Beats & Rhymes FC

Leigh Ann Robinson interview: When scout’s honour met independence for US defender

 

The first season of the National Women’s Soccer League and an introduction to the US Women’s National Team last year were huge learning opportunities for defender Leigh Ann Robinson, but as she once discovered there is certainly still a place for a little something from way back in the day!

Every experienced player is likely to have a collection of significant checkpoints in their career they look back on. The hardships tend to make the successes seem that more special and while the hard work goes on for Leigh Ann the past year has been worth savouring.

Having been named in the NWSL’s Best XI and winning her first two caps for her country, there was much to smile about in 2013 for the FC Kansas City full-back. The arrival of US women’s soccer’s latest professional league could not have come at a better time for her. Despite three seasons of Women’s Professional Soccer on her résumé, the break-up of that competition in 2012 left her and many of her fellow pros in a very testing situation.

Champions League game time amid chaotic circumstances with WFC Rossiyanka in Russia preceded a link-up with a coach she knew well – Paul Riley at Women’s Premier Soccer League team New York Fury. Englishman Riley has been appointed as the head coach of 2013 NWSL champions Portland Thorns and Leigh Ann worked with him when she represented the Philadelphia Independence.

Her final game with the Independence was the WPS Championship game in August 2011 and it was a penalty shootout defeat to Western New York Flash. Leigh Ann had scored her kick but the loss was one of those archetypal bitter pills to swallow.

The 27-year-old from San Diego has learned a lot since she started playing soccer indoor at the age of four but the beginning of her time in Philadelphia had her desperately reaching for a childhood memory to drag her out of a tricky spot!

“In 2011, when I played for the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS, all the newbies had to get up and sing a song. I got nervous and couldn’t remember the lyrics to anything relevant so I ended up singing a song I had learned in Girl Scouts when I was 7.

“It went embarrassingly slow but other than that I’m pretty sure everyone enjoyed it!”

The kind of songs that a person favours can in many cases essentially pull back the curtain and reveal part of their character. Leigh Ann made her debut for the USWNT in a 7-0 win against Mexico last September, entering the field as a 56th-minute sub for Crystal Dunn. US coach Tom Sermanni had been impressed by her pace and her attacking capabilities from right-back. Another prominent attribute of her play is the dedication to battle for her team and music is something that helps to stir that passion within her.

“I think most people love music because they can connect with that in some aspect of their life – it can motivate and fuel emotions. A day does not go by that I don’t listen to music.

“I am a huge country music fan but I also like a little bit of hip-hop, rap and a good mix of easy listening and alternative. I love almost anything Jason Aldean, I also love Eric Church and Zac Brown Band.

 

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“I enjoy upbeat country – something I can dance and sing to.”

Leigh Ann has been in numerous areas of the country through soccer but admits that her California home is definitely where the heart is. That said, she settled in superbly while in the Midwest with FC Kansas City and the league’s awards were dominated by Blues players.

Alongside Leigh Ann in the NWSL Best XI were teammates in the shape of goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn and forward Lauren Holiday. Vlatko Andonovski was named Coach of the Year as he guided the Blues to 2nd in the regular season but level on points with winners Western New York Flash.

The play-off semi-final was to be as far as they went and they were edged out 3-2 after extra-time by eventual champions Portland Thorns. Another member of the Kansas team, midfielder and NWSL Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak, was interviewed on here last month and she was another notable performer in a strong collective unit. Leigh Ann reveals which player was choosing the team’s music in the build-up to their games.

“Right now Merritt Mathias is in charge of our FCKC locker room. I think when it is a collective locker room environment pop and hip-hop are easy ‘go-tos’ that everyone can associate with and dance around to.”

Plenty of players are reluctant to show their teammates what they’ve got when it comes to singing but then there are those who have no such reservations! Leigh Ann names the defender who impressed her the most in this regard and it is someone who spent her first NWSL season with Portland Thorns and latterly the Boston Breakers.

“Jazmyne Avant has definitely got a natural talent. She blew us all away two summers ago when we were playing in the WPSL while the (professional) league was on hiatus.

“Currently, both our Canadians for FCKC are not afraid to burst out in song at any time – Desiree Scott and Lauren Sesselmann.”

There are a lot of times to get hyped for walking out onto the field but sometimes the opposite approach can work just as well. It is a case of what works best for each individual player and one of Leigh Ann’s teammates at FC Gold Pride and Philadelphia Independence, a US international midfielder, preferred this kind of still focus.

“Everyone is different but Tina DiMartino would listen to really slow, classical-like music right before games. Instead of pumping herself up she would calm herself down.”

With the question of the first tape or CD Leigh Ann ever bought there was the potential for nostalgia, or maybe some mild embarrassment! It comes down to opinion of course but with this Swedish act I think it is more a case of the former than the latter, so Leigh Ann is safe!

“It had to be Ace of Base, I think. I honestly can’t remember (how old I was) but I was definitely under the age of 10.”

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Out on the field in the heat of battle it is crucial to have people on your side you can trust to back you up. The same could also be said for tackling a singing duet with someone! With all of her career teammates to choose from for this, Leigh Ann decided on a Boston Breakers defender she has worked alongside on numerous occasions.

“This one is tough but I would probably have to go with Kia McNeill and we would pretty much dominate any Rihanna song. But we have pretty eclectic listening so the possibilities are endless.”

Kia McNeill is a player Leigh Ann was with during the WPS years at both Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence, as well as when representing New York Fury. They also headed to Russia in 2012 to join leading outfit WFC Rossiyanka along with a fellow American who has featured on here in recent months – midfielder Yael Averbuch.

While with the club, based around 30 miles from Moscow, the three of them experienced a series of issues. Their accommodation arranged by Rossiyanka was still occupied and there were problems with receiving wages, to name but two of the numerous shortfalls.

All-round communication was far from up to scratch and the opportunity to play briefly in the UEFA Champions League was the only real career plus point. Leigh Ann recaps the adventure and manages to paint a positive in the greater level of appreciation it gave her for a certain aspect of her everyday life.

“Russia was definitely a different environment. Any time you are out of your comfort zone you are challenged emotionally.

“I think food was definitely a tough transition. We are so spoiled here in the US with our options and not having the same variety for fruits and veggies took some getting used to.

“Also, I think the language barrier creates an awkward environment for the first few weeks. It’s hard to feel someone out when you have no idea what they are saying or thinking.”

A University of San Diego graduate, Leigh Ann majored in Communication Studies with a minor in Spanish. She sampled a number of sports and was a regular basketball player before eventually dedicating her efforts to soccer. While playing for the San Diego Toreros in college she was an attacking asset and this has proved very useful in adding to her game going forward from the back.

That will to attack combined with her ability to get back and cover has been pivotal in her ascent to the USWNT. She received her first call-up to the squad last August and after her debut against Mexico she won a second cap in the 4-1 win over Brazil in Orlando in November.

It is all a far cry from the scenario she was in a year previous to that – watching the US competing in the Olympics in a bar with friends back home. She had been an assistant coach at the University of San Diego and by her own admission she was contemplating areas of work that would give her the money soccer was not providing.

The fortunes that have followed with FC Kansas City and the national team owe everything to her persistence, as well as natural ability of course. Leigh Ann is thankful for the lows as well as the highs throughout her journey.

“I think anybody my age still playing in the league will tell you it’s never been about the money. We do what we love and love what we do.

“It has been a little discouraging at times but in the same sentence I wouldn’t trade one day of it. It has opened so many doors to new friendships and amazing people.”

 

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When her career winds down, Leigh Ann has expressed how she would like to get out and about in her next venture as opposed to spending the days in an office. She is driven by pursuing what she loves and making the most of the here and now.

As her career reaches new levels, she has a glance at what soccer has given to her in terms of wisdom so far, as well as offering a look at her interests in general life. There is also a mention for a special companion she and a certain USWNT midfielder picked up once upon a time.

“I think any sport will teach you about yourself but growing up as a female athlete has some disadvantages. We as women in general are close-knit on our teams and there are so many different attitudes, lifestyles and experiences that you learn patience, respect, and value of friendship.

“Outside of soccer there are tons of things I love to do. I am very active.

“I am an avid dog lover so a lot of my activities include my dog Ziggy. Tobin Heath and I rescued him from a shelter when we were living together in Atlanta in 2010.”

The way to wrap up the interviews on here is for the players to put together a 5-a-side team, including themselves, of the best players they have ever worked with. This can come more naturally for some than others but it is certainly fair to say that each interviewee finds it a challenge to name just four of their career teammates.

Understandably, when you have played in teams with so many personalities and accomplished talents, forming connections in many cases, it is tough to leave so many of them out. Leigh Ann experienced this here but much credit goes to her for the answer she gave. There is a 5-a-side team in there somewhere – we just need some of them to sit on the bench!

“This might be the hardest question I have ever been asked. When I think of keepers I am obviously biased and both Hope (Solo) and Barnie (Nicole Barnhart) I have played with and against and have the utmost confidence in both.

“One defender is tough because again I have played with so many people that I have learned so much from. I guess my most recent is Becky Sauerbrunn – she ran our FCKC defence and definitely held down our back line.

“Midfielder is tough because I don’t know whether to go with holding or attacking. Jen Buczkowski is a favourite, but you could also go more attacking and go with Verónica Boquete from Spain or Lauren Holiday who just killed it this year for our FCKC midfield.

“And a striker, I guess you could choose anyone from the USWNT. They are all unstoppable, but I do think people really enjoy Sydney Leroux’s facial expressions so that might be a good one!

“So that probably wasn’t the best answer for that one but there are still so many players I have left out that it would be impossible to name one person from each position.”

Although Leigh Ann honoured the numerous defensive counterparts she has had, it was Becky Sauerbrunn she opted for. The 2013 NWSL Defender of the Year and USWNT member has now been selected in six interviewees’ 5-a-side line-ups on here – Megan Rapinoe, Anita Asante, Christen Press, Erika Tymrak, Lori Lindsey and now Leigh Ann.

As she has been chosen so many times now I asked Leigh Ann for her first-hand insight on what makes her such a top player. There is also a shared liking for a musical genre that seals her place in Leigh Ann’s team!

 

FC Kansas City and US Women's National Team defender Becky Sauerbrunn

FC Kansas City and US Women’s National Team defender Becky Sauerbrunn

 

“She does love country music as well, which automatically makes me like her more. But I would choose her probably most because aside from being extremely athletic she reads the game so well.

“Her being our main communicator in the back line for FCKC keeps all of us one step ahead of the opposing offence.”

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