The cozy home life is the same.
Brian Cox still looks forward to his wife making flavorful meals like flank steak over a bed of lettuce with mangos and peppers. Conceding the television to watch baking shows with their two young daughters instead of college hoops. And balancing helping with schoolwork with busy work schedules.
It’s the gleam in his wife’s eyes that’s new.
Steph Cox, who helped the U.S. women’s national soccer team win gold in the 2008 Beijing Games, is entering her sixth season with the OL Reign. After returning from a 3½-year retirement in 2019, 2021 marks just the second season since 2015 where the defender plans to play.
“She’s a quiet, competitive person,” Brian said. “Knowing that she was going to play coming into this season, obviously I was excited for her and it was cool to see how excited she was for the upcoming season. She worked really hard to get her body in shape and get ready for this year. … I love watching her do what brings her joy and what fuels her passion and that’s definitely soccer.”
Wanting to spend time with family is part of the reason why Steph, 34, stopped playing professionally in 2015. She married in December 2007 after meeting the then-baseball star as athletes at the University of Portland.
The couple had a whirlwind start to their marriage, with Brian traveling to watch Steph in the FIFA women’s World Cup, Olympics, and two different professional women’s leagues matches. The years were also dotted with the birth of their daughters — Kaylee and Grace, who will turn 8- and 5-years-old in April.
Cox is a Reign original, signing with the club in 2013, but the club’s initial base being in Seattle and her home being in Gig Harbor was too much of a strain. The Reign relocated to Tacoma in 2019, making it possible for Cox to play her twilight professional years at Cheney Stadium, 15 minutes from her home.
“This year, I feel a lot more confident,” Cox said. “When I was younger, honestly, I kind of hated working out and I hated the offseason. It always seemed like such a long thing and when I wasn’t with the U.S. team, like, ‘Ugh, I have to train on my own for three months?’…During COVID last year, I realized I have all of these mom friends and they’re trying to work out and I realized, this is my job. … I have my coach sending me my workouts and I’m lucky I get to do this. It just became this outlet for me as a mom to prioritize myself and do this. Sometimes moms don’t prioritize themselves.”
During Cox’s retirement, she stayed involved in the sport by coaching high-school girls soccer, leading Gig Harbor to the 2018 Class 3A state tournament championship. She first rejoined the Reign as an assistant coach in 2019.
When the Reign suffered multiple injuries and absences as teammates were called up to compete in the World Cup — the U.S. winning the title — Cox was asked to play as a national team replacement player. She was signed to the full roster in July 2019.
“Coaching made me a much better player,” Cox said. “I see the game differently. And having a break from playing and retiring for those several years, stepping out on the field, I love it and don’t take it for granted. There’s a joy. That space from playing, I needed that to enjoy it more and play with freedom.”
The pandemic extended the 2020 offseason by about six months, but Cox returned to make eight starts in the Challenge Cup last summer in Utah, marking the National Women’s Soccer League’s first return to play. The NWSL then played a fall series where matches were regionalized. In total, Cox played 688 minutes — third highest on the team.
Overall, the Reign didn’t have a good showing in either event. In coach Farid Benstiti’s first season, the club dropped out of the Challenge Cup in the quarterfinals and was 1-2-1 in the fall series.
The NWSL will open its 2021 season with a Challenge Cup to be played in home markets beginning April 9. The 10-team league will play a 24-game regular season running May through October, not going on hiatus for the Tokyo Olympics. The NWSL championship will be played Nov. 20.
“Steph is a special player with a great mind for the game,” Benstiti said in a team release. “Her quality is tremendous and the leadership she brings is incredibly important for our club. Having her return was essential to our plans for this season.”
Cox teamed with Lu Barnes to create a formidable defense when she began her NWSL career in 2013. Under then-head coach Laura Harvey, the Reign won the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Supporters’ Shields for best regular-season record.
The veterans are mixing with some new, younger players to form the Reign’s defense this season. Cox likes the outlook, especially considering the work she put in during the offseason to be a contributor this year.
“It has been a winding road and not typical,” Cox said of her career. “I thought it was time to move on but I love the place where I’m at now, getting to look at things year by year, day by day and having the freedom to choose.”