On a picturesque Wednesday afternoon, sunny and 85 degrees on the shores of Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis, Ivana Thiesson held 16-month-old Maxwell Boxall in her arms.
“I missed you,” she told the toddler. “You’ve grown since I’ve seen you last.”
It had been only about a month, which can feel like a long time in the extended yet close-knit Minnesota United family. The chance meeting of the families at the playground along East Calhoun Parkway was a happy coincidence, even if dads Michael Boxall and Jerome Thiesson, both starting defenders for the Loons, had just seen each other about three hours before at practice.
The Thiessons are parents to 9½-month-old son Jago, while Michael and his girlfriend, Libby Matthews, have daughter Maxwell. While Jago still needed his dad’s help to teeter around in his black-and-white striped onesie, Maxwell often left her parents trailing after her and her bright yellow outfit, making friends with everyone from other kids on the playground to a passing dog to two women lounging in strung-up hammocks.
While many of United’s players with kids share similarities with new parent athletes in other pro sports, some face the extra challenge of raising them in a foreign country, far from their family support systems.
Making it work means drawing on team-provided support, the teammate bond their isolation fosters and even the occasional babysitter who is better equipped to make saves than change a diaper.
Matthews and Boxall are both from New Zealand. When Matthews was 7½ months pregnant, she moved to South Africa, where Boxall was playing at the time. They moved to Minnesota last summer when their daughter was 8 months old.
Jerome Thiesson joined the team in March 2017 from his native Switzerland. Ivana Thiesson followed him about a month later; she was 6 months pregnant.
“That was like the biggest problem to come here. It was probably the only one,” Jerome Thiesson said. “I was ready for something new. My wife was always fond of the USA and was very interested to make the move here, but there was the baby situation.
“And of course, America is a great place to … give birth, [like] how we know now. But back then, we didn’t know. We knew just Switzerland.”
United offers logistical help for expectant parents, through its athletic training staff, the club’s partnership with Allina Health and a staff member’s father being a doctor in the fertility field, said Angie Blaker, director of team operations. After the baby’s birth, the club can also help with things from processing the child’s passport to finding daycare.
Other barriers are more circumstantial. For Thiesson, it was dealing with coming back to the states for a month of preseason alone while his wife and baby stayed back in Switzerland. For Boxall and Matthews, it’s trying to sort out the immigration process. Boxall is on a work visa, but Matthews is on a visitor’s one that could run out within the year.
It helps that the Boxalls and Thiessons speak English. Last year, the wives of Costa Ricans Francisco Calvo and Johan Venegas both had babies during the season and spoke only Spanish. So the club tried to find medical staff who could converse with them.
“To be pregnant and that far along in your pregnancy and have to switch doctors and switch countries,” Blaker said, “I’m sure there’s a lot of concerns with that. For me, all I can try to do is try to help that ease. … Making sure they’re comfortable and happy, and if they’re not finding what it is they need, all I am is in support of, ‘OK, well, if that’s not working, let’s try to help.’
“If the families aren’t happy, there’s going to be stress at home, and then the players aren’t playing well.”
Wherever club support leaves off, the network of teammates becomes a valuable resource, from diapers in the locker of any soon-to-be dad to simple advice.
“Pretty much just bounce off conversations and just share the stuff you’re going through,” Boxall said. “No matter how bizarre or how disgusting the nappy was, they’re like, ‘Yep, everyone’s experienced that as well.’ ”
Some team connections go beyond commiseration. Miguel Ibarra is godfather to best friend Christian Ramirez’s 7-week-old daughter and lives just two floors below, which makes for easy check-ins. Harrison Heath, whose first child is due at the end of June, has his parents, including coach Adrian Heath, just a few minutes down the road in Wayzata.
“It’s a massive relief for my wife, especially for when I do go on away trips, and I’m not around, my mom will be … five minutes away,” said Harrison Heath, who played for Atlanta United before joining the Loons this season. “She can help out as much as, I think, my wife lets her because I know if it was my mom’s choice, she’d be living with us.”
Then there’s goalkeeper Alex Kapp, who stepped up late last season to babysit Maxwell Boxall so Mom and Dad could have their first post-baby date night. Michael Boxall said it didn’t take long for Kapp’s roommate — then-United player Sam Nicholson — to expose the keeper’s child-care skills, saying it was actually Nicholson’s girlfriend who did most of the caretaking.
“It was her first time away from Boxy and Libby, so she was crying,” Kapp explained. “The trust, I don’t think, is really there from my teammates for me with their kids. But I think they know I’m there. I’m pretty much one of the very few single guys on the team, so if anyone ever needs a night out, you know, get away from the kid, have a nice dinner, they know I’m there if they need me.”
Beyond the teammates, the fellow mothers are an invaluable connection, from sharing child-rearing questions to keeping each other company. Ivana Thiesson said just a few weeks ago, she texted Matthews, concerned about a rash her son had that might have been chickenpox.
“Of course, you can ask Mom, but it’s not the same when someone’s going to answer immediately and be there with you if you need someone,” she said. “And also when the guys are on away games, you’re three or four days alone with the baby, so it can be hard. … So it’s nice to have someone. You can hang out, the kids can play, and you two can just have coffee.”
If the Thiessons and Boxalls were back home near friends and families, raising their first kids would certainly be easier. But being so far away brings them closer, to each other as well as within their nuclear families.
“I wouldn’t change it,” Boxall said. “It’s pretty much just up to myself and Libby — more Libby than me — but maybe because you’re forced to spend more time with them, maybe just the hours you spend with the kid just connects with them a bit more.”
That’s illustrated pretty much every day, when Maxwell Boxall runs into her dad’s arms as soon as he opens the door coming home from training, no matter how challenging the session.
“She’s just oblivious to all that and just sees you as her dad,” Boxall said. “Just loves you no matter what.
“It’s pretty heart-melting. It makes you forget whatever has happened.”