Five things to know about the U.S. deaf women's national team

Former U.S. national team member and NWSL star Lauren Holiday (back row, gray jacket) visits with the U.S. deaf women's national team during a recent training session with FC Kansas City. Courtesy of Alika Jenner

For the second consecutive summer, a U.S. women's national team is out to win the World Cup.

But as Hope Solo debates the dangers of the Zika virus in Rio and Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe continue to rehab their injured knees, players you might not be familiar with are heading to Italy this week to compete in the 2016 World Football Championship.

Also known as the Deaf World Cup, the event comes around every four years, and the U.S. deaf women's national team (USDWNT) is the defending champion.

Leading the way are two names you might have heard of: head coach Amy Griffin and assistant Joy Fawcett. Both former U.S. national team players were on the 1991 Women's World Cup championship team, and Fawcett also was part of the program's 1999 World Cup win and 1996 Olympic gold-medal team.

Griffin, who is the associate head coach of the women's soccer team at the University of Washington, where she mentored Solo, is also the same coach who has spearheaded the investigations into the health risks related to playing on synthetic turf fields.

Griffin had just finished screening the numbers onto the players' jerseys -- yes, the coaches and players do everything to make this team work, including paying their own way -- when espnW got her on the phone earlier this week, only days before the USDWNT was scheduled to head to Italy.

Griffin passionately dove in to the conversation, eager to educate others about her team and the deaf community, gather support for the program and break down stereotypes.

Here are five things you need to know about the USDWNT, which has won the past three Deaflympics (2005, '09, '13):

How are things different on the field?

The first thing Griffin discovered when she was named coach of the USDWNT in September 2015 is that no two players have had the same experience growing up deaf. Some have implants and wear hearing aids. Some read lips. Some use American Sign Language (ASL) -- and some have never learned how to sign.

"There's a stigma about sign language, that if you learn how to sign first, you won't ever learn how to speak," Griffin said.

"What they need even more [than funding] -- and what they've received -- is respect. To have so many people reaching out and noticing them has been more valuable than any donation." Amy Griffin

So what has worked for one family might not for another, and according to Griffin, the deaf culture is divided on how it should communicate.

But the rules are universal in the deaf world championship: Players must remove all hearing implants and hearing aids before they board the bus for the field.

So how does that impact the game? Communication on the field between players and between coach and players can be a challenge and frustrating, said Griffin, who is learning ASL.

The USDWNT ends up relying on man-on-man marking all over the field, an exhausting way to play. It's a tactical aspect of the game Griffin hopes to improve for the team, but it takes time to learn -- which is compounded by the fact the team has only trained together eight days this year.

"If any coach had them for a couple weeks at a time, we could teach them how to look over your shoulder," Griffin said. "What they don't see, you can't fix."

And even "getting a quick sub in isn't easy."

"Never underestimate the power of communication," Griffin said.

The team does have an interpreter, but even that has its challenges. Soccer-centric phrases that are second nature on the pitch have to be translated literally.

"You can sign literal words for 'push up' or 'condense space,'" Griffin said. "But it's nothing like what you're doing on the soccer field."

Next summer, Griffin says she is planning to holding a camp so the team has even more time to train together.

"I'm super excited about the World Cup, but I would love more training," she said. "I love to teach."

Who are the players?

Meghan Maiwald, 26, is a student-assistant coach at Gallaudet University. She's also the USDWNT's goalkeeper and captain, and is looking to add a third title after being a part of the team's gold-medal performance at the 2013 Deaflympics and World Cup championship in 2012.

"The USDWNT is one of a kind, and there are no other U.S. national teams in any sport like us," Maiwald said in an interview produced for the team's Twitter account. "We are diverse in every possible way you can think of."

"Not only are we juggling our careers, education and raising families -- we do everything ourselves. This includes fundraising, training, managing social media accounts, networking, screening and selling T-shirts."

Nineteen players made the roster for Italy; they range in age from 15 to 28 and live throughout the United States. Some are high schoolers about to debut in their first international tournament.

And then there's Liza Offreda. At 28, she's a 10-year veteran of the USDWNT with three major championships already in hand. But she also is looking forward to beginning her third season as the head women's soccer coach and athletics/Title IX coordinator at Gallaudet in the fall, and has said she will retire after the World Cup.

Griffin said some key players have already stepped away from the team, whether to pursue careers or start a family, or because of the financial demands. That meant bringing in new players, some of whom have only been playing 11 vs. 11 for a couple years.

"A big portion of really key players already own Deaflymics or Deaf World Cup titles," Griffin said. "They cannot just feel great about saying, 'Here's another $6,000 out of my future plans.'

"I mean, on their return flight [from the Deaflympics], they had to pay taxes on their medals."

Fully self-funded

Lack of funding obviously isn't new to women's soccer. In October 2014, Trinidad & Tobago arrived in the United States for CONCACAF qualifying for the 2015 Women's World Cup with just $500 and no equipment or transportation lined up. And Griffin is quick to point out that the U.S. deaf men's national team isn't funded, either.

But this month's World Cup field fell from eight to six teams when China and Germany both dropped out, which Griffin said forced tournament organizers to change to a round-robin format.

According to Griffin, the Russian deaf national team is fully funded, and Poland has reportedly trained 10 days every month for a year.

"And we heard that if Turkey wins the World Cup, their government would buy the players homes," said Griffin, adding with a laugh: "So if we don't win, we know who we're rooting for."

Nearly two years ago, the USDWNT started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for the Deaf World Cup and upcoming Deaflympics. Through Wednesday, the team had raised slightly more than $19,000 toward its goal of $100,000.

Recently, with the trip to Italy fast approaching, several U.S. women's national team members, including Solo, have tweeted out support for the fundraising campaign.

The team also sells merchandise such as t-shirts and pullovers on Etsy. The account, Griffin said, is operated by one of the players, and another teammate's debit card is attached to the account. The players, coaches and training staff are responsible for printing the shirts and mailing them out. Thankfully, Griffin said, Select Sport America donated the team's training gear and jerseys. But again, Griffin was the one who printed the numbers on the jerseys.

"The joke is that the team was so poor, that at one event even the interpreter was deaf," Griffin said. "She was a player on the team, and had to take out her hearing aids before games."

Expect the unexpected

Griffin has traveled the world for soccer and has been coaching for more than 25 years. But traveling with the USDWNT still brought some eye-opening experiences.

The camaraderie that comes with staying together in a hotel is a huge plus, especially for a group of players who rarely see each other.

"They're ready for practice hours early, in front of my hotel door with their gear on. That's how much fun they have just being together." Amy Griffin

"To see the joy in their faces when they come out and are all together, that's the best thing. There are very few places where they can find this environment," Griffin said. "They're ready for practice hours early, in front of my hotel door with their gear on. That's how much fun they have just being together."

But there are things the hearing take for granted.

"I can't tell you how many times I've walked down the hallway to get to my hotel room, and one of players is leaning against her hotel room door," Griffin recounted. "Her roommate is in there, but can't hear her knocking outside."

And if something like a gate change is announced over the loudspeaker at the airport, Griffin texts the change to her players.

"They just roll with it," Griffin said.

The coach must also be careful when assigning roommates on trips.

"Most coaches want to work on team chemistry, but if you have a 15-year-old who signs only," Griffin said, "you want to make sure they are with someone who also signs, so they feel more comfortable."

Don't hesitate to say hello

Yes, communication might take more time and effort. But Griffin said her players welcome the conversation.

FC Kansas City recently shared a training session with the USDWNT, and afterward, former NWSL star and U.S. national team veteran Lauren Holiday asked Griffin if it was OK for her to approach the USDWNT.

"Just come up to us and try," Griffin said, "don't ignore us."

The FC Kansas City players -- including World Cup champions Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O'Reilly, who later penned a blog about why they support Griffin's team -- really embraced the USDWNT and shared photos on Twitter. Griffin said it was heart-warming to see the effect it had on her players.

"I thought what they needed more than anything was funding," Griffin said. "What they need even more -- and what they've received -- is respect. To have so many people reaching out and noticing them has been more valuable than any donation than we can ever get."