Meleana Shim interview: Home in the islands, pride and purpose in Portland – Thorns’ kama’āina burning bright again

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

One of the National Women’s Soccer League’s most intriguing young talents, Portland Thorns midfielder Meleana ‘Mana’ Shim has seen her form catch fire at the beginning of this season, and the song in the heart of the reinvigorated Hawaiian is sounding out loudly once more.

For any soccer player who reaches the status of professional athlete, determination and sacrifice will have been present throughout the journey, but it can still be all too easy for some to let it go to their head once they become known. It is something you don’t see in the Thorns’ number six, as Mana’s grounded personality, natural exuberance and obvious technical prowess have made her loved and appreciated by fans and those who work alongside her.

There is a definite charm about those who show so clearly in their play that they never lost that childhood enjoyment for the game and the 23-year-old encapsulates it. The Newcomer of the Year for the 2013 Championship-winning Thorns, Mana has started the 2015 NWSL season in sparkling form, with two goals and two assists in the opening three games.

The team leads the standings at this very early stage after wins over the Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash, as well as a draw at the Chicago Red Stars, with Mana having every reason to enjoy the start. As we will find out in more detail, music comes into her routine in open and emphatic fashion on home game days before she even reaches Providence Park, and it had everything to do with her culture and upbringing before her soccer dream became reality on the U.S. Mainland, as she describes.

“Music was a huge part of my life; I loved listening to Hawaiian music and watching or dancing hula. Both of my sisters are incredible singers and dancers so I was constantly surrounded by music, not to mention, culturally everyone appreciates music in Hawaii.

“My high school, Kamehameha, has an annual song contest where the freshmen through senior classes compete acapella. It’s one of my favourite memories from my time growing up in Hawaii.”

Soccer has always been huge to Mana but it is a long way from being all that she is. Among her interests is meditation, although this is one of the few times you won’t see her cranking the volume for a song!

A true kama’āina (‘child of the land’ that is Hawaii), she certainly has a spiritual side she is in touch with, so ‘Mana’ – which has connotations surrounding life energy – is a fitting moniker for her. The former Santa Clara Bronco shares an insight into the artists who are painting the musical canvas for her at present.

“Right now, I’m really into Hozier, Ben Howard, Sylvan Esso, Bebe, Bon Iver, Ani DiFranco, Beyoncé, Vance Joy, Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill, Lorde, Xavier Rudd, James Taylor, Alanis Morissette, Sara Bareilles, Kings of Leon, Taylor Swift, Kat Dahlia, Tegan and Sara, Haim, Norah Jones, Little Dragon, and Trevor Hall, just to name a few. Music is life and there is always music playing in the background.”

As Portland kicked this season off in style last month with a 4-1 victory at home to Boston, Mana made a pivotal impact against a team she had put to the sword with a game-winner in 2013. This time, she swept home Kendall Johnson’s cross with her left foot into the bottom corner beyond Alyssa Naeher before picking out Allie Long with two terrific assists in the second half.

En route to becoming an NWSL champion two years ago, Mana was the first Thorn to score in four consecutive games and although team achievements are her target, the way she has begun the current season suggests she may not be far from the accolades in the not too distant future. Musically, she got her collection started with an album from a soothing songstress that was a critical and commercial success around the world.

“My first CD was Norah Jones ‘Come Away With Me’ and I was 11 years old. It’s still one of my all-time favourites.”

The title track from that record captures Mana’s sense of adventure and along with that she has needed resilience and belief to reach this point in her career and life. Back home, her skill and enthusiasm for the game as a six-year-old convinced coach Jason Goodson that he needed her on his team.

Daring moves can pay off in the most amazing ways and if anyone wholeheartedly appreciates and believes in that it is Mana. Knowing that she had to be bold in order to pursue her soccer career, she headed to San Ramon, California in 2007 following her sophomore year of high school and joined a team.

Just months later, she took another leap of faith and ventured to Arizona to link up once again with her former coach Goodson at the renowned Sereno Soccer Club, living with the family of fellow player Ellen Parker, someone she knew from the Olympic Development Program. It was a complete change from what she was used to, from being homeschooled to the hugely increased competition and physical demands on the soccer side, but a scholarship at Santa Clara University was ultimately to follow.

With an objective secured, she returned home ahead of her college years to rejoin her team at Kamehameha, being able to once again play for Michele Nagamine’s Warriors side amid the beautiful Oahu backdrop and be amongst friends and family. As a kid, Mana was inspired by 131-cap U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Aly Wagner and she got to train with her while at Santa Clara.

Mana attributes a great deal of her learning to her days as a collegiate player working with long-serving coach Jerry Smith, but of all the challenges she faced, singing for teammates as an initiation was one she was spared.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had to officially sing in front of teammates but I do it casually all the time. I’m not afraid to sing or shout lyrics as loud as I possibly can – share your passion with the world!”

Each year, it seems the NWSL College Draft attracts more interest and back in 2013 the nation’s top prospects were vying for a place in the first year of the league. Mana was one of the hopefuls but after going undrafted she traded the initial feelings of sadness for determination and will to make it another way.

Studying the teams in the league, she was most impressed by Portland, who had been allocated U.S. internationals in defender Rachel Van Hollebeke, midfielder Tobin Heath (who joined later, after her season at Paris Saint-Germain ended) and forward Alex Morgan, as well as Canada captain Christine Sinclair. Heading to the Rose City for an open tryout along with many others, she shone brightly enough to be signed by head coach and ex-National Team midfielder and FIFA World Cup winner Cindy Parlow Cone.

Earning her shot was just the beginning and as she worked for the opportunity to become a starter she saw a potential opening further forward than her usual midfield spot, reaching out to Alex Morgan for any advice she could offer. The striker had much to share with her, even though they had not long since met, and she has since commented on how sure she was that Mana would become a regular in the team.

In addition to current Thorns in defender Steph Catley and midfielders Allie Long and Kaylyn Kyle, consistent and popular defender Nikki Marshall, who announced her retirement in February, has previously featured in her own music/soccer interview on here, in June 2014. Besides picking out Mana as one of the best she has worked with she also told how Jackie Acevedo and the aforementioned Alex Morgan were the regular locker room DJs on the team.

Mana brings it up to speed on which ones are lighting the fuse for the 2015 Thorns as the minutes run down before kick-off.

“I’d say the locker room DJ switches between Alex, Kat (Williamson), and Sinead (Farrelly); they all like a wide variety. Kat definitely goes for faster-paced hip-hop or rap and the other two play a combination of slow and fast.

“As long as people are singing and dancing, they are doing a good job!”

Following her foray forward, Mana established herself in the Thorns midfield as a rookie, scoring five goals and assisting on two in her 19 games. She played the entirety of each of the playoff games as Portland recovered from two down to beat FC Kansas City 3-2 in the semi-final after extra-time, before defeating Western New York 2-0 in the final.

Defender Kat Williamson was to become a champion with Mana that year and after last season with Western New York she is back in Portland to help with Paul Riley’s quest to bring back the title to the Rose City. The Texan gets a mention from Mana for her vocals and her moves, along with one of the game’s great characters and respected keepers, who might have been less than polished with this display but she won through with all-out fire!

“Kat gets after it when it comes to singing and dancing, and I must say, she’s great at both! I really can’t recall anyone being really bad; maybe Karina LeBlanc?

“Her voice was pretty atrocious but her passion was way up there. Also, she didn’t care one bit so she garnered some major respect from me.”

Just like soccer, when music is at its best it can bring joy, incredible nostalgia and it can break down so many barriers in uniting people. Those of us who have that personal relationship with music know how that clench on your emotions feels when a song plays that was part of the soundtrack to great memories or even ones that ultimately contained heartbreak.

Whether it’s sheer happiness that it takes you back to or if you just want a different outlet to release angst or sadness, music is pure magic. As much as it can bring tears, it also has its own way of making you smile or laugh and on this site a number of Thorns defender Rachel Van Hollebeke’s teammates have told how her track choices manage to do this.

Her Disney songs and suchlike might not be the choice of every soccer player who walks to the locker room with headphones on but the two-time Olympic gold medallist gets approval from Mana.

“Rach is just a few months behind the time. She likes older music, which we all love, and isn’t really into rap.

“I respect her taste because I think each decade has produced some great stuff that shouldn’t be forgotten! I have yet to hear it but apparently Rhian Wilkinson has interesting taste in music; Sinc (Christine Sinclair) has described it as ‘podcasty’.”

Last October, Australian left-back Steph Catley explained on here how defenders Kat Tarr and Emily Menges had an acapella group going with midfielder Sinead Farrelly and were supposedly working on a dubstep version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’! Alongside the latter of those players, Mana regularly brings a taste of the spark that supporters love about her to the Portland public, which she revealed when asked which teammate she would record a song cover with, also making a little promise in her response!

“Obviously Sinead Farrelly because we share the same music taste. Part of our pregame ritual includes driving around downtown Portland for 30 minutes with our windows down and blasting our music.

“We literally sing to people in the streets, rain or shine. So, back to it…we’d probably cover Tegan and Sara ‘Where Does the Good Go?’

“In fact, we’re going to do this and send you the video. How do you feel about that?”


#6 and #7: Mana and Sinead Farrelly. @lord__shin


March last year saw Mana score her first goal for the U.S. Under-23s in the final of the Six Nations Tournament in La Manga, Spain as they beat Norway 2-1. It was a nice moment for her in the lead-up to her second NWSL season but it had previously been looking for all the world like Houston would be her destination over the following months, and not Portland.

Houston Dash had selected Mana in the Expansion Draft but Thorns boss Paul Riley decided to bring her back, commenting on how he had not wanted to lose her in the first place. In the College Draft, the Dash received defender Nikki Washington and the Thorns’ number 11 pick in exchange for Mana, halting a move that, for all the respect she has for the Dash as an organisation, would have left her devastated to leave her life in Portland.

Although she came up with a pair of assists, the season did not go quite how Mana would have wanted, in a year in which the team relinquished their Championship to FC Kansas City. The Thorns are widely known for their terrific levels of support, setting an NWSL record with the 19,123 attendance against Houston in August at Providence Park. However, it is not just the consistent high numbers that characterises the fanbase, as Mana was thankful to find in a challenging year for herself.

Certain aspects of the NWSL are beyond the control of the players but one of the steps they can take to protect the future is to show fans that they mean something. Discussing the love shown to her on social media, as well as at games and public events, she paid tribute to her supporters and articulated how the game could never be ‘just a job’ to her and how the fans continue to be far more than merely an audience.

“It’s the sweetest thing. Last year, I had a bit of an ‘off’ year and my fans made me a hardcover book compilation of photos and letters.

“They were so kind and uplifting. They also made me a huge mason jar of inspirational quotes to lift my spirits.

“I appreciate how much they support and encourage me, even during difficult times. I get goosebumps when I hear them chanting my name after a good play or when I step on the pitch.

“They’re a rad group of human beings and I feel them!”

Into the second month of the 2015 season, Mana is thriving and her wonderful whipped finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the box at Chicago recently was the goal of a player enjoying her soccer and feeling confident. During her year in Arizona, she was focused on her objectives and felt taken care of by her host family but naturally missed plenty about being back home in Hawaii, including the days of surfing with her dad before school.

While she was away, Mana stayed on the phone to her parents for an entire game to hear how her Kamehameha team were doing in their state championship game with Punahou and was delighted as they saw the job through. A volunteer for various causes over the years, she is a personality filled with warmth and has left a real impression on her coaches, as an athlete and as a person.

Her Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith called her ‘one of the most skilful and tactical players I have worked with’, while ex-Portland coach Cindy Parlow Cone commended her on how she ‘wants to learn from everyone’. Security is not a word associated too often with this sport and who knows what the future holds? What is beyond doubt however is that Mana has found a true home in Portland and it will be with an extremely heavy heart if ever she should leave.

Reflecting on her learning experiences from her life in soccer up to now, it is not too difficult to understand why she has made it this far when you hear the unerring drive she has, no matter how many roadblocks are thrown her way.

“Every coach, every teammate, every training, and every game has taught me so much. I value learning more than most things in life and if I’m ever participating in something and I don’t feel like I’m learning or being pushed, I’m out of there!

“I am constantly reflecting on my experiences and where I am now. I am so grateful to be on this journey with these people and I don’t want to slow down.

“There is so much living and being free to do so let’s do it! Also, this is a side note, but I love being uncomfortable because that’s when I learn the most; I like having my back against the wall because I feel like I come out of it a better person.”

While we’re waiting for that Tegan and Sara video from Mana and Sinead (the people demand it, right?), it’s good to just appreciate someone who gives added life to this game we love, while inspiring people with regard to soccer, and so much more besides. Mana has started a fire at the beginning of this season and everyone at the Thorns wants it to burn on to a glorious conclusion in September.

We get a final glimpse into her imagination here as she answers the regular finishing question, which asks the player to put forward four of their career teammates to be alongside them in a fantasy 5-a-side line-up. The emphasis is on a fun group being selected and there could be any number of combinations chosen but here are the four who at least get to start the game. Take it away, player/coach Shim!

“OK, if I had to choose a small-side dream team, I’d take Sinead Farrelly as my other midfielder, Jodie Taylor as the forward, Rachel Van Hollebeke as my defender, and Michelle Betos as my goalkeeper. It was so hard to choose but I love my Thorns!”

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