In a year that we hope will ultimately become unrecognisable from its predecessor, Tziarra King, one of the NWSL’s most uplifting figures to emerge in 2020, is starting afresh again. A January switch to OL Reign brings a bundle of new opportunity for the 22-year-old, though you can count on ‘Zee’ sticking to some very essential elements along the way – to the letter.
Last season threw out a format never seen before in NWSL history, while players, coaches and support staff entered into a dramatically altered day-to-day environment. That we even had an NWSL season owes to the efforts of many, but it was certainly not how those who have immersed themselves in the league since 2013 would ever wish for it to be.
Few if any will disagree that Utah Royals rookie Tziarra King was one of the beacons of light to emerge. A highly promising attacking talent, her exuberance and charisma widely resonated from the day she was drafted, while the strength of character and conviction she would show before the year was out transcended her sport immeasurably.
Arduous elements excepted, it was a year of dreams playing out in living colour for the New Jerseyan, but the demands of stepping into a professional league are considerable, especially one as structurally and ruthlessly unique in women’s soccer as the NWSL. The fact that her second season takes her 800+ miles northwest to OL Reign is testament to that.
The phrase ‘more than an athlete’ seems extra apt for ‘Zee’, and music in particular is both a pastime and permeating force in her life. So much so, in fact, that you can find a nod to one of her best-loved artists etched on her arm.
“I always loved India.Arie; just great vibes, great messages in her music,” Zee explains. “Even my tattoo, I have ‘Strength, Courage & Wisdom’, which is an India.Arie song that any time I feel any type of way – I need to just calm down, I need to feel confidence in myself – that song is on.”
In last summer’s Challenge Cup section of the season, she memorably announced her arrival with the final goal in Utah’s 3-3 draw with Houston Dash, adjusting to head a Vero Boquete free-kick beyond Jane Campbell as it bounced up off the turf. Five months earlier, she had made another admirable first impression, when giving her speech after becoming the first NC State player drafted by an NWSL team.
Whether literal or figurative, she seems made for the stage, though even a born performer like Zee once shied away from the spotlight! She remembers the occasion.
“I think I was in elementary school, so I did dance; I did ballet, jazz and tap. I remember I would have three dance classes back-to-back.
“They wanted me to take the next steps into competition, and at that point, it was kind of the crossroad of ‘am I gonna go serious with dance or serious with soccer?’ You can see which one won out there!
“It was mostly performances in front of family, recitals and things like that. My first recital, I remember I had on a pink tutu – I was young at this point – with sparkles on it, and it was probably four of us in the dance class.
“We were getting ready to go on stage and I was like ‘I’m not going’! I was so shy, I literally sat in the audience on my parents’ lap watching my little dance class perform.
“I very clearly remember that. I always enjoyed it, there was just a point where I had to decide what took precedence, and soccer won out.”
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At NC State, her coach Tim Santoro recognised not just her athletic ability but her technical proficiency – her dribbling skills aided too by her futsal participation – while her energy and expression were perfectly at home with the Wolfpack. Part of a program that took sizeable strides during her collegiate career, Zee contributed 48 goals and was twice an All-ACC First Team selection, among various accolades.
She also recalls a team culture that was never without its backing beat.
“I think the one song that was like the soundtrack of our team was ‘Kill the Lights’ (Alex Newell, DJ Cassidy and Nile Rodgers/Jess Glynne on the remix). That song, I’m telling you, the light switches were going up and down!
“That song was a huge part of our culture; just any time we were getting hype, that song was on. We used to like swag surf in the locker room before games.
“I pretty much curated the warm-up playlist, I was always on the aux pre-game, so pretty much anything I was in the mood for was what we were listening to! It was always something with bass, upbeat, hype.”
For some team DJs, it is as simple as connecting your device and letting it loose with shuffle (a dangerous game, however, if you have a few slightly offbeat personal favourites on there…). Was it as carefree as that for Zee, or much more intricately constructed each time to keep those Red and White listeners happy?
“I definitely thought about it. I have a few playlists curated that are like ‘Locker Room’ or ‘Let’s Get Hype!’
“I would hear a song the night before and I’d be like ‘oh yeah, that’s for sure going on the list of things I’m playing tomorrow’. Or ‘tomorrow, we’re gonna go throwback, early-2000s, (Nelly) Hot In Herre-type vibe.’”
Stepping up to a pro environment, though, means sharing a locker room with some players who have been at the top level for years (or maybe won a World Cup or two). For a rookie, the natural approach would be to just keep quiet in the corner and generally try not to stand out all that much.
On a totally unrelated note, who was the team DJ for Utah Royals last season, Zee?
“That was me! Somehow, I always get thrown into that role; I always carry my speaker with me, so I think that contributes to it.
“‘Anybody have a speaker?’ ‘Yeah…let’s go!’
“I guess once you start throwing on a few bangers, it’s like ‘alright Zee, you’re up…’!”
— PackWSoccer⚽️ (@PackWSoccer) June 30, 2020
So, like Rakim, we know she can move the crowd, but what currently gets the senses snapping for DJ Zee when she only has to focus on what she likes?
“The playlist right now I’ve been keeping on rotation is r&b, mostly newer stuff, a lot of vibey, chilling kind of music; Snoh Aalegra, Giveon, maybe some Ari Lennox in there. That’s been my vibe as of lately, but it really just depends what kind of mood I’m in.”
She is a 90s kid, but there are most definitely some differing degrees to that categorisation! From those born in the decade who remember much of it vividly, to others like Zee (born August ’98), for whom it would be somewhat remarkable if they recalled experiencing any of it!
A person’s memories of specific music-listening devices and habits are a pretty good marker of that, too. As US Women’s National Team star Rose Lavelle (three years older than Zee) said in her interview on here in October 2015: “I think I was honestly past the CD era.”
Age, however, is not always the defining detail, as Zee proves.
“I definitely did have CDs. I think my first CD – this is actually really funny – was a Lindsay Lohan CD.
“I loved that CD. I don’t remember what the title of it was, but I used to jam out to that.
“Then Hannah Montana CDs, I had those, too. Just like real, poppy-type stuff.”
At January 2020’s College Draft in Baltimore, Zee was the 8th overall pick, back when packed social events were a thing. Born in Washington Township and growing up in nearby Sicklerville, it was down in A.C. that this future (Utah) Royal got to see ‘The Dutchess’ herself.
“My first concert ever was a Fergie concert, in Atlantic City; I also had her CDs. I’ve been to Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, I’ve seen Drake a few times, Future.
“I went to a concert that was like Meg Thee Stallion, YG. I’ve been to a few; I’m looking forward to the time where concerts are open again, because there’s definitely some great memories there.
“(Asked which artist from all-time, living or dead, she would choose to see) I would definitely love to see Erykah Badu in concert. I always loved Lauryn Hill.
“I really would like to see Kendrick (Lamar). Also Stevie Wonder…that’s the last one!”
Not afraid to sing briefly in this interview when recalling that ‘Kill the Lights’ favourite from NC State, Zee had to put those vocals to the test under rather more pressure on one particular occasion in front of her college teammates.
“The freshmen had to do the headphone challenge (for initiation); I did ‘Halo’ by Beyoncé. Some people would say that I have a good singing voice; it’s okay, I can’t sing, but I can hold a note.
“I just remember my teammates saying ‘oh my gosh, you can actually sing’ and I was like ‘I can’t even hear myself, but I doubt it!’”
As part of the trade that brought Zee to OL Reign, forward Darian Jenkins headed in the opposite direction, to the Kansas City NWSL organisation that had by now taken the place of Utah Royals. That also marked the departure of a previous locker-room DJ at the Reign.
As Bethany Balcer mentioned in her interview on here last September, Sofia Huerta had been one to step forward during the Challenge Cup. With Zee already having a season’s worth of NWSL experience in this particular area, is she likely to emerge as the Reign’s rhythm controller this year?
“Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see. Sometimes, I’m not gonna lie, it’s stressful!
“Trying to make sure the vibe is right and you’re playing the right songs. I would be okay with taking the role, but I would also be okay with letting somebody else step into that!”
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As with Reign teammate Balcer, who went undrafted in 2019, only to go and end the season as the NWSL’s Rookie of the Year, Zee is proof that there can be greatly varying paths to the top. The current U.S. Under-23 international shone on the field at Winslow Township High School, netting 106 goals, but interest from notable college programs was sparse.
She reflects today on a route she would not want to change, and when it comes to cherishing the best of yesterday, nothing quite hits the mark like a song.
“I think one of the most beautiful things about music is that it can almost instantly transport you back in time, or back to a place; just all the feels rush back. Music was a huge part for me growing up; I very clearly remember some of the CDs that my parents played in the car on the way to soccer games.
“I’ll find things like old soul playlists, with songs where I never knew that that’s who it was by, or that was the title. You’re like ‘oh my gosh, I know every word to this!’
“Huge part of my life. So thankful for my parents and the music that they played for me, and just all the memories that came along with all that different type of music.”
Closing the book on fond times is never easy, and as well as turning pro in the past year or so, Zee also said goodbye to college. The connections and memories remain but it is no exaggeration to say that a strong sense of loss often comes with ending such a chapter.
Then followed the emotional turbulence of hoping to be drafted, the elation at attaining it, to entering a pro-level environment where she had to swiftly show she could cut it. What some may not know is that Zee moved with all her belongings, 2000+ miles west to Utah last February, to get accustomed to altitude. She then had a solitary day of pre-season with the team before impromptu off-days became off-weeks, as COVID uncertainty escalated.
All of the Royals’ non-contracted players were then informed they had to go home, which included Zee at that time. She returned to the East Coast for around three months, hauling with her all of those aforementioned belongings, and had to juggle the everyday restrictions with staying elite-level fit while away from a team environment. All the while, she heard nothing from the club by way of updates.
Along with the highs, the subsequent season included emotional strain which would be impossible (and wrong) to overlook, and year two brings another new start. Looking beyond the status of pro athlete, it has been much to contend with for somebody who, despite the immense maturity and poise with which she carries herself, only turned 22 last August.
— Madison Hammond (@gohaamm) August 30, 2020
Quite simply, how has she been doing?
“Right now, I’m doing well. This year started off really interesting; the first day of the year, I get a call that I’m getting traded.
“Didn’t see that coming at all. There definitely was a real rough patch at the beginning of this year where I was not performing well, my mindset was really negative, I really was having a hard time.
“I just took a second to reflect and think ‘why do I feel this way, how can I get out of this slump?’ So now I’m doing good, I’m really excited for this new opportunity.
“This past year’s been crazy; like you said, graduating, the draft, trying to prove myself. So many huge life events have happened, and honestly, I wake up every day and it still feels unreal that this is my job.
“This is a dream that I’ve had for so long, and I get to do it every day. Right now, I feel really thankful, really hopeful and excited for the future.
“Just trying to take it day by day, and continuing to make change and impact the things that I can impact, while continuing to look out for my own mental health.”
Zee was among the NWSL contingent to form the Black Women’s Player Collective, providing additional support and solidarity for the league’s Black players. She was also chosen last year by Instagram to feature alongside WNBA star A’ja Wilson and US Open winner Sloane Stephens in the platform’s #SeeMe campaign, showcasing their experiences as Black women in elite sport.
Attributing being forthright in her beliefs to having to assert herself as the youngest (and only girl) of three siblings growing up, Zee also wore Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of her jersey for a game last season. It is not only important but paramount that players who rise above the parapet on such matters are not left to do so alone. There is no middle ground; silence is supporting the oppressor. Automatically directing the conversation and questions towards Black players, meanwhile, is just one more aspect long overdue a rethink.
An environment in which you feel supported, trusted and valued many would say is crucial to thriving in everyday life. Asked of a coach she feels has tapped into a deeper level of understanding during her time playing soccer, Zee highlights someone who was part of the WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) era, and is still just 35 today.
“When I was in middle school, I had a coach called Sheree Gray; former pro who played for Sky Blue. She was our assistant coach for a while and she’s still such a huge mentor to me, and such a huge role model and resource.
“I think of all the coaches I’ve had, she probably has understood me best, not only being a Black woman and understanding what it’s like to be a professional, but just her style of motivation. It was very much no BS, but also, you can have fun and enjoy what you’re doing at the same time.”
One particular scenario that she enjoys might come as a surprise, and it was where her Challenge Cup adventure drew to a close. With Utah trailing Houston 3-1 in the penalty shootout of the quarter-final, a miss from Zee would have ended the shootout there and then.
With the camera zooming in on her placing the ball on the spot – bright blue boots, multi-coloured laces and nails painted bright yellow – she took a relatively short run-up and placed it into the bottom corner, low enough to evade Jane Campbell’s dive. The uniqueness of the season had made for an intriguing situation: the sport’s classic ‘do or die’ scenario, with all the pressure and theatre every time a player steps up – but the audience are not there this time.
Zee replays the moment from her perspective.
“Well, I love penalty kicks, so kind of contradictory to a lot of players! When we were deciding the order, part of me wanted to go first, but then also part of me was ‘I’m a rookie, and then if I miss, everybody hates me!’
“So I said ‘I’ll take a penalty’ and they were like ‘okay, what order do you guys wanna go in?’ I said ‘I’ll go wherever y’all want me to go, it doesn’t matter’.
“I wish I had have gone first, though, because inside, I was so prepared; I feel like we had practiced them and I was making them consistently. I got up there, and at that point, I think we had missed some, so that kind of took the pressure off as well.
“I didn’t really feel that much pressure anyway, because like I said, I really like penalty kicks! I just went up there, placed it, and kept it moving.”
Calling for representation, NWSL star Tziarra King collaborates with the NWHL on t-shirt designs
— NWHL (@NWHL) September 4, 2020
Elevated to starter during the Fall Series, Zee scored a header from Brittany Ratcliffe’s cross in the 2-2 draw with the Reign – now they have her on their side. It will be exciting to see the role she plays for a team filled with talent, experience and promise, and an organisation looking to scale the heights again of those Seattle Reign years under Laura Harvey.
Given her futsal background, Zee would certainly feel right at home in the fast-moving, competitive chaos that typically comes with this next scenario. As has been tradition on this site over the years, the interviewee is asked to envisage a small-sided game, for which they need to choose four examples of current or former teammates that they know they would love having in their line-up.
“I would go with one of my teammates from NC State, her name is Frances Henshall (midfielder). She had to medically retire because she had too many concussions at NC State, so I only got to play with her for I think two years.
“So I would bring her out of retirement and just allow her to extend her career. I would say Lo’eau LaBonta (midfielder), because she’s so funny, and I know I’m gonna have a good time with that!
“Another teammate from NC State, Lisa Guttenberger. Centre-back but really good with distribution, long balls, all that.
“Got to have a defender on your team, so definitely Lu. Lastly, I would go with…(thinking)…okay, let’s go back to Utah… probably A-Rod (Amy Rodriguez).
“Just clinical finishing, strong, an all-around great forward. So those are the four that are kind of top of my brain right now.”
As the curtain falls here, the story has only really just begun for what Zee can contribute, on and off the field, and what she can enjoy and achieve from her profession and platform. Beyond any doubt, she ended up becoming so much more than an impressive rookie player.
Describing herself as ‘a combination of super-laid-back, go with the flow, and ‘needs a lot of order!’’, the new Reign number 23 has already struck a chord with so many fans of the women’s game. Even a queen named King needs her moments to disengage, though, and for Zee, there is one place she is always royally delighted to return to!
“When I’m not playing soccer, I would just rather be in my bed! Just rejuvenating, recuperating, just relaxing.
“I’ve recently restarted to journal, just trying to set my intentions for the day, and also reflect on the things that have taken place. I would say things as well like bubble baths and Epsom Salt baths, candles.
“Walking, stuff like that, and feelgood TV shows. Right now, I’m watching American Idol; a few tears come out!”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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