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Five Years In, The NWSL Continues to Be About More Than Just Soccer

As the NWSL kicks off its historic fifth season, McCall Zerboni wants to repeat as champions in a new city, Kat Williamson reflects on her favorite memories and rookie Morgan Andrews can’t wait to begin her professional career

NWSL Championship - Portland Thorns FC v Western New York Flash Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

McCall Zerboni isn’t ready to retire. At the age of 30, Zerboni is up against the same challenge she’s faced throughout her career but in a new environment as Cary, North Carolina will serve as the backdrop for the ninth season of her professional career. Just like any other year, her ultimate goal is to lift the NWSL Championship trophy, an objective she accomplished in 2016 and an experience she’s still searching for the words to properly describe.

“Sometimes I still search for words for it, it was so rich in so many ways I think that it was very unexpected by the rest of the league, but to us, there was never a doubt in our mind,” Zerboni said.

Six days into 2017 the Western New York Flash were sold, relocated to Cary, and later rebranded the North Carolina Courage. The entire ordeal came as a shock to Zerboni and her teammates and tested the resiliency of the club. The swift nature of the move provided the team with an opportunity to face adversity even before the start of the season, a position the club had thrived in over the course of Western New York’s championship run.

“It doesn’t really matter where we are, we’re doing our craft here in North Carolina now and the city has been so supportive of us so far,” Zerboni said. “I mean we haven’t even had a game yet, but the community has been really responsive towards us.”

The Camarillo, Calif., native began her professional career in 2009 when she was selected 47th overall by the Los Angeles Sol in the inaugural WPS draft. Looking back at her time in the WPS it's easy to see the core issues that prevented the league from being sustainable.

“The WPS was a little bit looser, and by that I mean they didn’t really have a salary cap or foreign player restrictions,” Zerboni said. “I think we were just getting our feet wet with how we wanted to do this and I think there were some things that weren’t necessarily done for the longevity of the league and that was our downfall.”

The pain she experienced when the WPS folded in 2012 is a memory that has served as a driving force for Zerboni throughout her time in the NWSL. She’s utilized the painful memory as a motivational tool during the toughest challenges she’s faced; being traded three times, losing the NWSL Championship Final in 2013, and being away from her family situated on the West Coast—an experience compounded by her four and half year stretch in Western New York. “My heart was crushed when the WPS folded and I would never want someone to feel what I felt,” said Zerboni. “It is my dying desire to do this as long as I can, to help build this league and to build women’s soccer in America, so that everyone’s future daughters and nieces have a place to play.”

From a neutral perspective, the idea of being traded is a fascinating event. It’s an experience that only exists within sports, one that can be defined as the physical uprooting of an individual from a familiar environment to a place of complete unknown. For Zerboni, the challenge of finding a place for her game to thrive in a new setting and the process of learning how to coexist under a different coaching staff was again the hardest part about being traded.

After the 2014 season, Zerboni welcomed the trade that sent her to Portland Thorns FC and provided her with the opportunity to play for a bigger club and closer to home.

“I felt like a change would be a good idea, so I ended up in Portland which was great for me because I’m West Coast baby,” Zerboni said. “That was a great place for me just playing for a really big important club. I do well under pressure and importance, I love big games, the more pressure and more stress the better for me, so I loved playing at a club with a lot of fans and eyes on me.”

Her time in Portland was short lived, as the club failed to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and subsequently parted ways with then head coach Paul Riley. “Unfortunately, there was a coaching change and some things scrambled there and then I was traded again,” Zerboni added.

Zerboni prides herself on being flexible and having the ability to play multiple positions. Her versatile nature and ability to highlight the many talents of the stars around her has made her a worthwhile addition to any roster and is at the heart of her longevity.

She admits with every passing season the task of playing at the highest possible level becomes harder and harder but reminds herself of the bigger picture at stake.

“It’s not about me, it's about the generations to come and I’m just basically giving it my all to build this sport here in America and to make it a good place for women to play,” Zerboni said.

Over the course of a professional career that has spanned nearly a decade, the midfielder has been through it all, experiencing the wide range emotions associated with being an American professional women’s soccer player. She’s won and lost championships, experienced the folding of a league, been suspended and traded, suffered various injuries, and the aforementioned transition period of relocation.

The question of retirement is a possibility she’s openly considered.

“With all the moving around, the sudden trades, and changes and with a family it's not easy,” Zerboni said. “It’s no secret that we don’t have a lot to stand for it financially, but again I keep reminding myself that I’m doing the right thing for this sport and for my colleagues, the women across this league and the women who are to come and all those college players out there right now too, for them to have goals and aspirations and a place to play.”

Until then, she’ll continue to approach each season and every game exactly the same way, with the overall objective to ‘cap out.’ Zerboni confesses that any season she doesn’t lift the championship trophy ‘feels somewhat like a failure.’ Her friend and former teammate Kat Williamson can personally account for the intense passion she exhibits. “McCall is one of the most selfless players I’ve ever had the opportunity to play with, she consistently empties her tank every time she walks onto the field, regardless if it’s for a game or for practice,” Williamson said. “The best part of playing with McCall is that you can always count on her to lift the team when we need it the most—the woman will run thru a brick wall if she had to and that kind of passion is contagious.”

Zerboni describes Williamson—whom she affectionately refers to as ‘Kitty’—as the quintessential teammate. The type of personality any club would’ve been fortunate to have in their starting eleven. “She’s very witty and funny and I don’t think people really realize that, because she’s kind of like blonde and acts kind of ditzy sometimes, but she’s actually very smart and she’ll light up any room with her positive take on life,” Zerboni said. “She can make a joke out of anything, but knows the perfect time to be serious, she’s just a really enjoyable person to be around.”

“I’ve always loved being teammates with McCall, but I wholeheartedly appreciate the friendship we’ve formed throughout the years as well,” Williamson said. “As you get to know McCall, you come to realize just how genuine, authentic, and true to herself she is. For as optimistic as McCall is, she’s had her fair share of adversity and is someone who faces challenges head-on and never doubts herself…it’s truly incredible.”

“I remember the week after I had my 5th knee surgery, I received a package from McCall,” Williamson adds. “Inside the package, I saw a bracelet with ‘One day at a time’ inscribed on the outside and it helped me through some of my hardest days trying to get back to full-strength. Here’s someone who’s not even on my team and I still have her unwavering support and encouragement from the opposite coast…that’s the kind of friend she is.

Williamson is still adjusting to her role with Nike in Portland since she retired last October. The specific nature of her job at Nike is ‘to connect the Leadership Team with the different functional teams (i.e. Nike Sports Research Lab, Materials & Science Innovation, Cushioning Innovation, etc..) and further drive conversation to ensure the company continues to create products that benefit athletes.’

“Innovation is a very interesting space because we are looking 10, 15, 20 years into the future and trying to create potential footwear solutions that an athlete doesn’t even realize they need solved yet…pretty cool stuff,” Williamson said.

The McKinney, Texas, native, looks back at her career with fond memories of her time playing for Thorns FC, however, the memories she made off the field are what she’ll miss the most. Her distinct recollection of what occurred during the lengthy period of time she spent with her teammates during the preseason, on road trips, and birthdays are the moments she’s most fond of.

“I loved when Michelle Betos would perform a dance move called, “the cry baby” whenever the team needed some much-needed energy,” Williamson said. “Also, I loved to observe how many recovery techniques Michelle used every. single. day. (i.e. essential oils, cupping, tennis ball throws, recovery pants, ice tanks, icy hot, lacrosse balls, constant foam rolling, stretching while watching the bachelor….the girl didn’t stop).”

“I loved the first wine and paint class our team took for Allie Long’s birthday—she originally planned on having us paint a portrait of herself, but changed it to Mount Hood at the last-minute,” said Williamson. “Still kinda bummed about that.”

Williamson is fortunate for the strong veteran presence she was surrounded by in Portland, which allowed her to grow and develop. The ability to play alongside Rachel Van Hollebeke (Buehler), Marian Dougherty, Nikki Marshall, and Karina LeBlanc whom all aided her transition from the University of Florida to the NWSL.

“I will say, Cindy Parlow-Cone showed some incredible patience with me my rookie year as I tended to dribble out of our own 18-yard box towards midfield almost every time I received the ball…something I loved to do in college, yet I couldn’t do in the pro league,” Williamson said. “Learned that lesson after I was stripped 25 yards outside of our goal after a failed attempt at a stepover…sorry, Cindy.”

Williamson points to the success of the NWSL as it enters its fifth season to the initial decision to partner with the MLS, an overall increased interest in women’s soccer nation-wide, and the selflessness of athletes willing to compete for seven months on a salary of $7,000, a past reality for players before the recent U.S. Soccer collective bargaining agreement increased the league’s minimum salaries to $15,000.

Zerboni echoes the same sentiments. She’s seen the league’s exponential growth in talent and feels that it has learned from the mistakes of past leagues.

“For me it’s been a joy to see the growth in talent from 2013 to 2017, just by having such strong training environments every single day and having a place to cultivate growth,” Zerboni said. “The change that I’ve seen from when the young players that started in 2013, to the young players that are coming in now really encourages me.”

Morgan Andrews—the third overall pick of the talented 2017 rookie class—represents the future of the league. Paired alongside U.S. national team winger Rose Lavelle, Andrews has the task of turning around the Boston Breakers after the club finished at the bottom of the league standings for the past two seasons.

“I am genuinely looking forward to competing at the highest level that the game has to offer, Andrews said. “Every game, every practice, every session is a challenge. And I'm learning from the best. The team already feels like a family, I can't believe I finally get to turn what I love doing into a career.”

A former high school prodigy, the midfielder is honored to be a part of the NWSL, an organization she considers as one of the best in the world, especially through its ability to bring the best players from around the world together. And while playing abroad was an option for Andrews, she believes ‘it's important to play in the NWSL for the young girls in America looking to play soccer in the future.’

“Fun. Is there another word to describe it?” Andrews said. “Yes, I am learning and yes, it is challenging. I feel myself improving every day. But I am just having so much fun. I am playing soccer among some of the best players in the nation and world. And sometimes we end tough sessions with coffee in Harvard Square. Could it get any better?”