In soccer and in life, faith has always been paramount for Houston Dash forward Melissa Henderson, and she is preparing for more breathtaking twists to the tale from the game she loves as she puts down the first markers of her Danish chapter with Fortuna Hjørring.
An unmissable attacking talent for the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, the Texan signed with the Boston Breakers for their solitary WPSL Elite season back in 2012. When a professional women’s division returned to the U.S. in the form of the National Women’s Soccer League the following year, Melissa linked up with FC Kansas City.
She represented the Blues again during the 2014 campaign but would make a switch to her home state when joining the Houston Dash in July. With the NWSL season drawing to a close last month, some of the league’s players have signed for overseas teams on loan to gain further experience and to keep fully fit.
Alongside Chicago Red Stars defender Taryn Hemmings and Portland Thorns goalkeeper Michelle Betos, Melissa has ventured to Fortuna Hjørring, the reigning champions of Denmark’s top division, the Elitedivisionen. The team will take on Ouriense of Portugal in the last 32 of the UEFA Women’s Champions League next month and the lure of continental competition was a factor in the move for Melissa, as she explains.
“I had spoken to (Houston Dash head coach) Randy (Waldrum) about wanting to play overseas during our off-season. Next thing I knew, he presented me with an opportunity to play in Denmark and partake in the Champions League with Fortuna Hjørring.
“It was a no-brainer for me and I was instantly trying to get paperwork done so I could embark on a new adventure.”
The value of spirit and collective determination in a group cannot be understated and one of the lighter ways for teams to welcome new players into the fold is through the singing initiation. There is nothing quite like showcasing your vocal capabilities for your new colleagues to break the ice and shred the nerves, so has Melissa had to do this at her new club yet, or at any time in her career?
“Luckily, knock on wood, I haven’t and won’t have to! I did however have an initiation dance my freshman year of college with our team.
“We just did a routine to a bunch of songs that were popular at that time. Luckily we had a huge freshman class so embarrassment wasn’t even an issue!”
Long before the now-imminent prospect of Champions League participation ever surfaced for her, Melissa was making a big impression as a high school player. The ease at which she drove towards opposing teams with the ball at her feet, allied with finishing ability and the creative awareness to set up her teammates, was hard to ignore and she was named the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in 2007.
She was the first junior women’s soccer player to be given that accolade and she represented her country at Under-16 level before featuring at various other age groups. Melissa, 25, was a highly coveted player as a teenager but she has added much more to her game in the years since.
Although she is not one to sing for an audience, music is most definitely a big interest area of Melissa’s, and just as her soccer skill set has expanded over time, so too has her taste for different genres.
“I definitely enjoy country but I think as I’ve gotten older my appreciation for many variations of music has grown. From Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan to SoMo, Drake, and Maroon 5…oh and can’t forget the incredible Adele!”
After starring for Notre Dame in an extremely impressive college career, Melissa thought she was headed for Sky Blue FC after being selected by the New Jersey team in the first round of the 2012 Women’s Professional Soccer draft. She was the draft’s second pick overall but like so many players at the time her plans had to be revised after the league folded.
That ultimately led her to the Boston Breakers, who spent a year in the WPSL Elite, finishing 1st in the regular season before a 3-1 defeat in the semi-final of the play-offs to the Chicago Red Stars. A pro division was to return soon after of course, and ahead of the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season in 2013, Melissa joined up with FC Kansas City.
This was to be a very special chapter in her career and her life as she made friendships that went beyond just working hard for one another out on the field. When discussing those of her teammates who have lit up the atmosphere in the locker room there was one from her first year with Kansas City who stood out the most.
The Canadian midfielder in question has been mentioned many times before on here by fellow players in awe of her vocals and Melissa is certainly a fan. She also gives a glimpse into her own mood and habits when she is with the team preparing for a game to get underway.
“Definitely Desiree Scott! She is always singing, dancing and just bringing positive vibes to everyone before the game; she is definitely blessed with many talents.
“I may not dance as much but I definitely enjoy the laughter and comedic performances.”
Finishing 2nd in the NWSL’s regular season in 2013, Kansas City faced the Portland Thorns in the play-off semi-final. After Erika Tymrak’s opener for the Blues, Melissa doubled the advantage in the first half before the Thorns came back to win 3-2 after extra-time.
Melissa had featured 17 times that season and she appeared in a further five games for Vlatko Andonovski’s team in 2014 before her switch to the Houston Dash in July. There are masses of memories on and off the field for her to smile about from her time with the Blues and she recalled one with clear fondness when asked which players she would record a cover version of a song with if given the choice.
“It would 100 per cent be with some of my FC Kansas City teammates to re-enact our karaoke performance of ‘Wannabe’ by Spice Girls.”
In addition to soccer, Melissa played basketball and ran track at Berkner High School back in Richardson, Texas. Whether she was still listening to the first CD she ever bought by this time is unclear, but she could be forgiven if she was, because does anyone ever really want to leave that 90s nostalgia behind?!
“I want to say the first CD I bought was either Spice Girls or ‘N Sync at age 7.”
It has been a year of new beginnings and fresh adventures for Melissa but with that naturally comes some anxieties at first. When you take a place to heart and create friendships and memories, the thought of moving on from it can be particularly tough to bear.
For Melissa, she was not just saying goodbye to terrific players but individuals and a group that had left a genuine impression on her and given her a sense of belonging.
“Leaving Kansas City was by far one of the hardest decisions I had to make. The girls on that team are absolutely amazing and definitely some of the most loving, selfless, talented girls I have ever met.
“I knew that the relationships I had built with each of them were friendships I’d always cherish and never lose.”
After her move to the Dash went through, Melissa played in each of their remaining nine games of the NWSL season, starting eight. Along with the recent announcement that she would be joining Fortuna Hjørring on a four-month loan was the news that she had extended her contract with Houston for a further season.
The Dash are the NWSL’s first expansion team and there is much that has to be implemented for any new franchise. It was a 9th-place finish and a season full of learning for all involved, but as supporters will testify, it was undoubtedly one to enjoy.
At the beginning of the season, forward Ella Masar featured on this site and along with discussion of music and teammates she expressed the new lease of life she was feeling after joining Houston. Melissa identifies with this and she outlines specifically why the move has worked out even better than she could have wished.
“As much as I wasn’t sure of how the transition would go, I was blessed with a team of girls who welcomed me with open arms. Playing in my home state, under Randy Waldrum, and with such an amazing group of girls and staff was almost dreamlike.
“I was ecstatic to be part of such a great organisation and so much closer to my family.”
As she makes reference to, Randy Waldrum is a coach and person Melissa knows well. He was in charge of the women’s soccer program at the University of Notre Dame from 1999 all the way up to taking on his role with the Dash at the beginning of this year.
The Texas native is also in charge of the Trinidad and Tobago women’s national team on a temporary and voluntary basis at present. While with Notre Dame, he led the Fighting Irish to two National Championships, in 2004 and 2010.
Melissa made a pivotal contribution to the latter of those successes and it was the highlight of her excellent collegiate career. The feat was secured with a 1-0 win over Stanford at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, and Melissa, who won plaudits for her display, laid on the assist for Adriana Leon’s goal.
Named as Most Outstanding Offensive Player at the NCAA College Cup in 2010, Melissa scored 70 goals for the Fighting Irish, making her the joint-fourth highest scorer in the program’s history when she graduated. In December 2010, she won the Honda Sports Award for women’s soccer, beating Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Sophie Schmidt to the prize and rendering her the country’s top collegiate athlete in the sport.
Randy Waldrum knows all about Melissa’s value to the team, so much so that he even told her en route to Notre Dame’s unforgettable 2010 glory that he and her teammates wanted her to be more selfish in front of goal. A widely respected coach and great ambassador for the game, I wanted to get Melissa’s take on just what it is that makes Waldrum someone who players seem to love working alongside.
As this is also a music interview, I threw in the question of whether he has ever given the players any indication of his preferred listening choices!
“The thing about Randy is that he’s not only a smart, accomplished coach and mentor, but also an incredible person. He cares about each of his players on and off the field and is one of the most supportive and approachable people I know.
“I want to say his music of choice is country but then again I’m not quite certain!”
The Fortuna Hjørring adventure is underway for Melissa, Michelle Betos and Taryn Hemmings (who has just given her own interview for the site). The on-loan trio have had a little bit of time to take in their new environment and Melissa is grateful to have her compatriots alongside her.
“I am so thankful Taryn and Michelle are here also. They are both world-class people and it’s so nice to have a little piece of ‘home’ during my time here.
“One thing we all got lucky with is the fact that most Danish people speak English as a second language. That has made the transition a billion times easier!”
Once described by her U.S. Under-20 coach Jill Ellis (now the senior head coach) as a ‘special’ player, Melissa trained with the full team at the end of 2011 for an Olympic qualifying camp. Since her relationship with the sport began at four years old, she has got to play on multiple continents and each day is the genuine realisation of a dream.
As well as her intelligence, Melissa’s strength of feeling for her teammates and those close to her has always shone through. Her Christian faith is extremely important in her life and she also graduated from Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
A life in soccer, although filled with testing times, offers vast rewards in terms of enjoyment. It wasn’t so long ago that Melissa was a college player of course, but with these past three seasons as a pro to add to the years she has devoted to the game, what does she feel soccer has taught her about herself?
“Soccer has been my rock my entire life. It has been something that was a fun day in the park, to my outlet when things in life get tough.
“It has taught me teamwork, responsibility, discipline, sacrifice and so much more. With soccer I feel I have attained a grit where I am constantly trying to challenge myself and continually overcome any adversities that surface throughout my career and life.
“Most importantly, soccer has formed a faith in me that cannot be shaken. I know I have been blessed to have the opportunity to play this beautiful sport at a professional level and I am forever grateful – God is good!”
With so much more to come from her journey, all that remains for now is for Melissa to become the latest interviewee on here to select her 5-a-side team. Each player on the site is asked to choose four of their current or former teammates to join them in this fantasy line-up.
There are of course many others who could be included in Melissa’s team (or at least make the bench!) and it is in her nature to want to give credit to everyone she has enjoyed working with. Here are the four who get the nod to start with.
“Keeper would have to be Nicole Barnhart. She is an absolute dream-crusher in trainings when it comes to scoring goals!
“I can’t tell you how many times I stopped and just stood in disbelief at some of the stops she has made.
“Defender would be Becky Sauerbrunn. By far one of the most calm, smartest and talented defenders I have ever seen or played with or against.
“I personally would rate her the best defender in women’s soccer worldwide.
“Midfield would be Lauren Cheney (Holiday). Her vision, aggression, and work ethic is astounding.
“She has a God-given talent that cannot be taught!
“Forward would have to be my most recent teammate Nadia Nadim. She is a smart forward who is not only a great finisher but is tactically and technically brilliant.
“An absolute world-class player and person.”