Kendall Johnson interview: Rip City to the world – Wanderers defender following a feeling

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Thorns FC
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Thorns FC

Representing her hometown at professional level for the first time this year, Portland Thorns defender Kendall Johnson has been back on loan with former team Western Sydney Wanderers of late, moving where the rhythm takes her as a love of life and longing for discovery plays on as her unfaltering melody.

Within the fascinating tapestry of soccer lies endless possibility for great storylines. The game is a vehicle which can take its passengers to wonderful new settings, while it also has an uncanny knack of returning people to places that hold various memories of a time gone by.

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, 24-year-old Kendall Johnson is currently in Australia for a second spell on loan with the Westfield W-League’s Western Sydney Wanderers, having initially joined the Red and Black last year. Spending her first two years as a professional player on America’s East Coast with Sky Blue FC, the University of Portland alumna has never ventured far from home in spirit and back in January she was brought back to the Rose City as the Portland Thorns acquired her from the New Jersey side.

The left-sider has now featured in all three of the National Women’s Soccer League’s seasons to date and proudly performed in 2015 with the backing of a city which signifies so much of who she is. A back-to-back state champion in high school, a coveted college player, and a FIFA Under-20 World Cup starter before making the pro dream real, Kendall has every reason to smile at where she finds herself.

However, it is beneath all the facts and figures that the intrigue lies and the story sits of a person who is finding her way, at both a high perch of her profession and at an early checkpoint in her adult life. Currently 19 hours ahead of Portland, Kendall has had familiar faces around this season, including Canada defender Carmelina Moscato and one-time college teammate, Seattle Reign midfielder Keelin Winters, who also returned for a second stint with Wanderers.

Kendall has been more than a little content during the second of her Australian adventures, with surroundings that have linked fittingly into her personality.

“I actually live more south this year and love the beach town I’m in; it’s a real laidback lifestyle which is very appealing to me. I like going out for a surf in the morning or after work and then hitting up coffee shops.”

National Champions in 2002 and 2005, the University of Portland teams Kendall grew up watching were a considerable part of her soccer inspiration. She would go on to represent the Pilots, making the NCAA tournament in all three of the seasons she played at UP, with a knee injury having claimed a separate year of play.

As a senior, she was named 2012 West Coast Conference Defender of the Year, while she also made the All-WCC First Team and WCC All-Academic Team. Kendall finished up her collegiate career with eight goals and 11 assists (27 points) from her 56 games (49 starts) and was taken at number 12 overall by Sky Blue in the inaugural NWSL College Draft in 2013.

Starting all 23 games her rookie year, including the semi-final loss to Western New York Flash, she contributed two assists from the back and would play a further 15 games for Jim Gabarra’s side in 2014. At the start of 2015, it was announced she would be returning to the Rose City, with Paul Riley identifying her as the only left-back who could adequately fit Portland’s system.

With Australian Steph Catley absent for the World Cup, Riley needed a player equally adept going forward as getting back and Kendall started 12 of her 17 appearances. It was in the 4-1 home win over Boston Breakers that she claimed her first assist, serving up a right-footed cross for Mana Shim to put away.

Although many know her as a player, it is through sampling the insight she offers into her life on her blog Arrow Living that you begin to understand her more personal side. A key theme of her site is to understand what we want in life and to pursue it relentlessly with passion and authenticity, and it is through her take on the sometimes extraordinary situations she finds herself in that you learn what ticks her boxes and what sours her iced Americano.

Music is most definitely on the valued side for her and no matter how she is feeling it always seems to have her covered, as she explains.

“Music plays a big part in my life; I really enjoy listening to music and it depends on what I am doing. I listen to different music to get me into the mood for certain things.

“I really like to write, so if I go into a coffee shop I’ll listen to laidback music, but if I want to get pumped up for a game I’ll listen to rap/hip-hop.”

Celebrating soccer and music and the many connections they share, this site asks the players to give their thoughts on how songs and artists affect their experiences as athletes and in their life outside the sport. The few months of an NWSL season ultimately produce a picture of the most consistent teams and individuals, although something you could never get from the standings is just how many memories are made in that time.

From the Thorns, the likes of midfielder Allie Long and now-retired defender Nikki Marshall have featured on here previously, with the aforementioned Mana Shim the most recent Portland player to provide her entertaining input into the lesser-seen aspects of the team dynamic. Kendall speaks favourably of the singing talent on the Thorns roster and although she doesn’t consider herself one of the most vocally-gifted she was always going to join in as the team sang ‘God Bless America’ to the World War II veterans who had shared a flight with them from D.C. back to Portland earlier this year.

That was a special moment and one which touched the team as a whole, but if ever there was a time Kendall had to take the lead, what route would she go down with her song choice?

“I haven’t ever had to sing for my teammates, but if I did I would sing ‘If I Were a Boy’ by Beyoncé.”

Although she had been back in Portland as an opposing player during her time at Sky Blue, Kendall’s move to the Thorns after some time away has allowed her to appreciate her home city again in a new way. Her father, Chris, won a state title with Lincoln High School’s soccer team and Kendall emulated him with the Cardinals in 2007 and 2008.

Kendall played high school soccer close to what is now known as Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers and the Thorns, of course. In college, she vividly remembers the strong and fervent support the Pilots would always receive from the home crowd at Merlo Field and it remains a meaningful place to her to this day.

Among the many things she loves about soccer is the continuous improvement that comes with dedicating herself to it. She was the kid who could pogo stick (and jump rope at the same time) like nobody else, but a t-shirt she had back then which read ‘I don’t play soccer, I live it’ said it all.

That became a childhood motto for Kendall and she made sure her mother, Ann, woke her for every U.S. Women’s National Team game at the FIFA World Cup in 1999 while they were on a family vacation at a beach house. Like so many who went on to play the game in the years that followed, she was enchanted by the U.S. triumph at that tournament and penalty hero Brandi Chastain was a figure who struck a chord with her.

A fellow Portland native who starred at UP is Tiffeny Milbrett, and Kendall remembers winning a pair of her cleats at one of her soccer camps when she was young. Milbrett reached a century of goals for the U.S. and along with Chastain was part of a top three Kendall looked up to as a youngster.

The other, unsurprisingly, was Mia Hamm, with Kendall wearing her number nine jersey on her ninth birthday and even receiving a honey baked ham from her Aunt T and Uncle Gary with a number nine taped on – an authentic ‘Mia Ham’. She dabbled a little in playing the guitar growing up but sports were a huge element for her and her two brothers, Connor and Brett.

A Portland Trail Blazers fanatic, Kendall played point guard at high school while also participating in track and field, before ultimately committing to soccer. She had joined her first club team at ten years of age and she recalls a tiny bit of the music track she favoured in that era.

“I can’t really remember what my first CD I ever bought was but I’m going to guess and say it was a Shania Twain CD.”


A slightly younger Kendall!
A slightly younger Kendall!


Along with her father, Kendall would go and watch the pre-MLS Portland Timbers at PGE Park and it was in that stadium that she saw the U.S. defeated in the 2003 World Cup semi to Germany as a 12-year-old. Involved with the Olympic Development Program, she was first called into the Under-20 setup at 18 and would win the CONCACAF Women’s Championship with the team in Guatemala in 2010, where Sydney Leroux top-scored for the U.S.

Later that year she went to the U-20 World Cup in Germany, starting every game before the team were ousted by Nigeria on penalties in the quarter-final. Kendall thinks back to the current Washington Spirit standout who had no problem in expressing herself with the National Team, even back then.

“When I was on the 20s National Team, Crystal Dunn was quite the dancer and every time a song came on she would have a dance for it.”

Taking in Australia for the second time, Kendall was a little wiser when she set out on her trip Down Under this time around. Ahead of her first loan with Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014 she began by realising just minutes before her flight from Los Angeles that she was at the wrong terminal.

The fact she managed to board the correct flight was nothing short of miraculous and the hurdles didn’t stop appearing once she arrived in Australia. There was a slightly frazzling blender experience (Kendall’s wasn’t compatible in her new country), struggles to get her phone unlocked and with her bank account, and a spell in hospital with appendicitis.

Living last year with Keelin Winters and Wanderers’ English forward Hannah Beard, Kendall had tickets with teammates to see comedian Chelsea Handler at Sydney Opera House, but it ultimately meant sneaking out of the hospital to be there. Thankfully, such extreme measures aren’t always required when she wants to see a show and there have been a few on the music side she has particularly liked.

“I love going to concerts and have been to a lot I have really enjoyed. I went to the M.I.A concert before she got big and there was a huge mosh pit where we danced and jumped the whole time, which was really fun.

“I recently went to the Sara Bareilles and OneRepublic concerts and liked them a lot.”

After securing a 2-1 win at Brisbane Roar last October, Kendall and her housemates delayed their journey back to Sydney to enjoy some more of the surroundings, including a memorable visit to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Even despite the struggle for great Mexican food, Kendall has loved a lot about life in Sydney.

As she mentioned, spending time in coffee shops is always somewhere on the agenda and music is a vital ingredient in the atmospheric mix she enjoys about such places. Despite her liking for soothing instrumentals she has her reasons for not grasping locker room DJ duties anywhere just yet.

“I think being the team DJ is a very stressful job; you have to know how to please everyone and it’s not something that is my speciality. I think Caitlin Cooper is in charge of it at the Wanderers but I have a lot of respect for the people that do it, because they get a lot of criticism.”

Undoubtedly one of the most striking moments of the 2015 NWSL campaign came in June as Thorns keeper Michelle Betos scored a diving header from Allie Long’s corner in stoppage time to rescue a draw against FC Kansas City. It brought the Providence Park crowd to its feet in jubilation and disbelief and although it was an incredible individual act it was also a true team memory to hold onto.

Music has its own way of weaving team chemistry, often without people even noticing it, and that was undoubtedly the case when the Thorns were joined in song by the WWII veterans mentioned earlier. When she was asked about recording a cover track with a teammate, Kendall put forward her Wanderers captain for this musical throwback special.

“We would sing ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie and it would be sung with Caitlin Cooper.”

After an 8th-place finish last season, Wanderers have moved up the W-League table during this campaign, although a loss to Newcastle Jets last time out all but ends their finals aspirations. Melbourne City brought the team count up to nine for season eight and they have sealed the Premiership with games to spare.

Nevertheless, Kendall has enjoyed the more level playing field and despite injury frustration she also strongly feels the value of these past two seasons from a personal viewpoint.

“What has excited me from a soccer perspective this year is the competition is a lot better and even. Obviously, you have Melbourne City doing really well, but other than that it’s a pretty close competition between all the teams.

“Over the past two seasons being here I have been out of some games, which is frustrating but I’ve learnt that you are always going to experience setbacks and you just need to know what you want. If you really want something you must not let any obstacle bring you down.

“You can do anything you put your mind to.”


Photo: Sky Blue FC
Photo: Sky Blue FC


Graduating with a communication degree, Kendall has been profiling teammates and others close to her on her blog in recent times, illustrating their routines and what makes them the go-getters they are. Although she misses her beloved dog, Jake, and plenty more about home when she is away the new experiences she has had abroad have certainly given her colourful topics to cover and taking to the water is included in that.

“I really like to write and have a blog I write on frequently. I really like exploring and seeing new cities, going to coffee shops, and since I’ve been here I’ve been trying to take up surfing and it’s become one of my new favourite hobbies.”

A proud Portlander walking her own track at home and much further afield, Kendall is starring in her own story and aiming to spread the inspiration wherever she can. It takes something you genuinely care about to put yourself through the struggles and take on the sacrifices, but whether it’s the high of a great win or an impressive play from her left-side spot, or the times when it feels like the game is against her, Kendall can know she is being true to the kid who would have the ball at her feet trying to beat her juggling record at night.

It is a love that remains all these years on, so if we were to put together a small-sided game and Kendall needed to fill her team with some who have shared in her soccer journey, who would be on that sheet alongside her? Each player on the site gets asked this closing question and the rule is to select four current or former teammates, for any reasons they choose.

The question is a particularly tough one but Kendall obliged in coming up with four names when she was put on the spot. Maybe one day her blog will tell you where you can see this team in action!

“My goalkeeper would be Michelle Betos because she’s a competitor and will scare people. Christie Rampone would be my defender because she’s an incredible leader.

“I would have Keelin Winters as my midfielder as she would dominate. My forward would be Jodie Taylor as she is very fast and a good finisher.”

To keep up-to-date with each of these interviews you can follow me: @chris_brookes

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