Preparation for the 2021 NWSL season began last week as the league’s 10 teams (hello Racing Louisville FC) opened up training camp. The first phase of 2021 is the return of the NWSL Challenge Cup in April and then hopefully a full, regular NWSL season beginning in mid-May.
With the start of every training camp comes introductions of new names and reunions with familiar faces, and for OL Reign, one of those familiar faces is defender Kristen McNabb.
2021 will mark McNabb’s fifth season as not only a player within the NWSL, but as a player of OL Reign/Reign FC/Seattle Reign FC. Reaching your fifth year as a professional player in any team sport is far from guaranteed, and when you’re drafted in the fourth round and basically at the end of the draft, those odds are even more daunting.
Back in 2018, when the Reign were starting to hit their groove under the Andonovski era, you could see the potential of McNabb becoming the club’s next impact player. Player development has its expected ups and downs, but her growth and value on the field make it no surprise she’ll enter 2021 as one of the veterans.
As part of reflecting on the journey so far, I asked McNabb if she had been able to put into words last season: playing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the summer of Black Lives Matter protests inspiring the sports world to use its collective voice and platform in the modern civil rights movement:
It’s hard to even sum up. I just think last year was such a learning opportunity for myself and for everybody. And I think we as professional athletes have an opportunity to use our voices, but we also have a responsibility, individually and collectively. We want to inspire and encourage continual learning. Personally, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible over the last year and I hope to continue to learn from my teammates, my opponents, my coaches, just everyone I surround myself with. We as a team started some really great conversations and I hope they continue into 2021 and the future, and I just want to do everything I can to support people around me and to just keep learning.
Throughout OL Reign’s time at the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, players, from starters to the bench, coaches and technical staff, took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before each of their matches. McNabb may not be one of the more vocal players on the field, but do not mistake that for remaining silent, especially for something as quintessential as showing solidarity for her Black teammates. When I asked if she had any hesitation about kneeling during the anthem, she was direct:
No, there was no hesitation. I learned a lot and at the end of the day, I wanted to show as much support as I could for my Black teammates and I think there’s a ton of ways I can show that and I think kneeling was probably the easiest way I could.
It’s an ongoing journey for McNabb and her OL Reign teammates about what they can do to continue the conversations and take the lessons learned last year about how to use their voices and platforms as professional athletes to inspire change in their community. The club itself partnered with Black Future Co-Op Fund, offering player-autographed t-shirts and boots with the sales going directly to the fund. McNabb said supporting Black-owned businesses like restaurants in Tacoma and continuing the collaboration with Black Future Co-Op Fund, “is the least we can do, a really great starting point,” as they’ll continue to work to come up with ideas and actions throughout the year to address systemic racism.
“Me, a veteran?!”
It only took a day into training camp before McNabb said she was called the v-word. She described it as “crazy” that she has that status not only within the club, but within the league. “There’s so much change and turnover year after year, it’s kind of rare to be at one club for a good chunk of your career. It’s something I’m pretty proud of and I’ve grown to love this city and the fans. It’s been something really amazing to see the team grow and evolve year after year,” said McNabb.
Three players from the inaugural 2013 season, when the club was known as Seattle Reign FC, are still on OL Reign’s roster — forward Megan Rapinoe, midfielder Jess Fishlock, and defender Lauren Barnes. It is a fortunate mix of their skills still being at a high level and stability at which the club continues to operate. It’s not surprising those two traits also exist within McNabb to where she is just as much a mainstay as those three Reign Originals. McNabb describes herself as “a quiet, calming presence,” and isn’t that far removed from what it was like being the new face on the team:
I like to think back on my rookie year, when I was new. Walking in, it’s a scary environment, especially coming from college or being traded from other teams. I like to put myself in their shoes and try to make them feel welcomed. I do try and help them out as much as possible, answer any questions they have, make them feel comfortable on the field, in the locker room, or outside.
“Controlling the controllables”
As I discussed with McNabb about her entering year five and closing in on other milestones (she could reach 75 appearances for OL Reign this season) she doesn’t say there’s a secret to how she’s been able to become a mainstay on the team. “Go in, play to the best of your ability, work your butt off and hopefully good things will come,” is how McNabb summarized what she’s done to get to being a fifth-year pro.
McNabb says it was multiple ACL tears to start her college career at the University of Virginia that challenged her and inspired her mantra of “controlling the controllables.” Her first ACL tear came as she was entering college, resulting in her being a medical redshirt for her first season. When she recovered from that to play the following season, her other ACL was torn in the final game of the year. “At that point, I wasn’t thinking about a professional career, I was just... ‘Okay, get through college’,” said McNabb.
This mantra has seen her excel through three coaching changes. Laura Harvey (now USWNT U-20 head coach) drafted and coached her in 2017, Vlatko Andonovski (now USWNT senior team head coach) was her head coach from 2018 to 2019, and last year Farid Benstiti became the boss. That many coaching changes can do a number on the formative years of any professional athlete, but McNabb has accepted each change as a means to expand her skillset:
Change is hard in any aspect of life. Being a professional athlete, we’ve learned to get more comfortable being uncomfortable and embrace the change and the new environments and people. I think it’s been great to learn from three coaches with three completely different playing styles. I think each one of them has touched a part of my game that would have been on the back burner with another.
In a year marked by change, the NWSL was the first team sports league in the U.S. to play under the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NWSL Challenge Cup was played from start to finish without any interruption inside the Utah bubble. However, the very small sample size of matches there — along with the four in the NWSL Fall Series — only saw OL Reign play nine matches all year. Fans could only see through a computer screen what Benstiti’s vision might be, and at best it would be considered an incomplete grade if you were to give a fair evaluation. I asked McNabb for her perspective on Benstiti’s first year in charge of OL Reign and how hopefully a more normal and full NWSL season will allow us to see the full process come to fruition:
I think last year was definitely a learning opportunity for him. He really didn’t have a chance to get acquainted and dip his toes into the water with a pre-season tournament that we’re usually accustomed to. So with the Challenge Cup we hoped for the best, but I think over time he really did adjust and learn. I think this year will be a good hybrid approach of Farid’s style of play, but also taking into account the athleticism of our league and the nuances of it. I think he did an amazing job and we can only get better this year.
While they may have been few and far between last year, there were glimpses of what Benstiti’s system can produce on the field when impact players are available and when enough training sessions have been held. “With Farid getting more comfortable and having a better understanding of the league, we’ve only scratched the surface last year, so we’re excited to keep building and hopefully just have really successful season,” said McNabb.
“You could just rely on her.”
Harvey drafted McNabb with the 37th overall pick in 2017. The franchise’s first head coach remembers seeing her talents on display at Virginia and feeling that McNabb was more than capable of moving up to the next level.
“She was just someone that I saw who was very steady, just did all the right things whenever she needed to,” Harvey shared. “She wasn’t flashy and, you know, didn’t stand out in regard to something very specific, but she was just very, very good at everything.”
Harvey remembered being “shocked” that McNabb had fallen so far in that 2017 NWSL College Draft class and wasn’t about to pass up the chance to draft her to see if she could make the roster. McNabb herself described the opportunity as a “foot in the door,” but Harvey knew McNabb could do more than just make the roster:
For a lot of draft picks, they find it very difficult, you know the step up in level. She was very consistent in training and I can’t remember how many days of preseason we had that year, but it wasn’t many. The longer preseason went on, I remember myself and the staff just being like, you know, she’s not just now competing to get a contract. She surpassed that, she was competing to start and, you know, there’s not many fourth-round draft picks that get that opportunity so quickly. She definitely showed in that preseason that she could handle what was being put in front of her. She didn’t seem to have any preconceived ideas of who people were and, you know, sort of a stardom around who was on the team or who we were playing against. And I just remember having no fear and no anxiety at all about starting her in that first game.
During her rookie year, McNabb made 18 appearances for the Reign, with 14 of those being starts. Among the highlights of her rookie season was claiming her first professional goal (vs. Houston Dash) and anchoring the Reign backline after a red card sent Lauren Barnes out of a match against Kansas City only four minutes in. The 2017 season may feel like forever and a day ago, but McNabb’s contribution on the field that day resulted in a post-match press conference that is part of Reign lore.
While Harvey only coached McNabb for her rookie season, her two years as head coach of Utah Royals FC (since relocated back to Kansas City) still put her in a good spot to continue watching McNabb’s growth and adaptability to changing coaching styles. It doesn’t surprise Harvey that McNabb can handle the changes:
I think it’s just she’s reliable. I think you know exactly what you’re going to get from her when she steps on the field. And that hasn’t changed from game one to however many games she’s in now. Honestly, for a defender, a midfielder/holding midfielder, wherever she ends up playing, those types of players are what make teams successful. Yeah, you need the Jess Fishlocks or the Kim Littles. You need those sorts of players, but without the Kristen McNabbs, who are just so steady, teams wouldn’t be as successful. And I think that they’re hard to find. It’s the reason that when you find them, they stay around for a long time and especially in this league, I think that’s where players who are like that will have long careers. And you’re seeing that with Kristen.
And while five years is an incredible achievement, Harvey thinks McNabb is far from done:
She’s a great story for every college player that watches the draft and thinks that, you know, after the first or second round, then you don’t necessarily have a career. She’s definitely a fantastic story that you can. And she deserves all the accolades she gets, because to be picked in the fourth round, to stay on the same team for that whole time, and to be going into a fifth season as a veteran of a team is a fantastic achievement. And the crazy thing is there’s loads more to come with her, I think.
I relayed Harvey’s quotes to McNabb and the simple reaction she had was that word. As if her breath was taken away by them. Harvey’s reflection on McNabb’s rookie year brought up this anecdote from the defender:
I think I did come in a little bit — not naive, but I just didn’t know that many players. Obviously there was Megan Rapinoe, but I didn’t have this overall huge understanding of who was on the team and even who was in the league. So even in my first game, I look back and I was in a one-on-one with Sam Kerr and I just did not understand the magnitude of that. Now looking back, I’m like — oh my god. I think I was nervous, but I think if I really understood then, the nerves would have been ten times more.
And McNabb’s reaction to Harvey’s summarization of her career so far, and her versatility and dependability being instrumental to the team’s success:
Wow. That’s super nice to hear, you know. It’s nice getting to play the positions that I’ve played and sometimes you don’t appreciate it until you’re not playing. [You] fly under the radar, but put in the necessary work to let the stars shine, which I’m totally cool with.
If you looked back at the results of the 2017 NWSL College Draft, there are still plenty of players in the league, along with some who have hung up the boots. It would have been impossible to predict Kristen McNabb’s career playing out the way it has. From her point of view, all she wanted was that foot in the door opportunity — she has a quiet confidence, skills and a mindset that she knew could earn a spot on the roster in 2017.
And it’s proven to be the case for Kristen McNabb going on five years now. Like so many with an interest in the NWSL, McNabb crosses her fingers that we’ll all turn the corner on the pandemic and there will be a full, regular season for everyone to play. McNabb does not take her longevity in becoming a club and league veteran for granted, but it is far from over.
“I think it’s been a good and fun story, and I hope it’s still being written.”