The growing exodus of U.S.-based players to Europe just added another name to the pile. Toni Payne is headed to Amsterdam.
Late last week, Payne finalized a deal with Dutch giant Ajax to join the club in May upon the completion of her senior year at Duke. Payne just wrapped one of the most prolific attacking careers in Duke history, finishing with 23 goals and 21 assists in 86 starts. Payne, who was called into a U.S. U23 WNT camp as recently as January, was drafted with the No. 13 overall pick in January’s NWSL draft by FC Kansas City but spurned the league for a possible crack at Champions League soccer. Ajax didn’t qualify this season but currently leads the women’s Eredivisie by nine points.
Payne’s January was a rollercoaster. After being called into U23 WNT camp, Payne held up an FCKC scarf at the NWSL Draft in Los Angeles and then flew to Amsterdam for a week-long trial at Ajax. The club took her on a tour of the famed facilities at De Toekomst, which the women share with the men. It’s largely considered one of the top talent production factories in the world and underpins the joint men’s and women’s venture at Ajax. She also witnessed team trainings and watched the team run through a competitive match.
Payne came away impressed with the scope of the club. Even with an opportunity at FC Kansas City staring her down, she was convinced after the trial Ajax wasn’t an opportunity she could afford to turn aside.
“For me I’d say the environment of it all and the perceived passion of the community and the love for the game (swayed me),” Payne told TopDrawerSoccer. “And also a different sense of professionalism just depending on what club you’re with. I think just being able to have the opportunities like, for me and I would assume most women watch European men’s leagues, and to be able to play at that type of level for a woman I think is a really good opportunity and really cool, and something I think I’ve wanted to do since I was a little girl.”
Payne will now get her shot.
Ajax’s women’s team doesn’t have quite the global reputation of women's powerhouses like a Lyon or a Wolfsburg, but it’s been on a steady track of improvement since its foundation in 2012. Ajax climbed to its best ever Eredivisie finish last year in second place, but only the top team in the league goes to Champions League qualifying, so the club missed out on the competition narrowly. The story’s different this year, as Ajax went unbeaten in its first 18 matches of the 2016-17 season and leads FC Twente by nine points with just four games left in the season. Payne’s chances of playing Champions League soccer in 2017-18 are quite good.
In the last year specifically, the NWSL has had trouble hanging onto a few key college grads who’ve chosen Europe over the league in larger numbers than ever. Potential 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Kadeisha Buchanan shook the league when she announced she’d signed with Lyon in lieu of even entering the draft. While the vast majority of the 2017 class will stick with their NWSL teams, it’s no longer a foregone conclusion the league will be able to keep its future stars.
Payne specifically felt the draw of Ajax’s prodigious resources provided by its coupling with the men’s team. That’s an enormous draw for a number of top players, who have a readymade professional infrastructure standalone NWSL clubs simply can’t match.
“For a club like Chelsea or Liverpool or Arsenal, Man City, we’re employees of the club,” said Chelsea ladies coach Emma Hayes. “It’s about paying fairly for a renumeration for that service. Obviously with not having a minimum wage (in the NWSL), that makes it challenging and that’s why players can be on very, very minimum contracts. But it’s not just that. We give our players full medical coverage. We give them accommodation. We have welfare offices to help them settle into areas. The support mechanisms and the professionalism, because we’ve got a parent club that can support us with those experiences. They are what the differences are.
"If you’re a smaller club like the Washington Spirit, you don’t have that parent foundation, whereas at Chelsea it’s pretty easy for us to say, we’re having a player coming from overseas, and they’re like, well we do this every couple of weeks and these are the things that need to be in place in order for that player to settle.”
Payne felt that pull at Ajax as well.
“I think you can mostly see a sense of more professionalism when it’s paired with the men’s teams,” said Payne, who added that she's undecided on whether to represent the U.S. or Nigeria internationally. “Unfortunately that’s the case, but I think in terms of being more financially stable in terms of a club, it definitely helps.”
For now, Payne is wrapping up her final year at Duke in order to graduate before joining Ajax in time for the 2017-18 preseason in May. She’ll train with her former Duke teammates in North Carolina in the interim and prepare for the switch to a brand new culture, club and city. And as for her prospects at playing time next season, the versatile attacking player is bullish. Once she settles in, of course.
“I think it’s definitely going to be challenging in its own ways,” Payne said. “There are definitely going to be some nerves. But when I visited I had a more than amazing experience. Being the only American international (at Ajax) I don’t think that it will be as difficult a transition as it would be if I was playing somewhere else. A lot of people in Amsterdam speak English and a lot of the team speaks English, so communication isn’t going to be too big of an issue. But it’s just going to have to be me adjusting and just getting a feel for where I’m going to fit, not only on the team but also in the Netherlands as well.”