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The rise of Kristen McNabb

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The second year defender could be establishing herself as Seattle Reign FC’s next impact player.

Photo by MikeRussellFoto

When talking about soccer, there’s a belief that if a defender is having a quiet day, then chances are they are having a good day at the office. Often, when the commentary is mentioning a defender, it’s not in a good tone, as they’ve had a play or two that is not going to end up on their highlight reel. Or, on the extreme side of things, you’re a habitual line-stepper like Sergio Ramos.

That said, defenders can get the spotlight for moments of brilliance, like Meghan Klingenberg’s miraculous goal-line clearance at the 2015 World Cup. Spotlight moments may come few and far between for defenders compared to forwards, but when they post solid, consistent play match after match, eventually they’ll make a name for themselves. When it comes to Seattle Reign FC defender Kristen McNabb, we could very well be witnessing the start of that.

Like with most sports that have drafts for college players to go to the next level, success among late-round draft picks is few and far between. While the NWSL has a few success stories with late-round draft picks developing into impact players since the league started in 2013, there are still far more players that don’t make the team sheet on match day. Yes, Seattle drafted goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer in the inaugural college draft with their fourth round pick (and overall second to last) but Ellen Parker (2014), Kendall Romine (2015), and Lindsey Luke (2016) are just entries in the club’s draft history. Then comes Kristen McNabb in the 2017 draft, and this could be another instance of the club finding and developing talent into being a mainstay.

Halfway into her rookie season, McNabb said it exceeded any expectations she had, and it’s easy to see why. McNabb’s rookie season finished with 18 appearances, 14 of them as a starter, and claiming a goal as part of a 5-1 demolition of Houston Dash.

There was also the 1-1 draw against FC Kansas City on June 24 where she was instrumental in holding the line after Seattle lost defender Lauren Barnes to a red card in the 4th minute. Her press conference from that match included a wonderful moment where Laura Harvey interrupted McNabb, praising/embarrassing her like the proudest of parents.

It’s fascinating to see her sophomore season so far start off strong. In fact, I asked her a couple questions about it.

“I think a big difference in my game now after being in the league for a year is that I’ve learned to read the game better and have adjusted to the speed of play. The forwards in this league will finish their chances so I’ve had to learn to try and anticipate more and lessen the amount of opportunities they get,” McNabb says about the evolution of her game from her rookie season to where it is today, including an NWSL tradition of an off-season loan spell to Melbourne Victory in Australia’s W-League.

After the scoreless draw against Chicago Red Stars two weeks ago, I asked Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski about McNabb’s emergence as one of his regular starters. “McNabb has been very solid on training. She didn’t start the first couple of games but she fought hard, she battled, she earned her spot on the team. She’s been very consistent and done well every game she’s played.”

He went on to praise the partnership McNabb had with stalwart Lauren Barnes and how the two were effective in stopping one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, Sam Kerr.

If there is one thing that has stood out with McNabb’s game so far this season, it has been her partnership with the other center back. Prior to the Red Stars match, the center back pairing for Seattle was Kristen McNabb and Megan Oyster. We saw the debut of this pair at the April 28 match on the road against Orlando Pride, keeping Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux quiet. The duo would get the starts for the next two matches, and while Oyster has been sidelined with a knee sprain for the last three matches, McNabb has started every game since April 28. There has been rotation at all other spots on the back line and with goalkeeper for Seattle, but McNabb has been the one constant through all of this — pretty remarkable given Seattle’s off-season that saw a lot of changes to the roster, which McNabb admits, she thought she’d be part of it.

“With so much turnover in the league this year I thought that there could be a definite possibility of a chance for me. I was excited when Vlatko was appointed the head coach because of all the great things I had heard about his coaching style and style of play, so I was kind of just crossing my fingers hoping to stay in Seattle,” McNabb says.

“We talked about how he was a center back throughout his entire playing career and how he always puts a special focus on defense. He just said that he thought he could help make me a better player and I was excited about having a coach that really focuses on the defensive side of the game.”

McNabb says she didn’t get any specific objectives from Andonovski about her time in the W-League, just to get minutes under her belt. Which she did, starting in all 11 appearances she made for Melbourne Victory, even claiming a goal in a 2-1 victory over Canberra United on October 28, 2017. The loan spell in Australia looked solid from an overall statistics view, with plenty of positives that McNabb took away from the experience — just don’t expect her to become a fan of Vegemite anytime soon.

“Not going to lie, I smelled it and couldn’t muster up the courage to try it. So I’m just going to go ahead and give it a thumbs down based off of the smell alone.”

One thing we’ve learned about Andonovski is that he likes to break up the roster at training into smaller groups, with him and his coaching staff working on position-specific drills and tactics. It’s no surprise that him working directly with the defenders that we’re seeing McNabb evolve before our very eyes. Of course, there’s still a long way to go with this season in the context of what kind of player Kristen McNabb is going to turn into. There will be some moments of brilliance, some moments of regression.

Katie Naughton of the Chicago Red Stars is a defender that was taken in the second round of the 2016 college draft who has developed into a staple of Chicago’s back line. Of course you want see players like McNabb, Naughton and others that develop into solid players and beyond in the NWSL get those national team call-ups and show what they can do bigger, brighter stages. Though as we know, those opportunities are more dictated by other factors, far beyond what the player does on a field for 90 minutes.

Where her development as a player goes will remain to be seen, but if we truly are seeing that story written out in front of us, then Kristen McNabb’s sophomore season with Seattle Reign FC could very well be signaled as her arrival as their next impact player.