A first call-up to the U.S. Women’s National Team in May was just reward for Portland Thorns defender Nikki Marshall’s progress, and as her daunting initiation back in college showed, she is no stranger to stepping up when called upon.
A standout attacking talent while at the University of Colorado, Nikki’s career followed into Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) with three teams before she won the 2012 WPSL Elite with Western New York Flash. Her success continued last year as she was ever-present in the Portland Thorns side that lifted the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) trophy.
She was initially told before the end of the 2013 season that she would be waived due to budget constraints, despite her undoubted importance to the team and head coach Cindy Parlow Cone’s wish to keep her. However, as they often do in the sport, circumstances changed considerably and upon Paul Riley’s arrival as coach in December he immediately set about getting Nikki back with the Thorns.
That determination to keep her around has been more than vindicated as Nikki, a starter in all 12 games so far this season, has been the consummate example of leadership. Although she has only just turned 26, she has been a figure to look up to alongside the likes of captain Christine Sinclair for the less experienced players on the roster.
Her first inclusion in the U.S. Women’s National Team at senior level last month will go down as a huge marker in her career. Called up for the May 8th Canada friendly in Winnipeg along with Portland teammate Allie Long, Nikki was naturally ecstatic at the news but was under no illusions about the ruthlessly competitive environment she should expect to walk into.
The Thorns number 7 was a free-scoring forward for the Colorado Buffaloes, finishing her college career as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 42 goals. Stepping into testing scenarios is something she is well-versed in, thanks to experiences like her mildly petrifying introduction to college life!
“I had to sing in front of the entire football team, that’s kind of like our freshman initiation,” she recalled. “I think I sang ‘Friends in Low Places’ (by) Garth Brooks.”
With the first NWSL crown to their name, the focus was to inevitably fall upon the Thorns this season. Over two months into the 2014 campaign, the team are very much in contention for the play-offs, moving into the last spot (4th) with a thumping 6-1 win at Washington Spirit on Saturday (June 21st).
Nikki was among the backline as usual and the Portland goals came through Allie Long, Christine Sinclair, and doubles from Jess McDonald and Alex Morgan. Much discussion and interest has surrounded Morgan in her time out injured for the past few months but the 24-year-old U.S. striker is now back scoring for club and country.
As Nikki explains, she is also the player who usually puts together the playlist for the Thorns before a game, alongside a Texan-born Mexican international forward.
“It depends on who gets in the locker room first but generally it’s Alex Morgan’s music and Jackie Acevedo’s. (They play) kind of new, poppy, pump-up music that’s popular now.”
A starter throughout last season for Portland, Nikki set up Tiffany Weimer for her equalising goal in what transpired to be a 3-2 extra-time win over FC Kansas City in the play-off semi-final. In the Championship clash with Western New York Flash, the Thorns were 2-0 winners with Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair scoring and it was just an added bonus for Nikki and her fellow defenders to have a shutout to celebrate.
One of those next to Nikki in the defence was a player who the team have largely had to be without this season through injury. The U.S. international is now back in the action and earlier this year she officially switched her jersey name to ‘Van Hollebeke’.
She is still known to many by her maiden name, thanks to achievements associated with it such as the 2012 Olympic Gold, as well as its relative simplicity next to her married name! Nikki explains one of the ways in which she livens up the atmosphere for the team.
“(For) unusual (music taste), I would say Rachel Buehler; she loves a good Disney play mix, which is funny!”
Coming from Mead, CO, Nikki set 17 records during her four years at the University of Colorado, including 93 career points and 18 game-winning goals for the Buffaloes. She also got the opportunity to play alongside her younger sister and best friend Shaye, while she was a freshman and Nikki was a senior.
Also once with the Colorado Force, she has had her time away from home in her career up to now, reaching the WPS play-offs with Washington Freedom and staying with them after their rebrand to magicJack and relocation to Florida. A move to the Boston Breakers was next, where she helped the team to the first round of the 2011 WPS play-offs.
The East Coast adventure continued in 2012 as she became a Western New York Flash player, winning the inaugural WPSL Elite title and being named MVP for the Championship game victory over the Chicago Red Stars. Home is most definitely where the heart is though, and as tough as it may be to believe, she considered walking away from playing when it looked as if she would have to move away from Portland and from those closest to her.
The kind of surroundings she knows and enjoys best are somewhat reflected in the music she has the most affection for.
“Well I think it depends on my mood, but I grew up in the country so I love country music. I love some of the acoustic stuff – Jack Johnson, John Mayer – and then some of the folky, like Mumford and Sons.
“I think Garth Brooks was the first I ever bought. I think it was ‘Rodeo’.”
Although Nikki has given her own performance of country legend Garth Brooks’ material in that aforementioned college initiation, there are players she has worked with who are much more frequent with their public renditions. Rachel Van Hollebeke heads the list from her current teammates while two former Thorns defenders are also deemed worthy of a mention.
“Rachel again is definitely our go-to ‘singing in the locker room’ girl on this team, and Kat Williamson (Western New York Flash), she’s definitely a locker room singer. Also Jazmyne Avant, she plays for Boston (Breakers).”
With her father Mike a big fan of baseball, playing softball was quite a considerable part of Nikki’s life growing up and taking part in soccer didn’t come until she was 12 years old. Being raised in the town of Mead meant it was a little harder for her to be noticed as a player, but her speed, ability and exemplary attitude were factors that made her impossible to ignore.
The former Skyline High School student went on to become one of the elite college players in the U.S. before going pro, but if a switch from soccer to singing was in the offing, which of her career teammates would she record a song with?
“If it’s anyone, I’d definitely choose Kat Williamson and Rachel Buehler, and maybe Jackie Acevedo because she’s a dork!”
Prior to being called up to the full team, Nikki was a big reason why the U.S. won the 2008 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup, being named Player of the Match as they beat North Korea 2-1 in Chile. Also a Four Nations Tournament winner with the Under-23s in La Manga, Spain in 2011, she roomed with forward Amy Rodriguez while in camp with the senior team in May, seeking and keenly taking on board the advice the FC Kansas City goalgetter had to offer.
Even with the incredible array of options at her disposal, current U.S. Head Coach Jill Ellis, who Nikki played for while with the Under-20s, has emphasised that she is in her thoughts. The industrious approach has always been the preferred way for the one-time Colorado Girls Soccer Academy player and focusing on being the best she can for the Thorns in the meantime is very much the order of the day.
Nikki has described Portland as ‘unlike anywhere else she’s ever been’ and she explains some of the most important reasons why she is so content with life on and off the field at present.
“It’s just so professional, a professional atmosphere and by far my favourite part of playing for Portland is the fans. We have an unbelievable fanbase.
“I love the coffee shops, I love the people, the mentality of enjoying life in Portland, and that’s what’s so great. The food scene is incredible; you could hit a new restaurant every day and still be surprised by how good it is.”
With a current record of six wins, two draws and four defeats this season, Portland are well-placed for a tilt at the top positions in the last two months of the 2014 NWSL. The return to fitness of Alex Morgan, the addition of Spain’s Vero Boquete, plus the presence of captain Christine Sinclair and eight-goal top scorer Jess McDonald, makes for an exciting attacking unit.
Nikki has spoken of the improvement she has felt from a personal perspective since working under Paul Riley’s management and she shares what she has learned from her career so far and its relevance to her going forward from here.
“So much, the biggest thing I’m learning right now is how to control my mind and just be a solid, mental player, which makes a huge difference. There’s such a small margin of difference between these players so if you can be mentally strong that’s what’s going to separate you from everyone else.”
While playing for the Colorado Girls Soccer Academy, Nikki would have to travel well over an hour after school just to get to practice. She also made her way to Thorns training sessions last year on public transport and has been an assistant coach for the University of Northern Colorado’s women’s soccer team.
The sport is very much her love and when she told her parents over the phone about her National Team call-up there were tears from all concerned! Although she has had her downs as well as ups, just like everyone has, the good has surely far outweighed the struggles.
At the end of 2011 and into the beginning of 2012, Nikki went to Africa to help out with the Kenya Project, taking in some extremely humbling experiences. She is all about hard work no matter what she does and as those who know about her as a player will agree, she is not short on ability either.
The NWSL may be a professional competition but Nikki also works in an entirely different setting to help her earn a living. However, her passion for being active shines through as she mentions her hobbies when she is not playing or training.
“Away from the game, I have a full-time job; I work for Avnet Technology, we sell computer software. My other job is very flexible and they understand that soccer is my first priority during the season.
“I love that for now but I’m outdoorsy so I love snowboarding.”
As always on here, we conclude the interview with some fantasy team selection. Nikki was asked to put forward four of her best career teammates who she would have alongside her in a 5-a-side line-up.
Regardless of whether the interviewee is a male or female player, this is always a question that is as intriguing to hear the response to as it is tricky to answer. Also naming Alex Morgan as ‘probably the most competitive person I’ve ever played with’, these are the four Nikki went for in her team.
“My keeper would be Nadine (Angerer) – she’s unbelievable, best keeper I’ve ever seen. I would also choose Christine Sinclair – best forward in the world that I’ve played with.
“I would choose Meghan Klingenberg (defender) – she’s just a battler, she’ll fight for you all the time. Mana (Meleana) Shim – she’s just a workhorse and she’s so crafty.
“We need a little crafty player on our team!”
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