SPOKANE, Wash. -- At local parks in Fairfax, Virginia, Haley Roberson endured her own form of boot camp.
Years before she joined the Army, her mother, Cassandra, put her through soccer hell on grassy fields every day after school.
For three to four hours day, Haley practiced her juggling and passing under the Virginia sun. When she’d make a mistake or couldn’t complete a set, Cassandra would have her daughter doing pushups or running laps. She also had Haley watch video of the game.
Ironically her father, Rodney, a former Marine Corps drill sergeant didn’t put the fear in his daughter, --mom did. “She hated me because I was hard on her,” said Cassandra, a former personal trainer. “But I needed her to succeed.”
In 2007 when a soccer coach in Virginia had ranked her daughter Haley last among a group of 21 girls in technical and tactical skills, Cassandra took it personal.
Young Haley always had blazing speed. She could outrun every girl on her co-ed team and outkick the boys, but lacked the refined passing and dribbling skills to excel.
Haley, an Army chemicals officer stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, recently led the U.S. Armed Forces Women’s Soccer team as one of the top goal scorers at the 2022 Military Women’s World Cup. Her play combined with Army Capt. Kailey Utley helped propel the Americans into medal contention in the Conseil International du Sport Militaire [CISM] World Military Women’s Soccer Championship and the best U.S. finish since 2004.
Back in 2006 and 2007, her mother wouldn’t quit. Although Cassandra had never scored a single goal or juggled a soccer ball in her life, she likened the game to basketball which she had grown up playing in Georgia and modeled her training after basketball drills.
Cassandra had seen soccer as a pleasant escape for Haley as a child. On soccer fields and recreational gyms in Okinawa, Haley would play the game with other kids her age, giggling gleefully. Her mother saw the game as a more affordable form of daycare and a way to keep her only child in shape at an early age.
However, somewhere after the family moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina Haley joined a co-ed soccer team, and realized that she could kick harder and run faster than many of the boys.
“I just fell in love with the sport and kind of just kept growing,” said Roberson. “Each year I found myself getting deeper involved in it.”
Roberson began playing for regional and state teams and had dedicated her weekends and most afternoons to training for soccer. Those three hard years training with her mother helped Roberson earn an invite to the USA Soccer U15 National Talent Identification Camp in Ponoma, Calif. playing with several future professional players.
That tough love from her mother helped make Haley one of the nation's Top 100 soccer prospects.
“There were times I didn’t want to do it,” Haley said of her training sessions with her mother. “But by the time I was 15, 16 I saw the difference in how I was developing.”
Roberson competed both for her club team, VSA Heat Blue, earning regional and national championships and her high school team, Robinson Secondary School.
Blazing her own trail
Cassandra urged her daughter to continue her soccer career by attending college in the South, where friends and family could watch her compete. Cassandra said she and other young girls didn’t have the opportunity to play the game growing up in Alabama. She wanted her daughter to show friends and family a young, African-American girl who excelled in a white-dominated sport.
Haley said she idolized another Black soccer player, U.S. National Team member Crystal Dunn, who has played nearly every position on the field except goalkeeper. Dunn also became the youngest ever National Women’s Soccer League MVP.
“It was nice to see someone that not only looked like me, but kind of played similar to me,” she said. “And had the experience of being played around different positions as well.”
Haley's abilities drew the attention of several of the nation’s top programs, before she finally selected Auburn University. It had only been one season when Haley had to leave the program and eventually the university when she and some of her teammates didn’t have the right team chemistry. Roberson had always flashed potential as a scorer and Auburn wanted to position her up front but at the time, Roberson refused.
Instead she transferred to Troy University where she found her niche, directing the Trojans’ defense in the backline. But she never saw herself as a leader or someone who teammates could count on. She shunned leadership, preferring instead to contribute quietly in the background.
“I always struggled with the spotlight,” she said. “I was always a good player but I was not prepared or wanted to take on the role or responsibility of that.”
After graduating from Troy with a broadcast journalism degree and master’s degree in 2017, Haley competed in a Swedish professional league she decided she wanted to do something more and looked into joining the U.S. military, eventually deciding on the Army. Haley played for a semi-pro soccer team in Pensacola, Florida when she filed her paperwork to join the Army as an officer.
“[Joining the military] was always something that was kind of in the back of my head and was never forced, I just was so busy playing soccer,” Roberson said.
Being a platoon leader at Joint Base Lewis -McChord changed Roberson in ways she couldn’t have imagined. For the first time, she had junior Soldiers looking to her for advice. She did her best to solve problems and encourage her troops to take college courses.
That experience helped Roberson, now a first lieutenant, achieve a new level of maturity.
During a Team USA training camp she returned to playing outside back but U.S. coach Derrick Weyand experimented with her at center forward.
But after a grueling three weeks at Fairchild Air Force Base, Weyand moved her permanently an offensive leadership role. For the first time in her career aside from a brief stint in high school, Roberson played on the front line.
“I had to learn to play a position that was different than I’d ever played before,” Roberson said of playing forward. “So I had to get over myself and I had to have that confidence in myself.”
The move resulted in Roberson’s first career hat trick at any level, when she poured in three goals in the tournament-opening 10-0 over Belgium.
The hat trick proved to be a revelation for Roberson, who had only scored two goals during her entire college career.
Roberson’s six goals during the 5-game tournament rank second only to Cameroon’s Ebika Tabe. “She knew the team depended on her and she carried [the responsibility] on her back,” Cassandra said.
Roberson drew so much defensive attention in the Americans’ 2-1 loss to Cameroon that the Cameroonians had to double Roberson after she headed in the lone score of the game for the U.S.
After defeating Germany 2-1 to remain in medal contention, the Americans’ 2022 CISM run ended with a 3-0 loss to South Korea in the bronze medal game. Roberson had opportunities to get on the board, most notably when her close shot hit the upper crossbar seconds into the match.
Still, the U.S. became a CISM contender again in Spokane with a new influx of talent.
“As a team, the [goal] was to get better every day and I think we showed that,” Roberson said. “The exposure for the team is increasing and with exposure comes more talent.”