Playing in the National Women’s Soccer League

September 7, 2017

Nikki Marshall currently plays for the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League. She was voted 2014 defender of the year and had a call up to the US Women’s National Team camp earlier this year. Nikki is a versatile defender who can play anywhere along the back line, although she was a standout forward while at Division 1 University of Colorado. While there she scored 42 goals and holds 17 records over four seasons of playing. She played several games for the U-23 National Team, including a tournament in La Manga, Spain in 2011. In August 2014 during the second to last game of the season she tore her ACL in a non-contact injury.

2014 started as a great year for you, with a call up to the national team and being voted defender of the year by your peers. How happy were you with your individual performances?

It was a good season – one of my best I would say – which is why I got called in to camp. But I would say I am never completely satisfied with my performances – I think I can always be better, which always plays in to how I evaluate myself. It was a shame how it ended [with the injury]. I wish I could have finished out that last game, and the question remains in my mind if it didn’t happen would I have gotten called into camp again? But overall I was pretty happy with my season.

Are you more affected by the result of a game or how well you played?

Definitely by how well I played, rather than the result of the game. I’m my own worst critic and have always done it that way, which sometimes works to my own demise but I also think that that is what has driven me to make it to the elite levels of the game.

Currently you’re rehabbing from ACL surgery at the beginning of October. How difficult was it to come to terms with that setback when it happened and as you go through the process?

I knew immediately I had done it. I’ve never done it before but I knew exactly what had happened – I felt and heard the pop and my knee just buckled as my toe got stuck in the turf. I was in a dead sprint and as I cut my knee just didn’t hold me. I’m 26 years old and I have done that cut so many times before so it is crazy that one time your body doesn’t do exactly what it should do, so it was very frustrating for me.

I had to have two surgeries. They flew me home four days after it happened because my meniscus was inverted so I had to have emergency surgery right away. From that I got all of my range of motion back in my knee but then I had to have another surgery a few weeks ago.

Have you set goals for your rehab and beyond? What motivates you to get through it?

Now I wake up every day knowing that unless I do the rehab well and correctly I’m never going to play again, so that motivates me. It’s pretty motivating when you wake up and you can’t walk! They told me it would be five months before I could play again, so around March of next year I should be back to 100%. It is at times frustrating now because I will watch the national team on TV and wish I had the chance to be there, but things happen and you get through them. It is making me a better and more patient person, and I think I understand myself a bit better now in times of adversity so it’s been good for me – there is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel.

[Nikki retired after this interview – in February 2015]

Do you think it will affect your performance and confidence when you are back? Will you be scared of doing it again?

Absolutely. Your hear horror stories of players who tear it once then they tear it again and sometimes again so I think confidence will be a huge thing. I don’t know until I’m actually there and I try to get through it but I think it will be very difficult to come back the same player. I know I will need to be able to do that same cut at the same speed 100 times again before I have confidence that my knee will be able to hold up.

Do you get any psychological support from the team staff?

They don’t. That’s an interesting thing though and probably a great idea that they should consider.

After a successful career at the University of Colorado, what made you want to continue in the game?

My dream was to play college soccer. I didn’t think I was good enough to play, so that was my highest ambition going through high school. I grew up in a small town and I had to travel pretty far when I decided that I wanted to make soccer a serious commitment. I had a great time in college and had coaches who invested in me and that was key. They were willing to put a phone call in and say hey this kid should get a chance at a youth national team. Once that happened I felt like I had the confidence to consider making a career out of it. At the time the WPS was going on and I knew that there was an opportunity if I wanted it. I wasn’t confident that I could get there but as I got into national team camps in college it became more of a reality.

How did you get to Portland and how many other stops/challenges were there along the way?

I had played for five years professionally before going to Portland. I was drafted by [Washington] DC and started and played every minute of every game. Jim Gabarra was the coach there and he really helped me. He had confidence in me and invested in me, which helped me build my way up.

Why the change from forward to defender?

I played forward my entire life. In college I scored 17 goals my first season, which was a record. When I got called in to camp I tried out as a forward and Jill Ellis was the coach of the pool I was in when I was 19. Her and Anson Dorrance both felt that I wasn’t technical enough, which I wasn’t, so they said they would try me at outside back. I was fast and athletic, which was my game – I was never the most technical player. They put me back there and I worked hard and it was a much better fit for me. Even my senior year of college I played a bit of center back when Bill [Hempen] needed me back there. At the professional level I haven’t really played forward – only for three games one season when Abby Wambach was gone.

If you’re in a pickup game in the park, where do you find you choose to play?

When I’m just playing for fun I would much rather play the glory position as a forward but if I’m training and I need to work on my game I choose center back. I would love the opportunity to play forward again if it ever came up!

How does the Division 1 level of college compare to the NWSL?

It’s completely different: it’s much more physical. I wouldn’t say the game itself changes much in that the American style of soccer is not necessarily beautiful in ways that we see it in other parts of the world but it is a very physical game – ten times more than the college level. People come out and they are aggressive and willing to use their bodies, which you don’t always see at the college level. There are also technical differences between the levels – passing with different surfaces of your feet and so on – but I think that being aggressive and good in the air are huge requirements for the professional level.

From playing in international tournaments with the national team do you notice different styles for each opponent then?

Yes, if you watch Japan play their game is completely different. They are so much more technical than us, good in small spaces and better at possession, and I think you find differences like that with most of the other teams in the world. We play a strong physical game and everyone else plays more creative and beautifully.

Currently you have a full time job in Colorado as well as playing in Portland. How do you balance both?

It’s difficult but unfortunately it’s something we have to do as the game here for women is not quite as big as we would like it to be so you can’t just make a living out of playing. Coaches, general managers and owners know that though and they are willing to be flexible with work schedule. I am training every day then in my off time I am blessed enough to have a job that I can do during off-hours. Sometimes I end up working until 8-9pm remotely in my office job just to make sure I can get it all done.

I would say that most other players coach as their supplemental job, but it is difficult on you physically. Being a professional athlete you have to be very careful with your body and really take care of yourself, so being on your feet for 3-4 hours after a tough session can be very difficult.

What does training look like? Walk us through a typical day/week.

At my club we train normally in the mornings but sometimes we change to accommodate the [Portland] Timbers because we train at the same facility. Sessions last about an hour and a half or so. Paul [Riley]’s sessions are short and sharp, which I love, and then we head back to the locker room, eat lunch and usually watch film for another hour and a half. We will watch the previous game and upcoming opponents, then tailor our upcoming practices to focus on what we need. Depending on the day we might also have lifting, which we do 2-3 times each week, then I go home and work. We train five days each week, play one game and have one day off.

How much do they control what you eat and drink? How about sleep?

They don’t really control that at all. We’re pretty responsible as professional athletes and they don’t have a ton of money to put into nutritionists so we have to be responsible on our own. Some people drink more than others and some eat differently, but if you are going to make it at this level you need to take care of your body and that includes eating and drinking the right amount. Last year Portland brought in a nutritionist for a day to speak about it but it’s up to you beyond that. I work with a nutritionist in my home town and he really helps me perform at that level. Sleep is huge for me and I don’t function very well without it. Most of my teammates are the same way so we all have pretty good sleep habits.

How do you travel to away games? Is there a routine for the trips?

It depends on the team and the coach, but Paul Riley is very organized. We arrive at the airport at the same time, wearing the same thing. We travel two days before the away game so we have another day to train at the location then we play the next day. It’s very regimented – our meals are at the same time before the game. Everything goes pretty smoothly. We train on the game field for some of the opponents, depending on whether they let us.

Portland is famous for community and supporter involvement. How much work do you do outside of soccer with local groups, charities and so on?

At least once each week every person on the team is doing community service so we are very involved. I will do it on my off day because of work, and then some times during the season we will have community weeks where we do even more. We’re trying to build the game and sport so it is very important to us. We want to be role models and show the community that women’s soccer is a good thing for them so that they will support us. We choose some events as individuals and I personally love working with kids, so I work with the Boys and Girls Clubs, we visit schools and hospitals and see kids there.

When you went in to the National team camp in the spring, was there a significant level difference? How was the training and social environment?

I would say that there is a pretty big difference. The level of play is similar to my club, particularly because Paul Riley is such a high level coach, but the atmosphere was different. People are very intense and when you show up and you’re new you’re there to take someone’s spot and they know that. It’s very competitive and not everyone is nice to you, but I get that and understand why. It was exactly what I expected but very competitive and intense.

Do players who have been through the teenage national team programs have an advantage?

Yes I think so. Politics is a big part of most areas of life and the youth national teams are no exception. Any chance you get to put your name out there will be huge for you. There are 2-3 players like Shannon Boxx who didn’t get called into a national team until she was 25 but most of them have been there at youth levels.

How did you get recruited by the University of Colorado?

Bill [Hempen] and Paul [Hogan] came to my games and saw something in me. I wasn’t very technical back then and that definitely grew through college. They recruited me hard and I was excited by the opportunity at the time. They came to club and high school games but there was a lot of club recruitment that helped. I did a lot of college showcase tournaments and they also came to state cup games. What also helped was that Bill was my ODP coach. I had a couple of full scholarship offers from other universities but they weren’t from schools that were as big.

Why do you think you succeeded ahead of others from your club and high school teams? Did you play outside of organized training?

I think a huge part of it was me working on my own. My best quality as an athlete and human is my work ethic. I was not one of the best soccer players and I’m still not on my team now but I work hard every day and I’ve hired and worked with trainers in my own time to help me. I always come in really fit, which I think is big for coaches at this level too.

Did you watch the game in any way when you were young?

That is one thing I would advise people to do that I never really did. My family supported me a ton but they were not in to soccer. I think Americans in general don’t watch enough soccer and learn about that game in that sense so our vision isn’t as good. We are not as good at possession because we don’t watch enough how to use it. By watching soccer you can learn your position and see how other people play it. My roommate this year Becca Moros watches games in every minute of her spare time. She will watch videos of her favorite players too, and you can tell the minute she steps on the field her vision as far as the game goes is so far beyond everyone else’s. She’s American but I would think she came from a different country the way she sees the game.

You’ve done some coaching at club level recently: what do you think your future will be in the game?

I would love to be involved as much as I can be. I would like to start with a couple of my own teams and maybe be a Director of Coaching one day, but I think that lifestyle is difficult – not having weekends and so on – unless you have a partner who understands or is also coaching. So I definitely want to be in the game but I don’t know if I could coach full time. I don’t know if I get enough enjoyment from it to have that be my only part of the game. I fear that I might never find something that gives me as much joy as playing does.

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