Christine Nairn interview: Moving with the rhythm of the pacesetters – Spirit midfielder shooting to thrill and smoothing it out
Sitting top of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with Washington Spirit at this early stage of the season, Christine Nairn’s career so far has been as much about refining her thinking as learning to boss a midfield, with sounds around to step to in the haste, or heal to in the calm.
The picture of Christine stood over a set-piece with purpose is one we have become accustomed to, while the sight of the former Penn State standout gleefully celebrating a stunning strike – like the ripped long-ranger to dramatically sink Houston Dash two years ago this month – is also far from unfamiliar. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see her making a consistent impact domestically, given she was scoring for the U.S. Women’s National Team at just 18, and back in October she received a long-awaited recall to the squad.
Into a historic season four of the NWSL, she continues to be one of the league’s most productive and dangerous midfielders, and after playoff semi-final losses with Washington in the last two years she is set on going two better and winning the Championship sooner rather than later. The Spirit have begun the current campaign with three wins and a draw to push them into first place and Christine, 25, has played in each.
This site is about getting to understand the characters behind the competitors in the game, with music a central theme of the interviews. Particular songs and artists have incredible meaning and power to certain people in their life, and in soccer, music’s presence can spark up a locker room or stadium and bond individuals together, if only in the moment.
Long before the prospect of turning pro even came into view, Christine had the euphoria of winning the 2008 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Chile. As well as in such times of heightened feelings she also turns to tracks when she wants to take it all down a notch.
“I listen to a bunch of different artists depending on my mood, whether it’s getting pumped for practices, games, the gym, or driving home from any of those events. My favourite artists right now are Timeflies and The Chainsmokers.
“I don’t know how popular Timeflies are, but they take top 50 songs and mash them with their raps. The Chainsmokers have a few hits out right now and they are always playing in my car and in the Washington Spirit’s locker room.
“I don’t listen to the radio too much, because I like to find my own type of music and not overplay songs. When I am driving home, I listen to more mellow types of music like Bob Marley or Mumford & Sons.”
Ending high school as Archbishop Spalding’s all-time leader in goals, assists and points, Christine’s four-year collegiate career at Penn State also took its place in school history. Along with her 34 goals she also provided 41 assists to rank second on the program’s all-time list, playing an integral role as the Nittany Lions reached their first National Championship in 2012.
A terrific senior year, which brought her the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year accolade and a place in the NSCAA All-America First Team, finished in San Diego’s Torero Stadium against North Carolina. Although Christine set up Taylor Schram’s goal, Penn State were beaten 4-1 by a UNC side featuring current National Team forward Crystal Dunn.
Both she and Christine went to the Spirit for the 2014 NWSL season, with Dunn the top pick in the College Draft and Christine heading back to her native Maryland by way of a multi-player trade from Seattle Reign. It is fair to say their connection on and off the field has grown and grown since and both are undoubtedly considered among Washington’s and the league’s most potent threats.
In 2015, 23-year-old Dunn just about took the term ‘breakout year’ to a new level, scoring 15 goals to finish five clear as NWSL top scorer as well as earning league MVP recognition. Two years ago, Spirit keeper Ashlyn Harris (now with Orlando Pride) was an in-depth feature on here and she told how Dunn was leading the way with the team’s pre-game entertainment behind the scenes, from DJing to dancing.
Back to 2016, Christine explains how much of the team’s present-day playlist comes from her lively friend, and how much from herself.
“Crystal Dunn is always on the music in the locker room. I think she uses Spotify, so we are able to think of any music on the fly and she has it.
“She’s got good taste, but her and I collaborate a lot on what song to play next. No one has complained, so we are guessing we’re killing it!”
That’s how it goes down in the home locker room at Maryland SoccerPlex, which is somewhere Christine got to know extremely well when she was growing up. Coached by her dad when she was young and driven to practice by her mom, she wanted to be like her two older brothers, T.J. and Kevin, and it was from playing soccer with them in the yard that she became acquainted with the game’s rough and tumble.
Her siblings were both uncompromising defenders (partly why Christine wears ‘unflashy’ black boots now) who played collegiately in their home state – T.J. at Salisbury University and Kevin at Anne Arundel C.C. – and their little sister watched them play from the hill at the Plex once upon a time. A Maryland State Cup champion with her club team, Freestate Shooters, Christine would play on that field on numerous occasions as she made her way up as a youngster, and she did so for her final game on the road in her rookie NWSL season.
That appearance as a visiting player was for Seattle Reign against the Spirit as they came to the last knockings of what is perhaps best described as ‘a building year’ for a team that has gone on to finish 1st in the last two regular seasons. Laura Harvey’s team came 7th in that inaugural 2013 campaign and it was undoubtedly a learning curve for Christine to experience so many adverse results after the winning habits she had been used to in college and previous.
Along with Jess McDonald, Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock, Christine was one of the team’s main producers, scoring three goals and adding five assists to put her among the league’s top suppliers. Taken seventh in the first round of the 2013 College Draft, she was praised by her coach Harvey for being able to see and execute passes others can’t.
It had been a shock when she found it was the West Coast where she’d be kicking life off as a pro, but a trade was to send the Bowie native home as she joined Washington for 2014. The Plex represents a piece of home and memories of yesteryear for Christine, as does a compilation album series which has been released around the world in recent decades.
The first edition of the U.S. series came out in 1998, featuring Janet Jackson, Hanson and K-Ci & JoJo amongst others. Christine recalls its part in her early life, along with some split loyalties that existed in her boyband world back then!
“The first CD I ever bought was ‘Now’ (That’s What I Call Music!). It was a collection of the top 25 songs in the U.S. during that year, so you had it all on one CD.
“It was a pretty big deal at the time, but I think they are on like ‘Now 86’ so…does that make me old? Growing up in the 90s, it was all about *NSYNC versus Backstreet Boys; I was more of a Backstreet Boys fan, but I secretly still bought the *NSYNC CDs and hid them in the back of my massive CD case.
“That case probably weighed about 12 pounds so I’m glad I don’t have to lug that thing around now.”
With her debut season at the Spirit completed, Christine signed up to an off-season packed with new experiences far from home as she agreed a loan deal with Melbourne Victory in Australia’s W-League to close out 2014. She was on the scoresheet twice, with a magnificent swerving right-footer going in off the crossbar to beat former Australia captain Melissa Barbieri in a game with Adelaide United.
Having reached the NWSL playoffs that year she made the W-League Finals as the Victory finished as runners-up in the regular season. Although Christine was a scorer in the shootout, they were defeated by eventual champions Canberra United on penalties in the semi-final after a goalless draw after extra-time.
The competition’s eighth and most recent season concluded in January and there was a new name at the winner’s table as the Manchester City-owned Melbourne City FC won all 12 regular-season fixtures before sealing Finals success. The Victory had lost key players to the new team in the city including captain Steph Catley and the vastly experienced forward Lisa De Vanna, while 2014 head coach Joe Montemurro also made the move.
Despite talks with City, Christine wanted to stick with the team that had given her the chance to come and play in Australia and she said she would be back every year she was wanted. She was under no illusion at the challenge it would be for the 2015/16 Victory and although she added another to her W-League tally in a win over Perth Glory they finished 9th, propping up the table.
As well as picking Jesus, Bob Marley and Céline Dion as her three dream dinner guests (adding she wouldn’t know what they’d talk about), Christine also once revealed that her first concert was Britney Spears! In the midst of her recent return to Aussie shores she took in a renowned music event that has attracted some notable international names through the years, such as Blondie, Kings of Leon and Public Enemy.
“I recently went to a festival in Melbourne, Australia called Falls Festival and it was awesome. There were some bands that aren’t very big in the U.S. so it was really cool to check out a totally different type of music.
“If I could see someone in concert right now (living or dead), it would probably be Mumford & Sons or Bob Marley. Either of those two would be ideal for me.”
The Christine Nairn who began college was quite different to the one who graduated. A communications major, when she initially chose to go to Penn State it was to play for Paula Wilkins, the coach who had taken the Nittany Lions to the 2002 and 2005 College Cups.
However, Wilkins would leave to take up a position at Wisconsin, meaning Christine’s coach would be someone she was familiar with from her time with the youth national team program, Erica Walsh (now Dambach). As a freshman, her first goal was the winner in a 3-2 comeback victory over UConn and she was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Rookie of the Year.
Seeing musicians performing in full flow can be a true celebration for everyone present, but it’s rather less the case when a player has to sing in front of their team! It has become a big part of soccer today at pro level and is certainly a widely-used initiation for college teams, so has Christine ever been put under this excruciating spotlight?
“Absolutely, we had to do it as freshmen on Penn State. It usually happened on away trips; you would pick a song, crank the volume on your headphones, and sing to the best of your ability.
“I’m pretty sure I sang a Backstreet Boys song – like I said, I’m a true fan. I can’t really remember who were the team DJs, but I am always in there somewhere, giving my two cents and trying to pick the next song.”
Edging out Boston Breakers in their home opener before wins at Sky Blue and Western New York Flash, and a home tie with Portland Thorns, Washington have conceded just once under new coach (and general manager) Jim Gabarra. In the 3-0 win over the Flash, Christine and Crystal Dunn combined in a move that swept over from the right to Diana Matheson in the left channel to finish for the first of her double.
An eternally expressive player, Dunn was the one who came to mind when the subject of singing teammates arose, although Christine explains that it probably takes a back seat to her other specialisms!
“I wouldn’t say Crystal Dunn is a singer, but she tries her best! She is more of the entertainer; she gets everyone involved and dancing around.
“We usually just turn the music up so loud that everyone feels like they are singing perfectly along with the artist.”
Division I college soccer is undoubtedly a strong grounding for moving into the pros and you certainly don’t reach a National Championship without possessing considerable attributes. Nevertheless, the script gets flipped in plenty of ways when you step up to the top level and it’s a case of establishing yourself all over again, with a more demanding judging panel.
Christine’s form as a rookie at Seattle was bright despite the struggle for team wins and it’s easy to see why Washington wanted her. Erstwhile Spirit boss Mark Parsons admired not just her technique and creativity but her desire to be the best.
In 2014, she scored six and assisted on two, with that aforementioned winner against the Dash leaving a keeper of Erin McLeod’s quality flying through the air but getting nowhere close. After that game, Houston’s Ella Masar praised Christine’s ability and said she had been a thorn in her side since Penn State.
As well as the audacious hits in open play she is largely the choice on set-pieces and her growing back catalogue of goals includes a free-kick past Penn State teammate Alyssa Naeher in the Spirit’s win over Boston Breakers at Harvard Stadium in June 2014. That was a left-footer into the bottom corner, but in her response to this next question she identified an accomplished right-footed master.
Imagining having an empty field to practice in, with any player from history to work on her shooting with, her choice was a former England captain who, for all his global fame, was a world-class competitor who consistently delivered, from open play and most famously, from dead balls. Along with precision, he did it in his own unique style that so many growing up in England and around the world tried to emulate, and Christine details why the Manchester United great would be on the field with her in this scenario.
“It would have to be David Beckham. As corny as it sounds, his ability to bend the ball is something I envy.
“I have watched hundreds of videos of his technique, read his book, and watched old games of his. I actually try to implement some of his advice into the way I take every free-kick.
“In his book, he explains that every time he took a free-kick, he did the exact same routine: he would place the ball, set his plant foot, and count his steps. He makes it into a science and I try to do the exact same thing.
“Obviously I need a lot more work to even come close to his worst free-kick, but I have always enjoyed working on the technical side of my game.”
A four-year member of her high school’s varsity basketball team and a National Honor Society member, Christine’s soccer achievements made her the Gatorade Maryland State Player of the Year from 2005-07. She was a four-year captain for her Region I Olympic Development Program team and won the regional ODP championship in 2006.
She began with the National Team as young as nine years old and played up through the age groups to Under-23 level. A co-captain during her U20 career, she had the glory of a World Cup win in Chile in 2008 as Tony DiCicco, who of course led the seniors to success in 1999, steered them to the trophy.
Crossing for Keelin Winters to head home in the 3-0 quarter-final win over England, Christine started as the U.S. beat North Korea 2-1 in the final and was actually the youngest member of a squad containing the likes of Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Meghan Klingenberg and Alyssa Naeher. Earlier that year she had been called into the senior squad as the youngest player and in May 2009 she won her first full cap under Pia Sundhage in a 4-0 win over Canada.
Two months later, her goal was the only one of a game with Canada in Charleston, coming in the 89th minute – not bad for an 18-year-old on her second cap. During Tom Sermanni’s time in charge he confirmed that Christine was a player on the radar for selection, and although she has trained with the team since she won her first caps, she had to wait until October 2015 for a recall with a game on the horizon.
Jill Ellis, once the U20 coach among her other roles, brought Christine in for the world champions’ Victory Tour games with Brazil in Seattle and Orlando. Although that next cap is still being worked toward, a 2015 with Washington which heralded five goals and four assists is a springboard for a 2016 which may ultimately bring just that.
Driven focus is always a necessity, yet the need for fun along the way can never be written off. Music invariably springs up somewhere along the line when the National Team is involved and as she was asked about recording a song cover with any career teammates she has had, Christine coincidentally put together a Spirit group in which every member has a background with the U.S. team at some level.
“I would have to pick Crystal Dunn, Megan Oyster, and Caprice Dydasco, because we would all know the words. I think we would have to stick with the Backstreet Boys’ songs.
“Crystal and I would be lead vocals – obviously – and Meg and Caprice would be our back-up dancers because they have some sweet moves.”
Last year saw Christine become a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Maryland, and if it is ultimately coaching that she turns her full attention to one day, then she will perhaps share just as much from her collegiate career as her life as a pro. She credits the mentorship she received at Penn State from Erica Walsh and her coaching staff as pivotal in helping her become who she is today.
What started as a ‘love-hate relationship’ as Walsh did her utmost to push Christine onto new levels turned to incredible mutual respect and affection by the end of their time working together. As a senior, Christine described her coach as the best she’d played for, with Walsh reciprocating in calling her one of her all-time favourite players and people.
On that 2012 Penn State team were freshmen Raquel Rodríguez and Mallory Weber, who are both NWSL rookies this season, with Sky Blue and Portland Thorns respectively. En route to the Championship game, they had to overcome Michigan at the Sweet 16 via a penalty shootout (in which they’d fallen two behind) and Christine was asked by Walsh to fill in at left-back in overtime.
That willingness to place herself in the unfamiliar for her team was symbolic of how far she’d come in her four years and Walsh saw the clear motivating impact Christine had on her teammates as they went into overtime in the College Cup semi-final with Florida State. Two minutes into that overtime, she struck her 17th of the season as she tapped home Maddy Evans’ parried attempt to send them to the Championship game with North Carolina.
That was her last goal with the Nittany Lions as her college days closed with her a four-time All-Big Ten First Team selection and a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree. Christine was a runner-up in the MAC Hermann Trophy in a year she looks back on as the time where she ‘got her act together mentally.’
At 25, Christine is in an undeniably precious situation of potentially having years to play ahead of her, while also being acutely aware in the present of the need to make the most of all that comes her way. As she tells what her years so far in the game have shown her about herself she also reveals a reminder she keeps with her whenever she steps on the field.
“I think sports in general teach us so much about life and ourselves individually. Soccer has taught me that bad things are always going to happen – in life, soccer, school etc. – but it’s how you react in those moments that define you.
“I found this quote from Aristotle in college, and it has helped me grow as a player and person: ‘I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is victory over self.’ I think that young players’ biggest critic is themselves, and that can make or break a player.
“At times growing up, it broke me as a player and I wasn’t able to get past my mistakes on the soccer field. If you can control your attitude, you can control your journey as a player and person.
“Like I said before, bad things are always going to happen, but it’s about how you react. To this day, I tape my wrist for each game and write ‘VOS’ – Victory Over Self – as a mental note.
“I’m not always the best at controlling my attitude, but I try to get a little better each and every day.”
Christine also counts ASA Chesapeake Charge among her career clubs, where she played in the 2012 Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) Elite season. The Charge were another team to see her free-kick scoring precision first-hand, although it will be less called upon in this final situation.
For anyone reading the site for the first time, players from various teams and leagues from around the world have been asked in the last few years on here to take it to the fantasy small-sided arena. The idea is to imagine their own team of five, and they are required to select four teammates from any time in their career to make up the group.
Admittedly extremely difficult for most players to narrow it down, the responses give a genuine insight into what knowing and working with these characters up close is really like and what makes them the performers they are. There is no emphasis on selections needing to be the ‘best’ players, so there can be any reasons behind their choices.
Here is Christine to introduce a sample of the many players she could have chosen.
“Wow, this is going to be a tough one. I’ve had the honour of playing with such great players from around the world, so it’s hard to pick one teammate per position.
“The goalkeeper I would pick would be Alyssa Naeher: I played with her at Penn State and believe she is one of the best in the world. She makes the hardest saves look like a walk in the park, plus if she’s on my team I don’t have to worry about her stopping my shots.
“My defender would be Ali Krieger because her work rate, athleticism, and technical ability is second to none. The midfielder I would choose is Jess Fishlock: I only played with her for one year at Seattle Reign, but she is the complete midfielder.
“She is a nightmare to play against, but I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. As my forward, Crystal Dunn, because I’ve had the privilege of playing with her for the past two years and the scary thing is that she hasn’t scratched the surface of how good she can become.
“I can’t wait to see how she does for us this year at Washington Spirit.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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