A Long Road Back
The U.S. Men’s National Team is well acquainted with matches on the road, especially in Central America where the fans are so partisan the term “11 against the world” comes to life, evoking images of the King Leonidas and his Spartans taking on the Persians in Zak Snyder’s “300.”
But rare is the women’s soccer match played in a cauldron of spite and vitriol.
Never mind a women’s youth game.
Never mind one in Canada.
Flashback to Sept. 1, 2002, at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, and the championship game of the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup. That day, 47,784 fans had packed the stadium to see their Canucks take on the young Americans in the historic first-ever final of a youth women’s world championship.
About 47,000 of them were wearing red and flying the Maple Leaf flag. The tournament had gained such momentum and popularity the Canadian players were featured on the front pages of newspapers and TV screens across the country. The fans, who had been whipped into a patriotic frenzy, had come to see their team take down a vaunted U.S. side that had rolled through the tournament with an average victory margin of 4.5 goals.
At the base of the American citadel was a 16-year-old goalkeeper from Satellite Beach, Florida named Ashlyn Harris.
Showing poise and leadership far beyond her years, Harris earned the shutout that day as the USA downed Canada, 1-0, in an electric match on a “golden goal” from Lindsay Tarpley, shocking the massive crowd into stunned silence.
After the game, Harris was asked if she felt intimidated walking into a stadium where almost every fan was cheering against her team. Her answer was part 16-year-old, part professional player: “I loved it. It was awesome to play in front of a crowd like that. I was like, bring it!”
Two years later Harris captained the United States at the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup in Thailand where she had far more to do between the posts than in Canada, but once again shined. Although the USA finished third, she solidified her status as the best young goalkeeper in the world, having played every minute of all 12 matches over the two youth World Cup tournaments.
SHINING STAR, SHOOTING STAR
At the time Harris was traveling home from Thailand, Hope Solo had 12 caps, but had not appeared for the USA in over two years. An uncapped Nicole Barnhart was starring during her senior year at Stanford and 33-year-old Briana Scurry was coming off the Olympic triumph in Greece. It would be the last world championship as a starter for Scurry, the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup winner.
Surely Harris was destined for a major role on the full U.S. Women’s National Team in the near future?
Little did Harris know what the near future had in store for her. What followed was an agonizing string of major and painful injuries that impacted her body and mind to the extent that she was almost ready to give up the game.
Had she not played in Thailand, Harris would have started at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 2004. Instead, she delayed her enrollment and began classes in January of 2005, then jumped into spring practice with the Tar Heels. Her first injury was of the “freak” variety. She was standing next to the goal stretching as another ‘keeper warmed up between the posts. An errant shot, one that she didn’t even see coming, caught her hand just wrong, shattering her right thumb. She had to have surgery to insert three pins into her hand. She was forced to the sidelines and not allowed to practice until the hand was fully healed.
Harris started training again in the summer, but admittedly felt out of shape and awkward from her forced sabbatical. During a practice, she tore the ACL in her right knee. Hello red-shirt season.
She came back strong for spring practice and was playing well enough to get back on the radar of then-U.S. head coach Greg Ryan. Before she could go in with the full team, she got called into the Under-21 Women’s National Team, which was going to give her some much-needed matches to sharpen up. During a camp on the East Coast in a match against a boys’ team, she jumped for a ball, got jostled and landed awkwardly. She had torn her left ACL.
Not wanting to lose yet another season (she would have effectively missed her first three years of college soccer), she hit the rehabilitation with a fervor with a personal goal of being able to play in time for the 2006 NCAA playoffs, the inevitable yearly November/December destination for the Tar Heels.
Harris did make it back, albeit not close to full strength, and despite not seeing action in any regular season games, she appeared in every playoff game and played a key role in helping UNC to the NCAA title, making some key saves against UCLA in the semifinal. She played with her knee heavily strapped with tape and with what she says was “zero lateral movement,” but her instincts and bravery on physical challenges carried her through.
Perhaps, finally, she had turned the corner.
Fate said, “not so fast.”
During the 2007 season, her fourth year in college, but just her first (potentially) full season, Harris felt something pull in her hip while taking a goal kick. She eventually got an MRI and was diagnosed with a torn labrum, a very painful, nagging injury. Not wanting to miss any more games, she gutted it out, played through the pain and kicked with her left leg whenever possible. UNC lost in the third round of the playoffs, missing the Final Four. She had surgery after the season and sat out all of spring practice.
It was during that time Harris started to wonder where her path would lead. It was the journey that seemed so clear just three years earlier.
“I had to take a step back and realize what was important in my life,” said Harris. “As much as we love the game of soccer and hope it’s going to be our future, sometimes things happen that are out of our control and you have to change the way you think. I started focusing on school work and building character in my life. Everything had come so easy before, and now I was dealing with so much adversity.”
The fall of 2008 was the first time that she was entirely healthy heading into, and thankfully, out of the season. UNC won the NCAA title, defeating Notre Dame in the final by a 2-1 score. Still, it wasn’t enough to totally shake Harris out of her soccer funk. She felt she had another level in her as a player, but didn’t know how to get there or if she ever would. Had the physical pain she had endured taken a toll? Or perhaps it was the pain of self-expectations that had fallen short? Both cut deep.
“To be honest, part of me just felt like it was time to take a new path in my life,” said Harris, a Communications major who had her sights set on grad school and a career that didn’t involve hitting the ground hundreds of times a day. “If you asked me at the beginning of this year if I wanted to go into the professional league, I would have probably said no. I just felt like maybe there was a different purpose for me. I really excelled in my academics and was starting to get As and accolades for my grades. I thought maybe it was time to focus on life after soccer.”
As a youth player, Harris had always been happy-go-lucky, and perhaps a bit naïve, but as her injury tribulations grew, so did her maturity.
“Soccer had just become a chore for me and I asked myself, ‘how much more could I put myself through emotionally and physically?’ You have to think about the emotions I experienced during those three years of constant injuries. It was just a complete roller coaster. It’s so hard to even explain. One minute I would be happy and the next minute I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I can’t tell you how many tears I shed when I had to do rehab and push myself through major discomfort. It was just not a pleasant experience.”
Then slowly, something happened. Perhaps it was her body coming around or perhaps it was a renewed confidence bolstered by some good performances on the field, but in the spring of 2009, Harris started to feel like her old self.
She says that after the 2008 college season, she sat down to do some hard thinking and “had to have an intervention with myself.” She was trying to figure out what she wanted as a soccer player. During spring practice, UNC scrimmaged against WPS clubs Sky Blue FC and the Washington Freedom, and she was pleasantly pleased with her performance against the pros. She started watching the WPS games every Sunday on Fox Soccer Channel and sure enough the passion was ignited again. During the spring she dedicated herself to finding that next level.
“I came to the realization that if I was healthy, I had the talent to become whatever I want,” said Harris. “But I had to give my whole heart to it and not do anything halfway.”
Harris started training hard, hitting the weight room and had a great spring practice. When she made the decision to try to become a professional player, she knew she needed to put herself in the best environment possible for the summer so she packed her bags to play for the USL W-League champion Pali Blues in California. She trained twice a day, lifted weights and consulted with a nutritionist who put her on a program.
“I just killed myself this summer and it was great,” said Harris. “I played really well and got some great exposure to some good players so coming into my college season I was really confident and my game was at a high level.”
So far this season for UNC – her sixth year at the school - has been her best. She has been healthy and very sharp. Then came the call to the U.S. Women’s National Team. It would be her first national team training camp since that U-21 event in 2005 and just her second since the 2004 U-19 Women’s World Cup. Despite her increased confidence, old doubts still lingered.
“At first I was a little shocked,” said Harris of her call-up. “I thought, ‘why me?’ Out of all the goalkeepers in the WPS, why me? Then I kind of sat down with my best friend from school (teammate Whitney Engen) and I told her I was pretty nervous about coming to camp. She just had the right things to say, she said, ‘why not you? You deserve this, you’ve killed yourself, you’ve sacrificed your body and you haven’t given up, so why not you?’”
FINALLY IN “THE SHOW”
Still, coming into the national team environment is never easy for young players, and with a five-year goal finally coming to fruition, it took her a few days and a few chats with U.S. goalkeeper coach Paul Rogers to settle in.
“I was very nervous at the beginning,” said Harris of her first few days of training camp. “I was very stiff, to say the least. But you know what? This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I feel I’m playing well, and all I can ask for is to walk out of here knowing that I did what I was supposed to do. As far as what happens next, it’s out of my control. I am just going to keep doing what I have been doing, training hard, and improving every day.”
Harris got to play 30 minutes with the U.S. starters during a high-paced scrimmage against a boys’ team one night during camp and came back to the hotel with such a buzz that, despite the late hour, she called several friends on the East Coast to tell them. “I was like, ‘you know how many people would kill to be in my place?’ I just had a big goofy grin on my face.”
Harris has devoured the opportunity to train with and against some of the world’s best players. As much as she has been focusing on her game, she has been intently watching Solo and Barnhart, trying to incorporate as much of their games into her own as possible
“This camp has been great,” said Harris. “Hope and Barnie are two of the best goalkeepers in the world, so you can’t get much better role models than that. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned. I think the coaching is phenomenal and I’m learning new things all the time. It’s a higher level for sure so it’s almost like I’m starting over. I think I’ve played well, but I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
Harris will be leaving training camp a few days early to rejoin the Tar Heels for two ACC road matches, but she’ll take with her the satisfaction of another step taken in her personal and soccer growth.
“I definitely have learned a lot over the past few years, as a player and a young person,” said Harris. “What I had to go through at such a young age and having to have a ton of patience is a type of experience that you just have to live through to understand. I really give a lot of credit to some incredible friends and a great support system which helped me through all the down times and all the injuries. You definitely get some insight into who you truly are when you are at your lowest point. It’s about not giving up on yourself when everything points you in the wrong direction. If I can overcome what I’ve overcome I feel like I can do anything. I have so much to learn, but at the same time I feel I have so much to give.”
With Solo and Barnhart in their late 20s, the prime age for a goalkeeper, Harris does not figure to be piling up the caps anytime soon, but being back with the national team is just what she needs as inspiration to keep her mind and body moving in the right direction.
“My goal is to show them I’m a good player and that I can be consistent,” said Harris on future national team call-ups. “I want to always work hard, challenge my teammates and push them, and show that I am good enough to come back in. I’m not here to take someone’s spot. Ultimately, everyone wants to start and who doesn’t want to be on this team? But at this point I’m here to play well and learn as much as I can, show potential and hopefully they will be willing to invest in that.”
It is a great message for young players out there striving to reach their next level. Despite the inevitable setbacks, if you invest in yourself, maybe someone else will too.