Defender Katie Naughton takes pride in her position on the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team. For inspiration and a visual picture of what it takes to play center back at the highest levels, she looks to a role model who has done it all.
At first glance, U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team defender Katie Naughton and U.S. WNT captain Christie Rampone have little in common.
Naughton (pronounced Nawt-IN), a 19-year-old out of Elk Grove Village, Ill., is just starting her career and is looking to qualify for her first World Cup at any level. Rampone, one of the legendary players in women’s soccer history, is the most-capped active player in the world with 287 games and is still going strong as she works toward her remarkable fifth Women’s World Cup tournament.
But if you look a little deeper, you will see that both are the oldest players on their respective national teams, both are center backs and leaders, and you can surely draw a line from Rampone back to Naughton, a thread that has pulled the young player along to achieve her soccer dreams.
Most importantly, Rampone is Naughton’s favorite player, her soccer role model and her inspiration to achieve her highest level in the game.
“She’s been through pretty much everything a soccer player can possibly experience,” said Naughton. “Her career has just been amazing. Her composure and leadership on the field and her knowledge of the game is just unparalleled. It’s really an honor to wear the same jersey as she does and even be a part of the same culture that she is.”
Naughton is coming off two excellent seasons at Notre Dame where she stepped right into the starting lineup as a freshman and has played all 45 matches of her career so far. Unlike Rampone, who didn’t have the benefit of youth national teams when she was growing up on the Jersey Shore, Naughton has come up through the U.S. system, playing with the USA at the U-15, U-17 and U-18 levels before becoming a consistent call-up to the U-20s during this cycle.
Naughton is grateful for every training session she gets with the national teams as she understands the fine line a center back must navigate and how hard it is to make the right choices at the right times.
“I think the biggest challenges of playing center back are the tactics of the game,” said Naughton, who will be the first member of her national team to turn 20 when her birthday comes along in February. “You have to have a feel for the game to know when is the right moment to step up, drop or hold the line and help dictate the movement of the midfield. You’re trying to keep everything organized for 90 minutes.”
That philosophy is one of the reasons Naughton admires Rampone so much and why she focuses on her movement every time she gets to watch the U.S. National Team perform.
“I almost wish Christie had a microphone on her during the games so I could learn from her words on the field,” said Naughton. “You can tell by her body language that she’s in control. She’s pointing or using her arms to push the team up the field, and she always works to have her feet in the right position to defend. It’s just little things like that that make a big difference.”
One thing Naughton has that Rampone doesn’t is tremendous height. At 5-foot-10, the Sockers FC product is excellent in the air and wins more than a lion’s share of head balls in the back. Although like Rampone, Naughton understands the importance of having a presence and being a leader.
“Back in the middle of your defense, you see everything that is going on in a game, so it’s your job to direct the players in front of you,” she said. “Along with the goalkeeper, you are the eyes of the team in the back, and having that perspective, you can use your voice to encourage everyone to be in the right spots and work as hard as they can.”
“As a center back, being a leader is all in your delivery,” said Rampone, who has been watching the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship while the WNT is in camp. “When you finally get to know the game at the highest level and get confident in communicating with your teammates, it’s all in the delivery and your body language. You never want to be panicked. You always want to project confidence, and that helps your teammates perform better.”
So far in the Cayman Islands, Naughton has been performing well. She played all 120 minutes in the first two games and is trying to soak up everything about the experience of playing for her country in a qualifying competition.
“I think the experience is an honor in itself,” Naughton said. “Being here is a glimpse into what a future professional career could possibly look like, and you really start to focus on everything that it takes to make it to the top levels. It’s not just the soccer, but all the other little things to take into account. You have to be conscious of your nutrition, what you are doing during down time, getting your rest and making sure you’re doing all those things to the best of your ability so when the moment comes that you need to perform for the team you’re ready.”
Naughton has never met Rampone, although she hopes to one day. But if she could ask the U.S. veteran one question, what would it be?
“I would ask her what was the most pivotal time of her soccer career,” said Naughton. “I would love to talk to her about when she realized or had the confidence to know that this is what she wanted to do and had the ability to make it happen.”
For that answer, we go to Rampone herself.
“I probably knew I could play at this level in about my third camp in with my national team, but it was also readily apparent at that time that it would take a lot of work,” said Rampone. “I knew I had the physical ability, but I was going to need to get a lot fitter and more confident in my playing style. After transitioning from forward to the back line, and after the experience of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, that’s when I set my focus to making it happen.”
Rampone is pulling for her younger “sisters” as she most recently watched the USA’s 3-0 victory against Jamaica from the U.S. WNT camp in Los Angeles.
“Once you have that experience of a major tournament like a World Cup, it changes your focus and mindset,” Rampone said. “That’s why it’s so important for our U-20s to qualify for the World Cup and for Katie to get that experience. Once you’ve had a taste of being successful at that highest level, now it’s a matter of having the mentality to keep it going.”
And that’s the goal of Naughton and her teammates: to keep it going all the way to the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada. After all, there will always be chances for young players on the full National Team down the line. Rampone can’t play forever. Or can she?