Her sophomore year at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Meghan Klingenberg competed in a campus gladiator competition that culminated in a sumo joust: competitors donned big blow-up fat suits and went at each other with giant foam clubs. “Kling insisted that I come watch,” says Anson Dorrance, long-time coach of the famed UNC women’s soccer team. “So there they are - Kling’s up against this monster. I mean, this girl was well over 6 feet tall, and strong as a house. And I’m a little worried about her – she’s a small kid and I’m kind of expecting her to get crushed,” says Dorrance. “But Kling proceeds to beat the tar out of this girl – looks like she’s going to club her to death. No one is hurt because they’re wearing these padded suits and the clubs are foam…but make no mistake, Kling’s aggression is off the chart.”
Kling was further inspired by the stars at Barcelona FC: “Iniesta, Xavi, Messi – they were all tiny. And they were the best in the world, dominating. I always knew that I could do it, but it was reinforcement – you can be small, and not only can you be the best in the world, but you can do it in style.”
This wasn’t always the case. While she is now a starting outside back for the United States Women’s National Team, her first year of soccer, she was, in her own words, “by far the worst on the team.” Timid and shy, she didn’t understand the concept of winning the ball. “The coach would be like, ‘We’re going to put in Meghan’ - and everybody would be like, ‘Great, now we’re going to lose.’ I was that bad.” Meghan’s father confirms this: “When she played, her mother and I would try to hide.”
Meghan’s dad’s game plan to combat her timidity was to sign her up for taekwondo lessons. By fifth grade, her shyness was a thing of the past. She was a black belt performing in the school talent show; all the other girls were tap dancing and doing ballet, and there was Kling - putting on a nunchucks and board-breaking performance to *NSYNC. In high school, she gave up taekwondo in order to throw all her focus into soccer, but taekwondo still left its imprint: best friend and UNC teammate Monica Welsh-Loveman recalls the tail end of Halloween, when Kling, dressed up as a baboon, went up and down fraternity row high kicking jack-o-lanterns.
A young Meghan Klingenberg achieved black belt status in taekwondo by the time she was in fifth grade.
Beyond the occasional karate-kicking spree, taekwondo instilled a general boldness -- a willingness to go for it. This quality is perhaps best illustrated by her approach to Late Night with Roy, a Midnight-Madness style party that kicks off the UNC basketball season. “At Carolina, Late Night with Roy is an institution,” says Kling. “I wanted to go – but there’s a huge line to get in and as a soccer player, with practice, you just don’t have time for that.” So Kling enlisted a friend, found a clipboard, and put on an official-looking UNC polo shirt. She printed out signs that said RESERVED FOR WOMEN'S SOCCER TEAM, got rope, and just walked by everyone in line. She waved and nodded to the security guy, went right out to the court, and roped off a row of chairs. When the whole UNC soccer team showed up at start time, the ushers guided them straight to their seats – “Excuse me, excuse me, women’s soccer coming through.”
Kling tried this same tactic again the next year, only this time, just as she was taping on the RESERVED signs, Roy Williams’ personal assistant showed up “Excuse me,” she asked. “Who are you?”
“We just froze,” says Kling. “’My friend said, ‘Anson Dorrance talked to Roy Williams. He gave us permission.’ So the lady calls up Roy right while we’re standing there. I think we’re done for, I think we’re getting expelled. But she hung up the phone all apologetic and says, ‘Maybe Anson forgot to call?’ We start talking about how scatterbrained Anson is, and somehow we still end up with courtside seats.”
Her audacity also shows up on the field. At 5’2”, she may be the smallest on the field, but as Dorrance puts it, “She’s an absolute street fighter.”
Klingenberg threw out the first pitch at a Pittsburgh Pirates game during the USWNT's Community Week
in advance of this summer's FIFA World Cup in Canada. Her brother and mom were there to cheer her on at PNC Park.
Part of this was honed in daily basement duels with her younger brother, now a rising senior on the men’s soccer team at Penn State. Kling can’t remember a single game where her parents didn’t have to step in and break them up. “The battles were so good for us because it prepared me for everything else. I was competitive, which made him competitive, which made me more competitive – it was just kind of this cycle. I wouldn’t do anything without trying to be the best– kicking a stone, walking down the street, having a better handshake than someone else.”
This take-no-prisoners mindset developed in part from watching her favorite player, Michelle Akers, who, ironically, was the tallest player on the field at 5’11”. “She was instantly recognizable – her hair, her height, the way she played. I loved the way she carried herself. She looked at everyone, like, I don’t care who you are, I’m going to destroy you. That was the coolest thing,” says Kling. “I may be kind of a little person, 122 pounds. People would tell me, ‘you’re too small,’ but if you have that kind of mentality, it doesn’t matter how small you are.”
Since Kling made her national team debut in 2011, she has defended with flair. In the games leading up to the World Cup, she scored two breathtaking goals. Since the opening match of group play in Canada, she’s exhibited an Akers-esque mentality, stripping the ball off opposing forwards and attacking up the wing. Against Sweden, the 5’2” defender got airborne, making a leaping goal-line clearance with her head, saving the USWNT from defeat. Klingenberg continues to be the kind of player who never stops competing and never ceases striving to be the best. As she says in her “One Nation. One Team. 23 Stories.” introduction, she’s looking to win the World Cup, “to bring the trophy home to the United States.”
Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries and the Search for Pickup Soccer and the co-director of Pelada.
Ever wondered what a day in the life of a U.S. Women’s National Team player is like? We followed WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to get an inside look at a day inside WNT training camp, a day that included a weight session and on-field practice.
After a grabbing a quick coffee, the busy day starts early for Harris and the WNT, as they are headed to a weight lifting, the first of two trainings sessions that day.
“The bus ride is always total shenanigans with the people I sit around with. Usually that group is Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger. It’s just fun and good vibes heading into our workout.”
First stop of the day: weightlifting. The WNT usually spends about 90 minutes at the gym, and each player has a specialized workout sheet that is tailored to their needs.
“At lifting I usually spend time on my shoulders and continue to strengthen my back; things I need as goalkeeper. Every day I hit the ground, so I have to make sure my arms are strong. Shoulder strength and shoulder stability are key to make sure my arms are moving well and to prevent any injuries.”
As the team exits the gym, several fans await them by the bus and most players, including Harris, stop to sign a few autographs and pose for a few selfies.
“It’s always just really cool to stop and have a chat with the younger generation after or before training sessions. They’re just awesome.”
“Our van leaves the hotel about 45 minutes before the field players whenever we go to the training. I always have a pre-training and pre-game routine of taping my fingers and hands. It’s a personal preference and to be honest, I’ve always done it. Being at training earlier helps us get some good stretching in, stay focused and it allows us to nail down techniques and work individually and collectively as a small group before we jump in with everyone else.”
For afternoon training, Harris, along with Alyssa Naeher and Jane Campbell, as well as goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, all pile into a team van and head to training earlier than the field players to spend some time working on their technique and specific areas before the rest of the team arrives.
“Alyssa and I have very good communication and no one has a better view or can critique one another better than each other. If we see something we tell each other and help each other out.”
After training, the players all cool down, chat with each other, hydrate and reflect on the session they just completed.
“We tend to immediately grab our protein shakes. We talk about the day, what we saw on the field, what we can fix, what wasn’t good, what was good and we just overall critique the game in every way we can to become better.”
“Once we’re back in the hotel, it’s all about treatment. Like true professionals, we must take care of our bodies and be responsible to get the treatment we need. Our bodies take a beating from all the impact at training so we take care of it to do it all over again the day after.”