By Jack Bell
For most soccer players, a mention of the ladder conjures images of a masochistic training tool devised by some cruel, mad-scientist-like coaching genius. It is not so much a matter of going up the ladder, as going through the ladder and enduring the myriad moves with some fancy, quick footwork.
As ubiquitous as the ladder is in soccer training, for aspiring professional players the metaphor only works one way – and that route is up. Sarah Killion, the player taken No. 2 over all in the recent National Women’s Soccer League draft by Sky Blue, is no different.
“Growing up, soccer has meant so much, it’s all about trying to keep climbing the ladder and reaching the highest level,” she said. “Early on, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
A native of Fort Wayne, Ind. (Bishop Dwenger High School), Killion played four years in the midfield at UCLA, appearing in 88 games, 77 as a starter. In 2014, Killion tied the university’s single-season assist record (12) while starting in all 24 games for the Bruins.
Last year she also earned her first call-up to the United States senior women’s national team, making the trip to Portugal for the Algarve Cup, although she was not listed on the team’s final roster for the tournament.
“I was there for the experience,” she said. “The roster was set at the beginning and couldn’t be changed. I may not have been on the roster, but I was able train with the players for two, two and a half weeks. It was a true learning experience, being thrown into training and scrimmages.
“I knew I could play at that level, though I have a lot of growing to do. It’s such high intensity and it takes getting used to. Their mentality is unbelievable. The intensity they bring to training, whether the session is light or hard. They are so cued in and so focused, it’s insane. I’ve learned that every time you step onto the field it’s a challenge.”
Earlier in her international career, Killion played for the U.S. U-18 national team and started for a U-20 team that won the World Cup in 2012. She then made the next step by being selected to the U-23 national team that won the 2013 Four Nations tournament. Though this year’s senior World Cup does not appear to be possible, the future is likely to be different.
The immediate challenge will begin to crystallize when Killion joins Sky Blue in early March for her first season as a professional. She signed an official contract (along with the Florida State defender Kristin Grubka (the No. 10 overall selection in the draft) on Feb. 3. As the No. 2 overall selection (Houston selected Morgan Brian with the top pick), much will be expected of Killion.
“Sarah is a very underappreciated player,” Sky Blue Coach Jim Gabarra said. “At UCLA, she was part of a once in a generation recruiting class. She does so many little things. She’s so smooth in possession, does a lot of subtle things off the ball, tactical defensive things. And unless you’re looking closely you don’t notice it. She’s one of those blue collar, hardworking kids who gets things done without drawing much attention. I see her stepping in right away. She has marquee, star quality.”
Gabarra said the draft was key for Sky Blue as the club hopes to improve on last season’s performance, when it finished in sixth place in the nine-team league, and out of the playoffs during the league’s inaugural season.
Now with the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada happening in the middle of the NWSL season, Gabarra said that Sky Blue is “built to have minimal impact during the Women’s World Cup in terms of being at the low end of the spectrum missing national team players for the tournament.”
The club will be missing national team players like Christie Rampone (U.S.), Monica Ocampo (Mexico), and Sophie Schmidt (Canada), and is still attempting to re-sign the Danish striker Nadia Nadim, which made the draft that much more important.
After taking Killion and Grubka (for whom the club traded up), Gabarra and Sky Blue selected Daphne Corboz (No. 22/midfielder/Georgetown), Shade Pratt (No. 25/defender/Maryland) and Chioma Ubogagu (No. 28/forward/Stanford). Though Corboz is from Green Brook, NJ (a player who fits in the with the club’s desire to field players from the state), she was expected to sign with Manchester City of England. Likewise, Ubogagu signed with another English club, Arsenal. How, when and if they fit in with Sky Blue remains to be seen, though it is unlikely either will be with the club at the start of the season.
“Carboz was part of the plan all along, even though we knew she was signing with Manchester City,” Gabarra said. “We wanted to make sure we got her rights. Her growing up in New Jersey is important, and it’s important we get some Jersey players. If she chooses to play over there now, we have her for 2016. She has the freedom to make that choice.
“We also knew that Chioma was going to Arsenal and that she holds a European passport. (She was born in France.) We took her to also get first crack if she decides to play in our league.”
But in Killion, Garbarra knows he has a sure thing, and Killion knows there is a spot waiting for her in New Jersey as she trains at home after completing her studies early at UCLA.
Speaking about being the draft’s bridesmaid, so to speak, as the No. 2 overall pick, Killion said: “It’s funny, I feel like the top five players in the draft, you can throw around numbers but it’s hard to say this person or that person is absolutely better. I’ve played with so many of those girls, we all have different attributes. To go No. 2 to a team that needs a central midfielder, I’m just so grateful they chose me.”
“For me, it’s about the team having a great season,” she said. “I may not have the most goals or the most assists, but I love being part of a team, and a team that is successful and does well. That speak so much louder than an individual player with all the stats. I will give 100 percent of what I have and hope for the best.”
Another run up the ladder.