Wilmington’s Emily Dolan isn’t watching the Women’s World Cup the same way millions of Americans have so far as the U.S. looks to repeat as champions.
While it’s easy to see the skills of players like the United States’ Megan Rapinoe, Brazil’s Marta, and Canada’s Christine Sinclair, Dolan has a very unique perspective: She’s been on the same field as many of the top players in the world.
(PODCAST | Sean Greene speaks with Emily Dolan about her professional career in Europe)
“A lot of them are my friends. I have friends on Sweden, Chile, and the Netherlands. I’ve played against a ton of players from the French National Team because many of them play on Olympic Leon because that’s the team that knocked my team out of the Champions League. It’s already an amazing competition from a purely global standpoint. It’s an event that’s unmatched. But it’s more personal for me, this is the first World Cup where I’m seeing people that I recognize, and that’s really bizarre, but also really cool.”
Dolan has had that opportunity after wrapping up her third year playing goalkeeper in Europe, including this season for Real Betis Féminas of Spain’s Liga Iberdrola, the top flight equivalent to the men’s La Liga.
Emily’s pathway to Seville hasn’t been a straight line.
After being named Delaware’s 2012 Goalkeeper of the Year at Wilmington Charter, Dolan took her goalie gloves to Florida Gulf Coast University, where she served primarily as a backup for three seasons.
Despite that, and some time playing semi-pro soccer for the Lancaster Inferno, Dolan still had a soccer scratch she needed to itch.
“After graduation I decided I wanted to see if I could break into the professional scene, just give it a shot. I didn’t have any connections, or any idea what I was doing. I put a highlight film together, went on-line, and found literally the e-mail address of every team I could possibly find in Europe and just flooded my stuff out. I was fortunate to get a response from a team in Italy playing in Serie A (Top Flight).
That team was Unione Sportiva Dilettantistica San Zaccaria in Ravenna, and it was a classic case of opportunity knocking for Dolan, which came when she was working as a summer lifeguard back in Delaware.
“It happened very quickly. I sent them an e-mail, and I think I got a response 2-3 days later. They had a goalkeeper who had a drug testing problem, and they needed someone in a very quick turnaround. Their e-mail was ‘we need a goalkeeper; can you be here in 2-3 days for a trial.’ I got that while I was work, so I responded I couldn’t be there in 2 days, I’d need about a week. I spent a week or so on trial, and then at the end of that, they sat me down, asked me to stay, giving me a contract. At the time I didn’t have many other options, to be frank, so it was a pretty easy decision to stay, and I’m grateful for it. The Italian league was a really, really good opportunity to have fall in my lap.”
A great opportunity, indeed, but Emily said she couldn’t know it was going to be that successful, which led to a few problems.
“I had no idea what to bring. I really didn’t bring very much at all. I thought there was a chance I was going to stay, so I brought more than what was needed for a week and a half, but after I made the team, it was a little bit of creativity to stretch clothes for a long period of time. I didn’t have a washer for the first 2 months I was there because it was such short notice. They put me up in an apartment above a bank. The clothes I did have with me got completely wrecked. I washed them in the sink and put them on the roof to dry, so the little clothes I did have didn’t last, but I did have to come home at some point to finish my visa process, so I was able to grab more stuff.
Her problems just weren’t with wardrobe, there was the matter of simple communication in a place she’d never been before.
“It was a completely new experience. I had never left the country before going to Italy. There was definitely a culture shock, there was definitely a language barrier. I was fortunate there was a girl from Ireland, and a girl from Mexico who spoke English, Spanish, and Italian fluently, so I wasn’t completely isolated.
“A little bit of survival instinct kicks in. You end up learning languages a lot quicker than you thought you would. You find out there are a lot of good, very kind people, all over the world. I’ve been helped out so many times, in so many countries.”
After the 2016-17 season ended in Italy, Dolan said she wasn’t completely comfortable with the fit at USD San Zaccaria and was looking for a more stable situation.
She basically replicated her search from the previous summer, but this time having a resume line of having played in the Italian League, more nibbles came on her line, including Poland’s KKPK Medyk Konin, a squad that had qualified to play in the UEFA Women’s Championship League, the most prestigious club tournament in Europe. She said the combination of the team quality and the intracontinental platform where tough to pass up.
“That would not only be good exposure for me as a professional to be seen at that level of competitive football, but also from the life standpoint for the opportunity to play and see that level of competition. I’d see players who go with their national teams and play in the World Cup, that was exciting for me.”
She would shine in her qualifying group in the 2017 Champions League, pitching a shutout and allowing just 2 other goals as they went 2-0-1 to advance out of group play and into the knockout round.
Their Round of 32 draw was a tough one, as they were paired with eventual champion Olympic Leon.
After a 5-0 loss to start the home-and-home in Poland, the second leg was to be played at Lyon’s Par Olympique Lyonnais, a 59,186-seat stadium that is serving as one of the host venues for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. While only 4,822 fans filled those seats for the Champions League match, Dolan said the surroundings were nothing short of inspirational.
“It was really a turning point in my career. There were certainly feelings that this was getting really hard. I’m away from my family, I’m in countries where I know nobody, nobody speaks my language. I’m learning the languages as I go, but I can’t express myself freely. But stepping on a pitch like that, and seeing that stadium and the caliber of team in front of me, it really ignited my love of the sport I hadn’t felt in a very long time. It was the moment of ‘this is what I love to do.’ It’s been hard, but I’m not ready to let this go yet. I want to play against teams like this again, I want to play in stadiums like this again, I’m not ready to quit.”
Dolan’s squad would lose that match 9-0, and after the season, Dolan was again left with a decision to make in terms of her soccer future.
She was also dealing with the reality of two full seasons in Poland and Italy, away from her core in the U.S.
”It’s hard. My family is very important to me. They’re my best friends in the whole world, but I’m also very lucky that they’re all very supportive of what I’m doing. I talk to them almost every day when I’m over there. If I just need to be on the phone and tell them how much I miss them, they’re there for me, but they also don’t let me get caught up in that emotion. They know that I have a goal, and I’m working towards objectives. Being away from them in college was a baby step, but when you throw in the time zone differences, it’s a totally different animal.”
Dolan took another step towards her goal by signing with Real Betis.
The competition stepped up a level in a couple of ways.
First, Spain’s Liga Iberdrola is seen as one of the top leagues in Europe, and her teammate Erina Yamane has spent time with the Japanese National Team, including serving as a backup for the 2nd place squad at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Dolan got into 8 matches, and helped lead Real Betis Féminas to a 6th place finish, their best showing in the domestic league.
Her work was recently rewarded as she signed a 2-year contract to stay with the club, which she hopes is yet another step in what has been a remarkable journey to this point.
“I’m the type of player to put my head down and see what happens, but I want to keep pushing the envelope and see how far I can take this. At the end of the day, if I give everything that I have, and I hit a certain point and that’s as far as I can go, then I’ll be happy with that. But, I think I have a lot of growth to do in my career, and there’s more that I can do with my future in football.”
It all started with a series of cold e-mails, but Dolan said you have to have the right mindset to make it in women’s professional soccer.
“If you wake up in the morning and you’re already thinking about when you’re going to play next. That passion for football is so important. No matter where you are in your career: youth player, college, professional, it’s not only just ups, there are a lot of downs in this journey as well. If you don’t have that love and passion for football, it’s going to be really difficult. My first thing would be to foster that happiness and joy for the game, and truly love what you do, and then make the decision for yourself. Is this what you want to do, and what you want to pursue? Surround yourself with people who support you and that dream, because for all the ups and downs, I’d pick this 10 out of 10 times if I had to go back and decide again. The people that I’ve met, the experiences that I’d had, the places I’ve gotten to see, the languages that I’ve learned, it’s absolutely incredible, and I’m grateful every day that I get to wake up and do this. I’m also doing what I love, and I have people that support me, so I think that’s a very important thing for youth players to understand.”
Emily Dolan has certainly come a long way in a hurry from a summer lifeguard to a keeper in a league that produced over 40 players for this summer’s World Cup.