When OL Reign forward Tziarra King – Zee for short – elected to go to NC State for her college soccer career, she entered with zero expectations and zero pressure. NC State was 4-15 overall the season prior, and 0-10 in ACC conference play.
"There was absolutely no pressure going in," King said in a conversation with Ride of the Valkyries. "So I was like, 'Great, I can thrive in this.' The expectations were obviously high because we brought in a whole 12-person class. But still, we went 0-10, so there was just freedom to be."
That pressure-free start allowed King to have a standout college career. She finished with 48 goals and 115 points, putting her third in the Wolfpack record books in both categories. She also became her team's first All-American in 24 years, scoring 13 goals and earning 32 points her senior year.
The other important thing college gave King was stability and certainty. She knew where she'd be for the next four years.
Entering the NWSL three years ago, she found the opposite. You got drafted to a team, had no control in the decision, and were fighting every day for a spot on the roster, or to be in the lineup. There was no guarantee you'll be back for another year.
"Everybody wants to win all the time,” Zee said about the NWSL. “It doesn't matter if we were at the bottom of the table last year. It's competitive. We are fighting, and there's no stability. There's no guarantee that you'll be back here. It's just a completely different beast. A beautiful beast, but it's also emotionally really tough."
The reality of a competitive league like the NWSL is that very few rookies make an immediate impact. It can be easy to compare your career to Sophia Smith or Ashley Sanchez, who jumped straight from college into starting roles. But they are often the exception, and no journey is the same.
"Naturally, you're going to have that comparison, but you have to not let that drag you down. Because then it's a spiral. ‘Well, maybe I'm not good enough. Why am I not doing the same things?’”
Those internal battles can weigh on anyone – especially a professional athlete whose performance is always on display for the world to see. You are judged by every touch, every run, every shot. That pressure was getting to King after a couple of years in the NWSL.
“I think for a really long time, soccer is just pressure. High pressure, not really fun, all about performing results, and in the moments when that wasn't going my way – which obviously sometimes it's not going to – it was just a spiral of, ‘Maybe I'm not good enough.’”
Brains can be tricky masters of deception and often have protection mechanisms in place that don’t actually protect us in the end. King recognizes that some of her own negative self-talk during the tougher moments was her brain trying to protect her.
“It's like, okay, if I protect myself and say this is going to be bad or I'm not going to be good today or whatever, then it's less disappointing because I knew that was going to happen.”
But that was doing just the opposite for her – negative self-talk was limiting her play at times, which could then send her into a spiral. So in 2023, King set a personal goal for herself: to play with joy, because that’s when she plays her best.
“When I'm having fun, when I'm enjoying soccer is when I'm playing my best. Not putting the pressure on myself to be the hero, or just getting the simple things done and being effective, is when I play my best,” King said.
To do that, King is choosing to focus on the little things.
“I just think that finding things to be excited about, finding the little things like, what am I looking forward to in training today? I can't wait to play rondo. I can't wait to make my pass clean. Stuff like that, to be like, ‘Yeah, this is enjoyable.’”
She also had to stop comparing herself to others and start enjoying the journey that she was on.
“The reality of the situation is my path is just different. And whatever that path looks like for me – ideally I would like it to be more minutes, more playing, more impact, but that's not what it is right now. So how do I get there? How do I continue this journey knowing that I want more while also still being in the moment that I'm in?"
That joy King has been intentionally cultivating was on full display back in May, when King had one assist, had a slightly deflected pass result in another goal, and saw her shot pushed off the crossbar in the Reign’s 3-0 Challenge Cup win against the San Diego Wave. She was fouled six times, which seemed like the only way the Wave could stop her.
Head coach Laura Harvey was full of praise for King after the match, noting how hard she'd been working in training.
"Honestly, I think for Zee, it's been her training habits. I think her training habits over the last few weeks, last month, maybe, have been exceptional – and it showed on the field. I'm so glad she got the reward for that performance tonight."
That match serves as a reminder to King of what happens when she gives herself the freedom to enjoy the moment.
"I think it just confirms the idea that I have in my head of: when I give myself the freedom to not overthink, the freedom to just be in the moment, to enjoy it, then I can be the best version of myself. When it gets all the way into the dark, I'm like, ‘Okay, I have to pull myself back out of this.’ Because if I'm having fun, I'm better. And so I think that getting to that point, playing such good soccer in that moment, and seeing that I can do that allowed me to continue to see that light.”
While she hasn't gotten on the scoresheet this year, King is in the 90th percentile among wingers in tackles, interceptions, and blocks. And she's in the top 20 in the league in possession won in the final third per 90.
A month after that game, photographer Nikita Taparia posted a series of photos that showed King smiling following an OL Reign win. The forward shared them on Twitter, noting how well they captured her journey.
"Gonna get personal for a sec ... This year I have been intentionally working to make soccer fun again. I’m finally enjoying myself and I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I’m really proud of myself. These photos perfectly capture my reality."
Harvey responded to King’s post, praising the forward for what she brings every day. “Your journey has not been easy but allowing the fun back in is showing on and off the pitch. Proud of you!”
On the heels of a promising performance in their scoreless draw against the Washington Spirit last Friday, which King said looked like some of the team's best soccer all year, OL Reign are entering a high-pressure weekend. In their last regular-season match of the year, the Reign have to win to be in control of their playoff destiny.
If the Reign want to get three tough points on the road and gain some momentum into the postseason, they should only look to King for guidance. Because just like Zee, when this team plays with joy, great things happen.
As for King, she's a restricted free agent at the end of the year – giving her the most autonomy she's ever had in her professional career (under restricted free agency, a player’s current club has seven days to match any other club's offer). One thing is clear about King: whether she stays in Seattle or looks elsewhere, she'll bring so much joy to her teammates – and hopefully will continue to find it herself.