In a span of 90 days in 2013, Jenna Peterson’s dream of playing professional soccer both came true and ended.
After three months, the 2008 Decatur graduate walked away from her career with the Seattle Sounders Women after she discovered it wasn’t what she hoped it would be.
Struggling for the next two and half years in search of a passion and a purpose, Peterson found herself talking to a soccer coach in town on a recruiting trip while waiting tables. After a brief conversation, he recommended Peterson give coaching a try. She went home that night and reached out to her former club soccer coach, Federal Way FC’s James Cecil.
Now, just a year after that conversation at her work with a coach she didn’t know, Peterson is wrapping up her first season as the coach of Federal Way FC’s 9- and 12-year-old girls and 15-year-old boys.
For Peterson, coaching youth soccer has renewed her purpose and passion for soccer, a feeling she thought was long gone.
“Sometimes when you set expectations for things, they can let you down or set you up for failure because if it doesn’t live up to that, you’re thinking that you didn’t succeed at it,” Peterson said. “I might not be playing anymore, but I’m making a difference in the game I love. That, to me, is success.”
After graduating from Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, in 2012, Peterson moved back home to Federal Way.
While at Concordia, Peterson was a four-year starter at center back, where she was a part of four conference championships, four national tournament appearances and two national finals appearances.
But the three-time All-American, National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-Tournament Team member and two-time team captain whose teams went a combined 80-8-5 with her on the pitch, moved home without a plan.
The following summer, one of Peterson’s high school club coaches reached out. He happened to be associated with the Seattle Sounders Academy program. Through his connections, he got Peterson a tryout with the Seattle Sounders Women of the United Soccer League’s Women’s League.
“I had no idea what to do without soccer,” Peterson said. “I never had the kid dream of being a pro soccer player. That was never a thought in my head. But after Concordia, I saw how much I improved, and I felt I hadn’t hit the pinnacle of my playing career. I wanted to keep going.”
So, Peterson accepted a deal with the Sounders.
Initially, Peterson described her Sounders experience as a good one but admitted it wasn’t what she’d expected.
“It was so different,” Peterson said. “Yes, you had the soccer stuff, but you had things in between like appearances. You had consistent weight lifting throughout the week you had to do and other team-related obligations.”
That balance and new routine wasn’t the hard part, though.
Peterson was hit with the toughest reality of all: Women soccer players don’t make good money.
She and a majority of her teammates had to work regular nine-to-five jobs on top of their Sounders careers.
Peterson faced the harsh truth that women’s soccer wouldn’t support her financially. Money wasn’t the only obstacle, though. Peterson was exposed to what she referred to as the “political side” of the sport.
During her career there, Peterson said she witnessed players being treated differently based on their prior playing backgrounds, among other factors, and not their technical ability.
Having never experienced this sort of structure at either Decatur or Concordia, Peterson didn’t know how to handle this side of women’s professional soccer.
“It was cool to see the way that environment functioned,” Peterson said. “At the same time, I wasn’t good at playing the political game. It was a change in expectations and the way things were handled. It was just something I wasn’t used to or was entirely fond of.”
Peterson decided it was time to walk away. Despite such a hard decision, she said walking away was the right thing to do.
Her goals were changing. As time went on, the Sounders became smaller in that picture.
Peterson was ready to settle down. She wanted a life with her boyfriend, Martin Martinez, who is now her husband. She wanted to travel and start a family. All of those things proved challenging during her Sounders career.
“Walking away from playing when it was the right timing for me was important, and I think I got that, so it was OK,” Peterson said.
The months following her departure were difficult for Peterson.
During that time, Peterson said she grieved her decision. Martinez called it “the dark ages.”
Peterson was yet again lost without soccer as it had consumed most of her life to that point.
“To realize that you were just done, no going back, was just the hardest transition I’ve ever had,” Peterson said.
She continued working at her Sounders side job, a waitress position at Salty’s at Redondo.
In hopes of easing the grieving process, Peterson hit the gym – a lot. She also worked long hours at the restaurant and socked away money, which allowed her and Martinez to travel Europe multiple times.
It wasn’t until she was two years out of professional soccer and still at Salty’s that Peterson realized she needed something far better for herself.
“I had that moment where I knew I didn’t want to work at a restaurant my whole life,” Peterson said. “I wanted something, just didn’t know what.”
Not too long after the thought, Peterson happened to serve a soccer coach from Alabama, who was in town on a recruiting trip. Something about Peterson’s demeanor said soccer player to him.
“What position did you play?” he asked Peterson as she approached his table.
For the next several minutes the two talked about the game and her experience. Before moving to her other tables, he asked if she’d ever considered coaching.
At the time, Peterson didn’t think much of it. Once she left work that evening, however, it was all she thought about.
So, Peterson went home and reached out to Cecil.
“We ended up communicating on Facebook and over the phone over the course of three weeks,” Cecil said. “She really didn’t know what to expect, which is natural for any coach in the beginning. She was just looking for a mentor. I took her under my wing, and she’s been a great student.”
After observing and then assisting Cecil’s teams, Peterson was hooked. Cecil told her if she wanted to coach, she first had to obtain her coaching license.
As she had her whole soccer career, Peterson went full tilt. Not only did she obtain a coaching license after six months, she secured her United States Soccer Federation National E and F licenses, which qualify her to coach anywhere, at any level, on a full-time basis.
As a reward, Cecil and Federal Way FC Coaching Director Fawzi Belal gave Peterson three teams of her own.
“The biggest, most important thing you have to do as a coach is want to and be willing to invest in those kids,” Cecil said. “And I knew from that first conversation, that was something she was going to be great at.”
Peterson was a highly decorated high school and college player. She spent the year attempting to prove she could translate the on-field success to coaching.
The fruit of her labor is in her 12-year-old girls. When the season started, they looked to Peterson for every aspect of direction. Now, nearing the conclusion of the season, the girls have started training sessions on their own and seek Peterson’s direction less and less.
Peterson and her team’s growth couldn’t have come at a better time. She and her husband are expecting their first child, due Aug. 7.
Peterson’s dream of playing professional soccer may have ended sooner than she’d hoped. But if it hadn’t, she may never have discovered her true calling of coaching.
“It’s perfect for what I want out of life, and what I want to do,” Peterson said. “I feel like I’ve been so blessed with my experience in everything I’ve gotten to do. It’s only right that I pay it back. Coaching these kids is not my job — it’s my calling.”