How a 30-year-old journeywoman emerged as the NWSL's best midfielder

ISI Photos-Andy Mead

McCall Zerboni isn't who you think she is — not if you judge her solely by what she does on the field.

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PORTLAND, Ore.  “The one thing Jill [has] done, she’s said, ‘I’m going to pick the players in form.’”

North Carolina head coach Paul Riley isn’t talking out of turn. He’s merely repeating a view that U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis has espoused herself, one that led to call-ups for three of Riley’s players last fall.

Abby Dahlkemper, Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams weren’t national team regulars at the time, but after standout seasons helping the then-Western New York Flash to the National Women’s Soccer League title, each got prolonged looks. The national team had been seen as an elusive, occasionally impenetrable sect. Amid fall’s slew of surprise call-ups, Ellis threw open the cathedral doors.

This year, Riley has seen another set of unheralded players step up. Rookie forward Ashley Hatch, right back Taylor Smith and goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland have all made their cases. The player most deserving of a call-up, though, wasn’t in national team conversations four months ago.

“Right now, the player in form is McCall Zerboni,” Riley says, completely devoid of the irony you’d expect around a 30-year-old, uncapped midfielder’s international hopes. “She might get a chance.”

Riley is never shy about praising his own, but if Ellis’ views about NWSL play hold true, it may be impossible to keep Zerboni from getting her shot.

Journeywoman no more

“I don’t really feel anything, because it’s not reality,” Zerboni explains, when asked about her national team case. She’s right, of course. Nobody is talking about Zerboni’s U.S. future, and for good reason. Traditionally, you don’t go from journeywoman status to national team context in four months.

I think most players wake up every day and say: ‘Is the call coming today?' But for me, I just say, ‘What can I be for my team today?'

Still, we are in a brave new world, one in which Ellis has called in players like Seattle pressing specialist Merritt Mathias or Kansas City’s aggressive forward Shea Groom, seemingly curious what they can offer the world’s top-ranked team. In effort and attitude, Zerboni is on par with those players, and more.

“Maybe one day, if it hits, I’ll figure out how it feels,” Zerboni admits. “At this point, I’m pretty happy with my life and what’s going on.”

And with good reason. Statistics say Zerboni has been arguably the most impressive deep-lying midfielder in the NWSL. She is among the NWSL’s leaders in duels won and recoveries, and her three goals aid her team’s first-place standing.

On his Twitter account, Riley recently posted a screenshot touting the ground Zerboni regularly covers.

It has helped North Carolina, a mediocre defensive team last season, become one of this year’s best defenses. Add in the eye test, one that’s failed to find a poor game from her this season, and Zerboni has an argument as this year’s best midfielder in the NWSL.

It’s a stature that flies in the face of what we knew about the journeywoman. Zerboni has long been a respected veteran, no doubt, but she has changed teams five times in nine years. In just the last two-plus seasons, she has jumped from Portland, to Boston, to her current franchise, which moved from Rochester, N.Y., to Cary, North Carolina, in January. In the volatile world of women’s pro soccer, few of her club moves have been because of her performance.

With an unforgiving style that gives no quarter, Zerboni strikes a balance between off-field kindness and on-field steel. The box-to-box dynamo embodies a sports cliche: The player who you’d love on your team, but hate to face in battle. Go into a tackle with Zerboni, and you’ll likely come out worse for it.

Grinders like that that just don’t profile as U.S. national team players. Yet Riley, he confesses, has talked to both Ellis and Zerboni about the opportunity. And Ellis, having recruited and coached the player during their times at UCLA, may be inclined to reunite with one of her former charges.

Is it possible, in this new age of national team openness, that McCall Zerboni could actually get an international call-up? There may be no better way to shake up the U.S. player pool.

The fallacy of national team approval

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Even jumping immediately into the national team discussion undersells what Zerboni does, implying she can only be fulfilled as a player with U.S. Soccer’s approval. With the NWSL in its fifth year, that doesn’t need to be the case. Like others shunned by the national team like long-time Seattle captain Keelin Winters, or Chicago’s aspiring national-team creator, Vanessa DiBernardo  Zerboni has done enough at club level to move beyond U.S. validation.

With few exceptions, Zerboni has been an impact player at all stops. And with few exceptions, her teams have been successful, from a regular-season-winning finish as a rookie with the WPS’ Los Angeles Sol, to a title-winning run last fall. If national team attention has alluded her, Zerboni’s never been undervalued by her club bosses.

I think the view and connotation of professional sports in general is that it is a very selfish and self-driven atmosphere. I would like to change that.

This year, though, has been different. She’s gone from a reliable player capable of reinforcing a needed mentality to someone who’s playing at an all-star level, seemingly overnight. The plays she’s making don’t seem so different than the ones she made before, but now, she’s making them more often, occasionally in more important moments.

“In my mind, I think it’s a natural progression as a player, right?” Zerboni asks, describing a mentality that explains her continued growth. “You want to think you’re getting better every day, every year. If you plateau, then maybe it’s time to look at something else … I’m always looking for new things to add to my game.”

Riley has been coaching Zerboni for three years, and even before they shared a crest, he identified her as a player he’d want. To him, there’s no doubt Zerboni’s improving, even at an age when she should be leveling off.

“She’s a different player today than she was,” he admits, having originally faced Zerboni as the Philadelphia Independence’s head coach in WPS. “Even at Western New York in WPS, when we played them, I think she’s a much better footballer today. Her IQ is much higher than it was. She’s still getting better.

“You can’t say that she’s finished her growth potential. To be growing at this point in her career is amazing. That’s why [the national team picks] the players that are in form.”

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