Before beginning her second season as head women’s soccer coach at Colby, Tracey Leone had pressing business in New Zealand, which co-hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Leone spent much of this past summer scouting the World Cup competition for the New Zealand team, which she had served as an assistant coach before joining the Mules in April 2022. Impressed with Leone’s work with the players, the New Zealand team asked her back to help prepare for the international tournament.
She spent several days with the New Zealand players before the tournament began, then traveled across the country to watch other World Cup teams compete. New Zealand lost in the group stage—a disappointment for the host nation—but Leone cherished the experience.
“For me, at the point I am in my career to have that opportunity, I felt blessed, very lucky, and fortunate,” Leone said in an interview at her office in the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center. “It was exciting and exhausting, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience to really learn as a coach and grow, which you can only really do when you are immersed in it.”
Beyond her participation in the most recent World Cup, Leone has a notable history in international competition and is a pioneer in the sport’s growth in the United States. She was the first American to win a world championship as both a player (in 1991, the first year women competed in the World Cup) and as a coach (with the Under-19 team in 2002). She was also an assistant coach for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Athens.
She’s a decorated college player and coach, as well. A midfielder, she played college soccer at the University of North Carolina under Anson Dorrance—”arguably the world’s greatest coach,” she said—and helped lead the Tar Heels to national championships in 1986, when she scored the game-winning goal in the title game, and in 1987 and 1989. Among other honors as a player, she is recognized on the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Top 50 players of all time.
Over a long coaching career, she has worked as head coach or assistant at Creighton, Clemson, Arizona State, Harvard, and Northeastern. In 2018, Clemson inducted her into its Athletic Hall of Fame, reflecting her success in building the program from scratch and taking it to the NCAA tournament six times.
‘Why not us?’
Leone brings the totality of her experience to her position with the Colby women’s soccer team. She was hired to lead the rebuilding process for a program that has qualified for a NESCAC tournament three times in the past decade and once since 2018.
There are tangible signs the rebuilding process is working.
In its most recent NESCAC games, Colby women’s soccer has earned two ties and a win, including a thrilling last-minute 3-2 victory over Hamilton October 7 at Colby’s Mark R. Serdjenian 1973 Field.
“We’re rebuilding, and that takes a lot of work. It’s an enormous amount of work, and you really have to be willing to put that in,” Leone said. “But it’s paying off. This team is extremely capable. We’re competing, and we have grown and improved year to year. At the same time, the NESCAC is a challenging conference. But for me, that is motivating and encouraging. Why not us? Why not us?”
Indeed, why not Colby?
Leone decided to come to Colby because she had been away from coaching for a couple of years and missed the competition. Living in the Boston area, she conducted many clinics and private lessons and became familiar with the NESCAC conference. She appreciated that colleges in the conference placed a high priority on academics and encouraged athletes to pursue more than one sport and participate in activities outside of sports.
“I think that is healthy,” Leone said. “As I learned more about the NESCAC, I grew to really admire it from afar. And when the job opened up, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to get back into coaching.”
The Colby women’s soccer players are glad she did. They have been working on the details all season—better communication, smarter positioning, faster transitions, quicker execution. With the results beginning to translate into conference points, the players feel emboldened, confident, and committed to doing the work necessary to keep improving.
“Change is uncomfortable. Growth is uncomfortable,” said Maddie Fisher ’24. “Sometimes it’s not easy getting feedback that is difficult to hear, but it’s also necessary in order to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. And we all want this change so badly. We want to make the tournament at the end of the season, and we want to be winning games.”
Fisher was a member of the search committee that recommended Leone’s hiring two years ago. She wasn’t familiar with Leone until she became a candidate. She was impressed with Leone’s range of experience and her willingness to consider coaching women’s soccer at a small college like Colby.
“As a female and as a soccer player, I have always been tuned into the World Cup. It’s women’s soccer at the highest level. For her to still be a part of that is super cool, and the perspective she was able to give us coming into this season and talking about her experience this summer and what she was seeing—tactical things, different formations—was really insightful.”
On the field
During games, Leone paces the sidelines with a pen in her mouth and a notebook at her side. She is in near-constant motion and conversation. With sweeping gestures of her arms, she moves the players around the field like chess pieces.
“Go in and make a difference,” she says to one, who enters the game as a substitute.
She greets another coming off the field with a high-five.
She is friendly with the referees and on-field officials, but firm. “That was a foul on them,” she tells one after a missed call. “That was a foul!”
Mia Cromwell ’24 is grateful for her coach’s style and smarts. She thinks the team’s defense has improved this season, an evolution of their game that she attributes to Leone’s introduction of new schemes and the shape and structure of the backfield as it evolves over the course and pace of a game.
“Coming into college, I had a solid understanding of the way I can play and how to help my team perform the best, but she has expanded my knowledge and tact,” Cromwell said.
It goes both ways. Before one recent game, Cromwell suggested an adjustment to the game plan—an idea that Leone endorsed. “That’s a good idea,” the coach said to the player. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Cromwell appreciates Leone’s compassion, on field and off. “She has a willingness to push us while also having a high level of care for our team. She is a motivating leader, and she has a very big heart and a lot of empathy,” Cromwell said.
Noting the team’s recent success, Cromwell and her teammates are ready for the next step in their development. “Even when we do not play our best, we can come out with a point. And when we do play our best, watch out. It will be pretty scary to play against us. We have the ability to compete in this conference. We have the talent. We just need to execute.”
What she brings
Mike Wisecup, vice president and Harold Alfond Director of Athletics, said Colby gained more than a soccer coach in Leone. She brings experience competing at the highest levels in the NCAA and the national soccer program over many years, and her depth of knowledge benefits soccer, other sports, and the Athletics Department as a whole, he said. “To our coaches, she brings perspective and new ideas to share with them as peers. To our administrative staff, she brings expertise and professionalism that helps us do our work better,” Wisecup said. “It is important to hire coaches like her because athletics is always progressing. To push our programs to a higher level of competitive success, we need to bring in coaches who have had that success and know how to create it.”
He “couldn’t believe it” when Leone applied for the job. After speaking with her, he understood her interest in Colby.
“Colby presented something very different than the complexities of Division I recruiting, scholarships, and time demand, all of which she had proven success doing. Our balance of athletics and academics, the ability to build a tight-knit team of young women without anyone on scholarship, and being a coach and mentor to them off the field was what she was looking for,” Wisecup said.
She was also drawn by Colby’s academic standards, its investment in the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center, and its standing in a competitive conference.
“It wasn’t a hard sell at all,” Wisecup said.
He is most impressed with her “absolute passion for coaching. And she does it for the right reasons, to build her students into better teammates of character and integrity.”
Looking back, forward
Reflecting on her career, Leone said she does feel “a little like a pioneer” because of her involvement with the women’s World Cup team in 1991. There was no women’s soccer at the Olympics then and there were no professional leagues. After college, women had few options if they wanted to stay in the game other than coaching.
The World Cup changed that, albeit slowly. When Leone played for her country, the players did not get paid other than a $10 daily expense allowance, which Leone sent home so she could keep up with her car payment. She was working as a substitute teacher in Texas at the time of the tournament. There were no endorsement deals, and the players did not become known outside of soccer circles.
Back then, even the rules of the game were different for women, with shorter games and lighter balls. “There was still a bit of a myth that females could not do the same as males, in terms of the lengths of the half and weight of the ball,” Leone said. “That was a little bit shocking, but we just wanted to play for our country. That was it. There were no ulterior motives.”
These days, Leone’s sole motive is getting Colby back to the NESCAC tournament. Next summer, there might be another international tournament in her future. She has an offer to rejoin the New Zealand team for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
It’s an enticing prospect, but first things first. Colby has games to win. She’ll decide on the Olympics after Colby concludes its season.
“I’ll take a break after the season so I can decompress and then make up my mind. But I didn’t want to say no and regret it,” she said. “The opportunity to coach in the Olympics does not come to many people, especially late in your career.”
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