Jill Oakes was part of that very special team that won the first-ever FIFA world championship for youth women in 2002. A rising star in the U.S. youth ranks, a severe knee injury derailed her career for almost a year, but she battled back to earn her first cap with the full Women’s National Team in 2005. A key member of this summer’s U-21 Nordic Cup Team, there were times when Oakes thought she might never again wear the U.S. jersey. She was wrong. And the U.S. Women’s National Team is better for it.
Of all the adjectives one could use to praise a defender in women’s soccer, perhaps “Fawcett-like” would be the ultimate compliment.
Meet Jill Oakes.
Oakes, a starting central defender on the U.S. team that won the 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Championship, is always calm on the ball despite the pressure swirling around her. She plays simple, yet productive passes, seems to always be on balance and is often in such good position that she rarely has to scramble to clear a ball because she has already defused the danger before it happens.
She is soft-spoken and even quiet, but a good leader and organizer in the back. She never goes to the ground unless she needs to, but when she does, always gets a piece of the ball. She wins her share of headers and will even get you a goal sometimes.
Of course, Joy Fawcett retired last fall with 239 caps and four world championship titles (seven world championships played in) on her resume, while Oakes has one cap and is just starting to break into the national team. Nonetheless, the rising senior at UCLA (where Fawcett coached for five seasons) just feels fortunate to be back on track to the highest levels.
After a commanding performance in Canada at the U-19 world championship, Oakes headed into her freshman year at UCLA and was having an impact season when she tore the PCL in her right knee in a 1-0 second round playoff win in the NCAA Championships over cross-town über-rival USC.
The rare posterior cruciate ligament injury is the little known sister to the dreaded ACL tear, but ironically, the rehabilitation process can be more difficult.
It took Oakes almost 10 months to get back playing, not seeing action again until the first few matches of her sophomore season, and even then, she didn’t feel comfortable until the following spring.
“There were some complications that came up and some extra surgeries,” said Oakes of her long road back to the field. “With the ACL, a lot of people can start walking and bending the leg right away. My leg was locked for a few weeks, some scar tissue built up, and I had lots of issues with flexion. I had to go back in and have it cleaned out. In the rehab process, I couldn’t do anything with my hamstring because it would aggravate the PCL. There were just a lot restrictions.”
Oakes, a serious soccer player from a very young age who had always excelled with the youth national teams, admits there were many times during the painful rehabilitation process that her dedication to the game wavered.
Many negative thoughts battled in her mind with positives ones - ‘Is my soccer career over? Is this all worth it?’ - and often the negative won out.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with,” said Oakes. “Just because it was long and painful and it made me get used to not playing. By the time I was in the middle of it, I was second guessing if I wanted to go through all the hard work. I was at a crossroads, I guess, but I made it through.”
Oakes admits she was dragged, cajoled and pushed to see the big picture by her family, her UCLA teammates, her boyfriend at the time and her college coach, Jillian Ellis.
“I had a lot support and they just kept my head on straight and kept me going,” said Oakes, who has four sisters and a brother. “Every time I would start to slip away, Jill would get on my case. I would miss a rehab session or be late because my heart wasn’t into it, but Jill would always be there to keep me in line. My trainers and doctors were awesome, and my friends at school were huge, but Jill was a key person. She kept me thinking about how much I loved soccer and my long term goals.”
“We had some real heart-to-hearts, and I asked her write to down what her goals were,” said Ellis, who is also the head coach for the U.S. U-21 Women’s National Team. “I told her, ‘I can help push you to your goals, but I can’t want this for you. You need to want it yourself.’ On her essay, she wrote that she wanted to play in the Olympics and Women's World Cup, so I pushed her. I sat in a room when she was cranking her leg during her rehab and screaming. It was very tough. A few months ago we had a chat and I said, ‘Can you imagine where you were, and look where you are now?’ It says a lot about her work ethic and what kind of a person she is.”
Oakes admits her sophomore season wasn’t her best, but she was satisfied to be back on the field. “She was thinking about red-shirting,” said Ellis. “But I knew we just needed to throw her in the deep end and let her swim. And that’s what she did.” As the season progressed, her play improved, and so did her confidence. During her junior season in 2004, she returned to her pre-injury form, helped UCLA to the NCAA Final Four, earned Second-Team All-American honors and a starting spot on the 2004 U.S. Under-21 Women's National Team that won its sixth straight Nordic Cup.
Oakes was finally back, a fact validated by her call-up to the full Women’s National Team for the 2005 Algarve Cup, where she earned her first cap against Denmark.
“I did view it as a sort of culmination,” Oakes admitted of her call-up. “Before I got injured, I felt that I was heading in that direction and that my time would come. I thought eventually I would get a chance with the full team, but when I got injured I wasn’t sure I would ever be that good again and I thought that maybe I’d missed my shot. It was just really exciting to be brought back in. I feel I am back to where I wanted to be.”
Oakes will play in her third Nordic Cup with the U-21s this summer in Sweden, and first under her mentor Ellis, earning a starting spot in the central defense. She played as a holding midfielder in her first cap with the national team.
“That was awesome,” said Oakes of her debut. “I definitely wasn’t expecting to go into the game. My heart was racing. I got to go in for Shannon Boxx, and I’ve always loved the way she plays so it was cool to be able to go in for her. It would have been so sweet if I had scored, but just getting to play was a highlight enough. It was a good first cap.”
So whether Oakes’ future is in the back or the midfield, it is difficult to say. She will likely see more time on the back line for the Bruins in the fall, but also loves the challenges that playing midfield presents.
“I’ll play wherever they want me to play, but my favorite position is the holding midfield,” said Oakes. “It’s the best of both worlds because you’re holding down the defensive responsibilities which I feel I’m stronger at, but you still have the option to go forward every now and then and be a bit more creative than when you’re in the back.”
Oakes gives huge props to her experience with the U.S. U-19s, and then-head coach Tracey Leone, for opening her eyes to the international game. It was there that she developed the hunger and love that perhaps helped her to cling to her career when she wanted to hang up her boots after surgery.
“I think it kind of got me ready (to make the jump to the national team),” said Oakes of her two years with the U-19s. “It built my confidence up. I was starting on that team and I saw what it took to prepare for an event like a world championship. It required discipline, focus and hard work and showed me that you must maintain that over a long period and be willing to commit to the team well in advance of even knowing if you’re going to make the team. That’s what got me really focused in soccer and wanting to make the next step. To invest that much time in something, it had to be worthwhile and I found out that it was.”
Oakes will turn 21 at the Nordic Cup, a literal and symbolic coming of age as she enters her final season of college soccer. She knows that her experience at the U-19 and U-21 levels, and in a top program at UCLA, has prepared her for the next step. She doesn’t know when it will come, or even if it will, but she feels that when the opportunity presents itself, that she, her knee and her mind will be ready.
“It’s weird coming into my senior season,” said Oakes, a Psychology major. “I really want to go out with a bang this season, so I am focusing a lot on UCLA. After that, I’d love to work my way into the full team, but I know that process to prove yourself at that level takes a long time. All I can do is just keep going for it and do the best I can. My goal ever since I was little was to play in an Olympics. That’s something I’ve been in awe of and would love to be a part of. Now that I’ve grown up in the soccer world and have learned about the World Cup, that would be awesome too, and I know all the people who supported me through my injury would be proud.”
So would Joy Fawcett.