U.S. midfielder Keelin Winters is already a world champion, having helped the U.S. U-20s to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup title in 2008. But now she is working hard to earn a consistent spot on rosters for the full Women’s National Team and at some point, her first cap. As the USA undertakes an intense training camp in Florida to prepare for the Olympics, ussoccer.com sat down with Winters as she answered 11 questions about her experience with the U-20s, her move to Germany later this summer, her genetic predisposition for basketball talent and making the jump from the pro league to the National Team.
You were one of the key players on the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2008 in Chile. What did that experience mean for your soccer career?
Keelin Winters: “(Current U.S. WNT teammate and 2008 U-20 teammate) Meghan Klingenberg and I were just talking about it today. Winning that World Cup in Chile has been our most memorable soccer experience thus far. It was a huge honor for me and our other two captains, Becky Edwards and Nikki Washington, to not only represent the U.S. at the U-20 World Cup, but to take on more leadership roles and to lift that trophy. That whole experience gave me some really good insight into how to lead a team. We were a team filled with college players from all over the country. We all missed our NCAA playoffs that season, so it was a huge thing for all of us to commit to the team and commit to each other, and I think that was one of the biggest reasons we did so well.”
Even with your youth WNT success, you know as well as anyone how tough it is to break into the full team. How has the process been for you so far?
KW: “It took me two years after the U-20 World Cup to get a call-up with the full team. It has been something I wanted to do ever since I saw the ’99 World Cup. I knew from that moment that I wanted to be on the full team. We met Pia [Sundhage] at the U-20 World Cup -- she came to the semifinal and final – and back then I hoped I would get my chance, but it’s been a one-day-at-a-time experience to improve enough to get called in. After college, I went into WPS. I had a pretty good rookie season and just being on that stage playing with National Team players from the USA and abroad got me seen by the National Team coaches and it got me my first invite.”
Knowing what you know now, what would be your advice to the current U-20 players who have full WNT aspirations? They are currently preparing for their World Cup this fall.
KW: “I would say the biggest thing is to be patient and not give up hope that you are good enough to get here. If you are not ready now, you might be at some point. Patience is the key ingredient because making progress can be slow and tedious at times, especially at this elite level. You can make improvement, but you can only make so much no matter how hard you train. So it’s about staying patient with yourself and if you work hard enough and have the talent you can eventually get here.”
When you are not making rosters for tournaments and without a pro league, how difficult has it been for a player like yourself to keep playing at the level necessary to compete with the WNT?
KW: “That’s probably been the most difficult aspect of the last two months for me. In order to keep myself in shape, I’ve been swimming and doing spin sessions on the bike and running. Soccer is the hard part because you can only do so much by yourself. You need a team in order to play, so I’ve been training with a U-18 boys’ team in Seattle until the Sounders practice schedule got started. The great thing about playing with boys is that they are faster and quicker than me so it forces me to play faster than what I am comfortable with, which is immensely important when you come into WNT camp.”
You recently had a trial in Germany with league leaders Turbine Potsdam in Berlin. How was that experience?
KW: “It was a different experience for sure. Being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language was difficult, as was being out of my comfort zone, but the practices were really fun. I really enjoyed them. For both practices that I participated in, we ended the session playing for a full hour non-stop. There were no water breaks and the coach was saying some things in German that I didn’t understand. As a holding mid, one of your most important jobs is to organize so before practice I was asking (U.S. goalkeeper) Alyssa Naeher (who starts for Potsdam) how to say “right,” “left” and “man-on” in German. In practice, I thought it was going to be really difficult, but once you get playing soccer, it becomes a language in itself. That was one of my favorite parts of the experience. Even though I don’t speak German, I could still communicate with the game and body language.”
So it was a successful trial?
KW: “Yes, it was. I decided to commit to the team for next season and signed a contract which starts July 1 and preseason begins July 8. It’s been a dream of mine since high school to play overseas so I am really looking forward to the experience.”
ussoccer.com: Your dad, Brian Winters (pictured above), played professional basketball in the NBA. Tell us about his career and did any of that hoops talent rub off on you?
KW: “He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played one season, and then he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he finished his career. He was part of the trade that brought Kareem Abdul Jabbar to the Lakers, so I guess we know who got the better end of that trade. But he had a great career and he was a sweet shooter. He played nine seasons and was an All-Star twice and his jersey is retired in Milwaukee. That’s also where he met my mom! As far as me getting his basketball talent, I played through my sophomore year and he always says I would have made a great point guard, but soccer has always been my passion.”
How would you compare a National Team training session to any of the others you’ve had with many teams on the pro, college and youth levels?
KW: “The main difference is the speed of play. I thought jumping from college to WPS was a pretty big jump, but going from WPS to the National Team was yet another huge jump. The players surrounding me are obviously the best in America so they are just as athletic as me, some even more so, and I think that’s something you definitely have to get used to. I think just the overall physical ability of everyone is amazing. Everyone is really strong and fit – thanks to our fitness coach Dawn Scott! – so you can’t really out-run or out-muscle anyone. You have to learn to out-play them with quick decision-making and the intangibles.”
Are you anxious to get that first full-team cap? Or is it more, “when it happens it happens”?
KW: “It kind of goes back to waiting for my first-call up to the full team. Now that I’ve been with the full team in a couple camps, I am waiting for my first cap. But it goes back to being patient. Yeah, I’m anxious, but I am more excited than anything. When I prove I play with the best of the best I know I’ll get my chance.”
Keelin is a unique name. How did your parents come up with that and have you ever met another Keelin?
KW: “My mom found it in an Irish name book. All of my brothers and sisters have first names that are Irish: Cara, Brendan, Kevin, Meghan and Ryan. And if you want to go beyond that, they are Irish-Catholic as all of our middle names are Saints: Therese, Michael, Patrick, mine is Mary, Cristine and Joseph. And I have met another Keelin! One of my teachers in high school has a daughter named Keelin and she would always come out to watch us play. It was great knowing another little Keelin.”
You know that Meghan Klingenberg is a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo, but she is much smaller than you. Do you think you could take her?
KW: “Well, three years ago with the U-20s, I did try to see if I could take her down, and unfortunately that did not turn out well for me. But I think I am older and wiser now and I want another shot.”
Keelin Winters was a little under the radar when she began her freshman year at Portland, but appeared in 21 games in 2007 and has become a mainstay with the U-20 Women’s National Team. Coming from a big family, with two sisters and three brothers, Keelin explains how soccer has helped her stand out from the crowd, and how Prison Break and Michael Jackson have helped her through her soccer career. The U.S. opens against Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday, June 18 at 1 p.m. CT. Fans can follow the match live on ussoccer.com’s MatchTracker.
First of all – You’ve corrected people in pronouncing you’re name. Let’s put it on record once and for all.
It’s KEE-lin. A lot of people blend the E’s and the L and say “KEEL-in” but it’s KEE-lin!
Have you been brushing up on your Spanish since you’ve been here in Puebla?
A little bit. I haven’t taken Spanish since I was a junior in high school, but it does come back a little bit. I’ve found myself trying to decipher ads and billboards and I’ve been trying to talk to some of the hotel staff a bit. I’m still pretty rusty but I’m trying.
Have you tried watching local television?
It’s actually funny because we have a Spanish version of ESPN here, and sometimes the words at the bottom are in English but everything else is in Spanish. So sometimes I put it on mute, but I’m really grateful that we have ESPN because we can watch the EURO 2008 games in the afternoons. It’s awesome that while we are here and we have this downtime that we can watch all these elite games.
What else do you like to do during your down time?
Well, Elli Reed, Ingrid Wells and I all get together and watch Prison Break a lot. We’ve actually become a bit obsessed! We really like the main character in it (Lincoln Burrows, who is played by actor Dominic Purcell). We do have quite a bit of downtime here after training so we watch Prison Break as much as possible and then we always have to talk about it afterwards because it’s just so dramatic! Becky Edwards was nice enough to share her Season Two DVDs with us, and we’re about halfway through. It’s become somewhat a tradition for us.
Coming from a big family where you’re the only soccer player, do you feel like a soccer player trapped in a basketball family?
I actually get asked that a lot, but it’s actually quite the opposite. I feel like the soccer field is my time to shine. My Dad (Brian Winters) played in the NBA and has coached in the NBA and now the WNBA, so when I chose soccer over basketball people would always ask ‘is your Dad mad?’ I never really understood that, I mean, of course he’s not mad! He’s always been so supportive and has told me to do what I love, which has always been soccer. It’s given me something unique within my family that I do get to play soccer. We are all very competitive in our family, so one thing that is nice is that when I go home I can be part of some really intense basketball games! Sometimes it’s good to get away from soccer and be able to take a little bit of a break, and coming from such a competitive family has always helped me with soccer.
Do you have a pregame routine that you go through?
Elli Reed, Michelle Enyeart and I all go to school at Portland, where it’s a tradition to listen to The Best of Michael Jackson before games. The last song we always listen to is “Man in the Mirror” so before I take the field I always like to listen to that now. That’s my time to lace up my cleats and start focusing on the game. It’s not a superstition though. If for some reason I can’t listen to it then it’s not a big deal, but I think it really does help to get in the zone. I’m not quite sure how that tradition got started at Portland, but I know they had it when they won the National Championship in 2001. I think it was around before that though. Everyone is really into it so we keep it going.
It’s been a long build up for this tournament, how do you think preparations have been going leading up to the first game?
Well, we’ve been together since January as a group, with girls coming in and trying out throughout that period of about six months. Now that there is a smaller group here, I think the trainings have become even more intense as people fight for their position. What the coaches have been saying is true – the difference between someone who starts and someone who doesn’t is pretty slim. The trainings have been going really well, very competitive and it’s been great because we know the tournament is going to be very competitive.
What do you think of the facilities so far?
The hotel is awesome – it’s probably one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The bathroom is amazing and it’s got this huge shower. The training facility is cool because it’s so close to the stadium, so when we’re practicing we can look up and see the stadium where we’re going to be playing in a couple of days. I think that in itself gets people pretty hyped up.
The soccer crowds at Portland are famous for being great. What do you think it’s going to be like to play in a huge place like Estadio Cuauhtemoc?
We do average about 3,000 fans per game, but this stadium holds about 42,000. I’m wondering right now what the crowds are going to be like. Not playing at home, you think about things like communicating on the field if the crowd is loud. We’re just really excited to see what it’s going to be like.
What do you think are the strengths of this team? What makes the U.S. stand out?
I think that we have players who are all so talented as individuals, that it’s awesome that we’ve been able to come together and play as a team. I think a lot of times when you put a bunch of stand-outs together it’s hard for some teams to really come together. But, I think this team has done that and when we’re on our game and all clicking together, we’re pretty hard to beat. I think it’s pretty impressive that a group of players who are all stars at their college to really play as a team.
What’s the mentality of the team now that it’s just two days before the first game?
As I said, we’ve been preparing for this for about six months, so we’re all really excited to get going and start playing. The anticipation is killing us right now!