May 20, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - For years, Emilee O'Neil had no plans to play competitive soccer again, which makes the recent turn of events all the more surprising.
O'Neil, the former Emilee Shim, is a rookie. Make that a 30-year-old rookie for Portland Thorns FC of the National Women's Soccer League, a first-year eight-team professional circuit that began play in April.
She is among 12 former Cardinal playing professionally in the U.S. and Europe.
O'Neil's path to the pro game was not helped by timing. Her graduation from Stanford in 2005 coincided with a gap between pro women's soccer leagues. The Women's United Soccer Association folded in 2003 and Women's Professional Soccer would not launch until 2009.
During that time, O'Neil did charity work in Kenya, guided hikers in Colorado, and even considered opening a café. But soccer? It was almost an afterthought.
"I was not expecting to end up playing again," O'Neil said.
Why should she? Until a season with the amateur Bay Area Breeze in 2012, O'Neil hadn't played in seven years.
"I joined for fun," O'Neil said. "But I had so much fun playing again, I realized how much I loved the sport. I made a decision last fall that I would make a full commitment to play."
O'Neil's taste of the game inspired a full-fledged return. She admits that she wasn't ready for a previous try at the pro game, having "backed away out of fear," she said.
But with the new league set to launch and with family connections in Oregon, O'Neil focused on an attempt to make the Portland squad and vowed to put in the work with "no regrets."
O'Neil contacted Portland coach Cindy Parlow Cone to let her know she was interested and, in a brief conversation ("she was really busy when I called her," O'Neil said), described her playing experience.
That experience consisted of 44 matches at Stanford from 2001-04. She started 20 in central defense, and played on four NCAA tournament teams. The Cardinal reached the quarterfinals in 2002, and she spent her final two seasons under current coach Paul Ratcliffe, graduating with a degree in human biology.
"I recognized from the beginning that I was pretty much a nobody besides my experience at Stanford," O'Neil said.
What she didn't realize was that her years away from the sport may actually have helped her cause. When she returned to the game, she was leaner and fitter than her former self. Her post-collegiate lifestyle was the reason.
She worked in Kenya for a non-profit organization called Hope Runs, and embraced the culture of the running-crazed nation, even running a marathon in Tanzania. It was in Kenya that she met her husband, Michael O'Neil, a former Stanford swimmer (class of 2002) and now a professional triathlete.
She later spent a month backpacking with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and remained as a backpacking guide for a summer for Young Life, a Christian organization serving high school-age kids, in the majestic San Juan range of southwestern Colorado.
There were some other stops. She returned to Kenya and then settled in the Bay Area to work for Kingdom First, a Christian organization serving students at Stanford, studied graphic design at the Art Institute of San Francisco and helped coach youth soccer in Palo Alto.
When O'Neil finally took the field alongside 85 other players during a two-day open tryout for the Thorns in late January, she was a different person.
"Even though I stopped playing the sport competitively, the time away helped me as a player," O'Neil said. "It changed my perspective. Mentally, I got a lot stronger in my game."
"Even though I stopped playing the sport competitively, mentally, I got a lot stronger in my game."
- Emilee Shim O'Neil
Though she didn't distinguish herself on the first day of tryouts, she certainly did on the second because of her composure on the ball in a full field 11-on-11 scrimmage.
"She reads the game so well," Cone told The Oregonian. "She's very tactical and very technical. She can play at different positions and, with a small roster, that was another key point for her. We needed players that were versatile."
O'Neil was signed as a discovery player and made the team during camp. She was the first player off the bench, at outside back, during the team's season-opening 1-1 draw against Kansas City on April 13, but has been hampered since by a hamstring injury.
"At this point, my husband and I don't have a plan beyond this year," she said. "We just want to enjoy where we are right now.
"This whole thing is surreal to me. I feel so grateful and so thankful. It was definitely unexpected."
* * *
Madeleine Thompson '13 brings another underdog story into the NWSL. She hardly played her first two seasons at Stanford before contributing as a role player as a junior, and then blossoming into a full-time starter midway through her senior season in central defense.
"I knew I could play at this level," said Thompson, now with Sky Blue FC, based in Piscataway, N.J. "At Stanford, having that confidence made me realize I could do it. And I pushed myself to do it."
Thompson used the Stanford coaches to help establish contacts in the NWSL and she soon secured several tryout invitations. Though she went undrafted, her rights were secured by Sky Blue as a discovery player.
"I worked as hard as I could athletically and as a team player," said Thompson, whose Cardinal teams went a combined 94-4-4, won four Pac-12 titles, reached four NCAA College Cups, and never lost at home.
Those were the same qualities that helped make Thompson one of Stanford's most popular players among teammates.
She has played in five matches off the bench for a Sky Blue team tied with Portland on top of the table with 5-1-1 records.
"They respect my work ethic and my ability to learn," she said. "If a coach says something, I can apply it in a game and on the field."
Thompson didn't arrive as one of Stanford's top recruits, but made a conscious decision after her sophomore year to push herself harder than ever to be the best player she could be. She stayed at Stanford during that summer and worked out every day with teammate Rachel Quon to emerge as a big contributor off the bench to Stanford's 2011 NCAA championship team.
Then, as now, Thompson has found a way to succeed.
Thompson is living with a host family in New Jersey while also completing the final two classes remotely for her product design degree. Thompson, flying back to campus when she can to attend classes and meet with her professors, will graduate in June.
"Everything is coming together," she said.
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O'Neil and Thompson are among nine former Stanford players in the NWSL, with five starting regularly. The others are goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart '04 (FC Kansas City), defender Rachel Buehler '07 (Portland Thorns FC), midfielder Mariah Nogueira '13 (Boston Breakers), midfielder Teresa Noyola '12 (Seattle Reign FC), forward Kelley O'Hara '10 (Sky Blue FC), outside back Rachel Quon '13 (Chicago Red Stars), and forward Lindsay Taylor '12 (Seattle Reign FC).
O'Hara, an outside back on the U.S. national team, is playing forward for Sky Blue and has two assists in seven matches, with Noyola and Taylor scoring a goal each for Seattle. Barnhart, Buehler, Nogueira, O'Hara, and Quon have been starting regularly.
* * *
Press has scored six goals in seven matches with the U.S. national team since receiving her first cap on Feb. 9 during a two-goal debut against Scotland in Jacksonville, Fla. Press, Barnhart, Buehler, O'Hara and the rest of the U.S. team, plays next against Canada in Toronto on June 2 (1:30 p.m., ESPNNews).
Press leads the Swedish Damallsvenskan with seven goals and is tied for second in assists with three. Her team, Tyreso FF, is tied for the league lead with LdB FC Malmo after seven matches with 17 points apiece.
Levin is playing for Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC, the league's fourth-place team, and has one assist.
Riley, who defined the outside back position at Stanford, is in her second season with first-place Malmo and has started five of the team's seven matches. In addition, she continues to play for the New Zealand national team. In March, she helped the Football Ferns to third at the Cyprus Cup, with victories over Switzerland, Italy, and Scotland, and a loss to England. They next play June 13 against host Australia.
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Incoming freshman goalkeeper Jane Campbell '17 and freshman defender Laura Liedle '16 are part of the U.S. Under-20 national team that will play two exhibitions during a camp in Gavle, Sweden, from May 24-June 3.
They are among 20 players invited on the trip that will include matches against the Sweden U-20 and U-23 teams. The U.S. is preparing for the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Canada.
Also, forward Courtney Verloo '13, who will be a fifth-year senior at Stanford this fall, was among 24 players at the U.S. U-23 camp held at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., from May 11-18.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics