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A unique journey home for OL Reign midfielder Nikki Stanton

It all started in North Bend, Washington.

NWSL: North Carolina Courage at OL Reign Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Like many middle schoolers, Nikki Stanton spent time in her early teen years exploring her many interests. A lot of those activities involved sports, as the North Bend, Washington, native was following in the footsteps of her brother, who was three years older than her. Basketball, track, volleyball, gymnastics, tennis ... “all the things,” Stanton said in a recent conversation with Ride of the Valkyries.

That laundry list of interests included Irish dance competitions, which she did for six years. As she progressed in middle school, however, Stanton had to choose.

“There came a point where I had to make the decision. It was, ‘Nikki, you can either keep doing Irish dance or you can do soccer.’ Because I had Irish dance festivals on the weekends, and I had [soccer] practices on Fridays and Sundays.”

Ultimately, for as much fun as she had with Irish dance, Stanton couldn’t give up soccer.

“I chose soccer, and I’m so happy that I did. I’m just so grateful every day that I get to literally play a sport for a living.”

Stanton was playing up an age group with her local team in the North Bend area at the time. When she narrowed her focus to soccer, she also made the move down to her age group and joined Crossfire Premier, where Stanton had the same coach for all of her U-12 to U-18 experience.

“It was really special. The teams were really good. Everyone on my team actually went on to play college. Those years were really special.”

Good old Connecticut

Stanton got great exposure to colleges while at Crossfire, but she really struggled when asked to think about what comes next. A lot of that comes down to who Stanton is as a person — someone who truly likes to live in the moment. That’s true today just as much as it was back in high school, when her parents began asking her about her college plans.

“My parents kept wanting to sit me down and be like, ‘What do you want?’ And I was like 15, 16 years old. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted to do the next weekend. And you’re gonna make me try to pick out what I want to do for four years?”

The question would often trigger fights in the Stanton household. While she was considering Fairfield University in Connecticut, the midfielder was also waiting for an answer from another school that was deciding whether to offer her a 20% scholarship or an 80% scholarship. It would have been hard to justify the tuition with the lower scholarship level, but Stanton could easily make do at the 80% level. The wait was unbearable.

“It was so stressful. One day, I just called up Fairfield and I was like, ‘Can I be number 7?’ And [the coach] was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘I’ll go there.’”

And that was that.

Unfortunately, Stanton tore her ACL a month before starting college. Not only was she arriving injured for her first college soccer season, but she had also traveled about as far across the country as possible and wasn’t really prepared for the cultural differences between the West and East Coasts.

“I showed up to Fairfield University with a knee brace that I had bedazzled — it was covered in gems. And I just remember the first day of classes walking with my knee brace, limping along, and I see this girl and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love your shirt.’ And she looked at me like I had seven zits. I went in and I told my friends and I was like, ‘Hey, why did she do this?’ And they go, ‘Well, did you know her?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘Why would you ever compliment a stranger?’ And that’s when I realized that I was gonna have culture shock over on the East Coast. I’m a big stranger talker. I wave to everyone. It was crazy, but I was there for five years and I survived. So we’re okay.”

She also desperately missed the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and in particular the easy access to hikes that she was used to while growing up in North Bend.

“Not everywhere in the world looks like this,” Stanton said, pointing outside the window of her apartment. “So I am glad that I did get to venture out over in good old Connecticut and learn that we are so lucky to grow up here.”

Discovering her strengths

When Stanton was in high school, she mostly played attacking midfield and forward. She was quite successful in both positions. Stanton earned four varsity letters at Mount Si High School, leading the Wildcats to three state quarterfinal appearances and 46 wins. She finished her high school career with 26 goals and 34 assists. Her Crossfire Premier team won five state titles and a Region IV Championship in 2006.

Today, however, Stanton is known as a defensive midfielder who wins and goes hard into tackles and isn’t afraid to get into duels with any opponent. She’s second in the league this year in tackles won per 90 minutes (4.1 per match, with a league-high 76.5% success rate). She was in the top 10 in 2021 and 2019 as well.

So, how did that transition from attacking to defensive midfield occur? There was a moment in high school at an Olympic Development Program (ODP) camp that really flipped Stanton’s mindset.

“We were playing a game, and I wasn’t playing very well. And someone kicked the ball and it knocked the wind out of me. And something just clicked in me that I was like, ‘I’m gonna hit people. I’m gonna be aggressive because I’m angry.’ And I just was like tackling, and the coaches afterward were like, ‘That was incredible.’ And I feel like that’s the moment that I was like, this is what I have that’s special. I can hit people. I can tackle people.”

Stanton was quick to note with a chuckle that, in her defense, she always thinks she’s going to get the ball. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out and she gets a foul called or earns a yellow card. But that tenacity and athleticism have made her so valuable to teams across the NWSL and when she’s gone to play abroad in Australia and Norway.

Betting on herself

Stanton’s journey from college to professional soccer hasn’t always been easy. She finished her college soccer career in 2013, the first year the NWSL formed. She’d thought about trying to turn pro but again struggled to make a decision. Her final college match helped solidify the decision.

“I remember we had our championship game. We were playing Monmouth and we lost, and I just had this feeling. I was like, ‘I’m not done yet. I don’t wanna hang up the boots.’”

The next spring, Stanton made her way to Portland for a preseason tryout, but she didn’t make the roster. She also was invited to the Reign’s preseason camp, but again Stanton was cut. She began to doubt herself.

“I had this moment where I was like, ‘Am I even good enough?’ So I started reaching out to all my old coaches, all my teammates, and asked, ‘What are my qualities? Am I good enough?’”

Everyone told Stanton she was, but she understood that she had to believe that as well. She decided to finally stop going to other people for validation and to start building herself up.

“I started to believe in myself and I think it showed in my play. That’s why, when anyone’s like, ‘Oh, what advice do you have?’ I’m like, ‘Honestly, just believe in yourself.’ And it sounds so cliché. I feel like we tell kids from a young age, ‘Believe in yourself, believe in yourself.’ And people told me that, but it didn’t resonate with me. And then I felt it on a cellular level.”

That belief earned Stanton a spot with Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC) that year and has carried her through nine years of professional soccer and more than 100 matches in the NWSL — a milestone she reached with OL Reign in early August.

A love for her teammates

Stanton started her NWSL career at Sky Blue and played there for four seasons. Those who have followed the NWSL over the years will remember the issues Sky Blue had around this time both on and off the field, from not providing adequate training facilities or housing for players, to abruptly parting ways with Christy Holly without a lot of details to share.

It wasn’t an easy ride for Stanton, but she is quick now to find positives in the journey. And most of those positives come back to one thing: her teammates.

“Sky Blue was tough. I obviously felt very small on the pecking order, so I didn’t really feel like I had any leg to stand on or to speak up on, but there were a lot of things looking back on now that were not okay. But I loved the girls. I absolutely adored the girls. And I think that a lot of times that’s what makes this job so memorable. It’s the people that you meet.”

In fact, one of her favorite NWSL memories was the game against the Reign right after Holly was asked to resign. Sky Blue went down 3-0 to the Reign, but the players rallied in the locker room at halftime and still believed they were going to win. While that match wasn’t a happy memory for Reign fans — as Sky Blue did come from behind to win 5-4 — it was a reminder of just how powerful the players can be when they come together.

“We had this slogan of, ‘You just had to be there,’ because of everything that happened there. It’s hard to put it into words. You just had to be there.”

That feeling of being powerless she experienced at Sky Blue is something Stanton holds onto now, as she doesn’t want any player entering the league to feel that way. She spoke with pride about how the players took the league back last year.

“Reading all the articles that came out last year really resonated with me, because I know exactly how those girls were feeling. We felt so powerless. I feel like there were some big issues that I was too afraid to say anything about, because I’m not guaranteed my contract and it’s like, well, if I put up a stink, then you could just let me go, cut me, send me on my way. Sometimes the younger players today will be like, ‘Oh, well, I don’t love my living, but I don’t want to say anything.’ And I’m like, ‘Say something, because this is your league, too.’”

Stanton’s time in Chicago was also a bit of a rollercoaster. She played in Chicago in 2018 and 2019, before spending 2020 in Norway. Stanton re-joined the Red Stars in 2021. Throughout those three seasons, Stanton struggled a bit mentally with her confidence, but she also fell in love with the city and she loved her teammates.

“The girls were great. I think, again, the girls are what keeps this career so special for me.”

Back home in Seattle

Playing in Seattle has always been in the back of Stanton’s mind. She’d be close to so many friends and family and close to so many outdoor activities. So when Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler asked last December if the midfielder would like to head back to the West Coast, she said yes. Two days later, OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey gave her a call. The Reign had traded for her.

“I’m home. It’s awesome.”

When asked how her expectations about the Reign matched with reality, Stanton was full of praise for the club’s supportive culture and for Harvey.

“The culture here is everything that I’ve heard it is like. It’s just so special and it’s like something I’ve never experienced. What I really, really value is just having a really genuine, supportive group of people. In my past teams, I don’t think it’s been that culture. And I think it stems from the people up top. And I’d heard incredible things about Laura. She’s literally the best. She’s so fun.”

While she’s had some tough moments in her professional soccer career, Stanton — who turns 32 in October — said they’ve only helped her appreciate this season with OL Reign even more.

“I don’t think I’d be able to appreciate what this club has to offer if I didn’t go through what I did with the other clubs.”

As for what the future holds for Stanton, with free agency opening up in the 2023 season ... well, just like back in high school, she struggles to answer that question. Right now, the midfielder is happy just living in the moment.

“I am so happy here, and I think I’ve always kind of envisioned ending my career here and just playing at home in the Pacific Northwest, you know? And I think now, my parents and my friends being able to come to all the games, now we’re at Lumen Field, which is like the epitome of sports in Seattle. It’s just so so surreal.”

But Stanton also admits that she really enjoyed her overseas stint in Norway and her offseasons playing in Australia — “it was like living a fake life” — and she could see herself on another adventure in the future.

Whatever choice she makes next, nobody can strip Stanton of the joy she’s felt this year in Seattle. Her journey has been a unique one, but Stanton is grateful for every moment because it led her back home.

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