the lap of soccer, I fell into the lap of broadcasting. I was originally a Political Science major. I’m very interested in Law and Government (taking the LSAT in June). I also did a lot of public and motivational speaking as a way to make money and get experience. In 2014, my assistant coach, Chris Watkins, was also the head coach of the men’s team at BYU, and their color commentator dropped out at the last minute. Chris knew I play on the soccer team and do public speaking, so he asked me to substitute one game. And I loved it! I loved analyzing the game and break it down. That opportunity opened my eyes and showed me maybe I could do similar activities as political science but in a broadcast environment. I got involved in the tv broadcast program at BYU. BYU has its own channel, broadcasting building and system. They broadcast to the entire world. I was able to jump onboard. I’m grateful that there were people who, amid my inexperience, were willing to give me a chance to continue calling on the men’s soccer games, who let me report on them. Simple things like the post-game recaps or the halftime show. I’m really grateful that those with BYU and the coaching staff were patient with me when I made mistakes.
From there, a similar thing happened where the Real Monarchs needed a color commentator. And so I sent the broadcasting director an e-mail with my resume and all the BYU Men’s season games I had worked on, saying please listen to this. Now I do the color commentating for the Real Monarchs.
Q: What are some challenges you face as a woman covering the men’s game?
I’m the first female commentator to call a men’s professional game in Utah. It hasn’t been directed towards being a girl. It’s more like, “well, how do you know?” After a game, we’ll have a post-game analysis where we talk about the formation, or a substitution and how did it all effect the game. And I’ll receive a tweet afterwards saying “well, how would you know that?” And my response has always been because I play and study soccer.
There’s another experience I’ll tell you about. I was at a conference in Portland representing BYU and a member of the Portland Timbers front office, who had learned about my broadcasting interests in soccer, and he was trying to help me, so I don’t speak ill of him at all, asked me if I’ve looked into calling the women’s league. I asked him afterwards if he ever needed help on the broadcasting team for the Timbers to keep me in mind. But I think he was trying to help me out.
It brings up that question: I wonder if it has to do with the fact that I’m a woman. I don’t want to accuse them of anything. It is something that reoccurs almost too often that makes you question and wonder, and it could be that I’m new to this still. That’s when you have to reflect back on yourself and say “I believe in myself and my abilities.” And sometimes you have use that confidence to get you through it.
And I’ve been blessed that there are a lot of people who show confidence in me. The Real Salt Lake franchise has shown a lot of confidence and trust in me. That’s something they’ve never brought up.
Q: What has it been like adjusting to calling USL games instead of college games?
It goes back to the idea of resources. There are a lot more resources for a USL team than at college teams. Another level is the outreach. I feel a lot more pressure calling a USL game because more people are going to be listening to it. It’s really cool. The RSL community is very tight which is awesome, but it means that the same fans who are watching RSL games are listening in to Real Monarchs games to see which players are moving up and where the future of the franchise is. The level of professionalism and preparation is different.
I’ll tell you a story. about my very first game at Rio Tinto calling on the Real Monarchs. It was a beautiful night and I was excited for my debut but minutes into the game, the Monarchs star player (Omar Holness, RSL’s top college draft pick that year) falls to the ground and was having a seizure. Obviously we were very concerned. SoBill Riley, who does RSL’s play-by-play,and I had to cover 20 minutes of just dead air while they tended to him. It’s difficult because usually when you have dead air, you talk about the game, but you want to be respectful that one of the players is suffering right now, and be mindful that it is hard for him and his teammates. So it was baptism by fire and this is my debut so I can’t mess up. That was a great learning experience for me in that I learned I can think on the fly and if you prepare and bring focus, you can call games. That sort of pressure helped make me a better journalist because it gave me the confidence and a reminder that I can perform under pressure. That’s something I had not experienced covering college soccer games.
Q: Wow, what did you talk about to get through all that dead air and how did you manage it?
I closed my eyes at the commercial break and asked myself what have I been through that was similar that I can draw on. I’ve had teammates get injured before and I’ve been injured before. So we talked about how players respond to it, once your teammate is carried off in an ambulance. Psychologically that’s hard for you as a teammate. How does a team bounce back? And then we were able to highlight the player. It was cool to talk about how the fans interact with Omar. It was something I could relate to. Talking about how he would react to situations like this and how much his teammates love him. I think we can learn from the pressure. It’s good for you.
Q: For those of us thinking of a career in broadcasting, how much time is involved, in your experience?
A: It depends. But as long as you put an hour or two into it every day then you don’t fall behind. At the beginning of the season you’re putting in a lot more work, it’s equivalent to that of a full-time job: new players, new team, new formation, new goals, new injuries. The key afterwards is just to maintain. Go to the practices. Talk to the coach frequently – “what are your thoughts, how are you feeling, who is performing and at what position?” Frequently be talking and texting with the coaches. Prior to game time, it’s a review. It’s almost like studying for a test. Remind yourself: “this player comes from what university, what rewards/accolades has he won, what have been his thoughts on the season thus far.” Especially as a color commentator, it’s just adding that extra bit of color, flare or style. It makes all the difference.
Q: I’m reeling from the thought of all you do. How are you balancing everything?
A: I don’t know how I do it half the time. I’m not an expert. This is so cheesy: What I like to do, is I carry a little booklet with me I remind myself every morning what are my priorities. I am very religious so I love to pray and I ask God what my priorities are. It helps me to recognize I have a family – I can’t stop being a daughter, a sister, a wife. I remind myself of that first. Okay, I’m still a student, I have to graduate. And then as I schedule my day, I remember those priorities, and things get done. I have to try to be diligent with my time. Right now my goal is to be better with my micro decisions. Like, if I’m on the bus, on my way to class, do I spend my time on Instagram or preparing for a game or studying so I don’t have to do it later. As I prioritize what’s most important, everything else seems to fall into place. The biggest problem I have is learning how to say no. I just have to learn that. Luckily I have my husband, my parents, my teammates, and they are all supportive of me and ask if they can help out in any way. I think it’s just remembering what your priorities are every morning. I think the ability to spend time towards something and recognize that if it takes a long time to achieve a goal determining whether it is really worth it, that sort of self reflection is really worthwhile.
* thank you to Carla’s husband for putting Carla and me in touch with each other.