Ask any soccer fan what the most memorable moment of the United States’ 2019 World Cup triumph was? And they’ll say Alex Morgan’s 31st minute tea-sip celebration after she had balletically sailed above Demi Stokes and nodded the USA into the lead, in the semi-final versus England.
These two distinctive headed goals - alongside their eye-catching celebrations - bookend the 21st century rebirth of the USWNT. They epitomize the unparalleled excellence of the national team in a decade of dominance. They can out play you, they can out fight you, and they can out jump you.
The next chapter for the national team is unwritten. Who will be the next player to ascend and launch themselves into US soccer mythology like Wambach and Morgan?
Arise Shea Groom. The next star to crash the box at a summer tournament for the USWNT.
“Air Groom” - the internet approved moniker for Shea Groom’s vaulting aerial finish against the OL Reign at the Challenge Cup - was without a doubt the most iconic goal in US soccer for the year 2020. Groom’s famous strike is a dramatic resumption of this long standing tradition of emphatic headers by American players.
Groom’s journey to featuring at the Olympics next summer began this week in Colorado, where she has linked up with the USWNT for the first time since 2016. A new opportunity for the player to impress with the national team, but a resumption of a footballing relationship with an old friend. The call up brings a welcome reunion with Vlatko Andonovski, the coach who drafted Groom into the NWSL in 2015.
Should Groom become a regular in the national team, it would be her third stint playing under Andonovski. The duo had three seasons together in Kansas City, which included winning the 2015 NWSL Championship in Groom’s rookie season. In 2019 Andonovski, then managing the Seattle Reign, once again acquired Groom in a trade from Sky Blue FC. The Macedonian knows exactly how to get the most out of the dauntless attacking midfielder. After all, the blueprint for “Air Groom” was written by Andonovski in Kansas City.
Groom’s first ever professional goal in the NWSL, ironically against the Dash in Houston, was a trademark headed leaping effort. On that evening in 2015, Sarah Hagen’s floated cross from the right flank was sent into the box a few yards ahead of Groom. This window of space is a key ingredient to where Groom thrives. The extra space and time ahead of the cross is what allows Groom to drive towards the ball, build momentum, and arrive in the area with punctuation.
In 2016, during the second match of her second NWSL season, you see Groom hone her ability to predict the placement of her teammates’ crosses to great effect. As Groom scored the opening goal against the Portland Thorns, one can see how anticipation becomes one of her most important assets under Andonovski at FCKC. Her courageous running style, penetrative movement off the ball and flawless aerial finishing are all in perfect harmony.
Groom’s tenacious verticality is what has made her one of the most ruthless players in the NWSL this season and it has not gone unnoticed. “One thing that has made her special this year is her ability to penetrate on a dribble,” said Andonovski earlier this month. “It added another layer to her game...that ability to be dangerous in the box is what sparked our interest.”
At the beginning of her career, Groom was often deployed as a combative center forward at FCKC. Her most recent success has come as a roaming “8” or “10” figure. This transition was initiated by Andonovski in Seattle but has now been perfected under James Clarkson in Houston. Over time the positional switch has increased Groom’s ability to go undetected by the opposition’s defensive line.
In 2020 Groom recorded a career best ratio of 0.55 goals per game. Her six goals in 11 games during the 2020 season matched her previous career best total from the 2017 season, just in 11 fewer matches. Only Christine Sinclair (6) and Lynn Williams (6) were able to keep pace with Groom for scoring in the NWSL this season. Considering those two are NWSL royalty, that is quite an achievement.
Despite her outstanding season, Groom will understandably get limited opportunities to make an impact for the USWNT. The world champions boast the most gifted group of midfielders in the world. In particular Megan Rapinoe, Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Rose Lavelle are all rightly ahead of Groom in the pecking order right now. Next summer, one assumes that Groom will find herself contesting for a supplementary role against the likes of Midge Purce, Kealia Watt, Kristie Mewis, Sophia Smith and Ashley Sanchez.
Neither back in 2015 nor in the five years since, has anyone been capable of stopping Groom when she seizes the half space in the air. So now the world stage, in Tokyo 2021, is where the Liberty, Missouri native must set her sights.
It doesn’t sound too outlandish, though. Does it? With the final minutes ticking away, and other influential options exhausted, Andonovski turns to a player in their prime off the bench. One who has the astute capacity to break the deadlock in an explosive manner. One can see it now. There is a crevice of space out wide. A wide player decides to swing in a hopeful pass into the box. And there is Groom, timing her run immaculately to meet it!
We will just have to wait and see.
Until then, Shea Groom can, at the very least, say that she has conquered Texas. No matter how lofty the Houston skyline gets, Groom remains the most dazzling high rise in H-Town.