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

ISI Photos-Andy Mead
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A domineering style, in perception and results

Ask coaches and teammates, and Zerboni is one of the most positive players on her teams – a presence whose experience, work ethic and optimism helped a young club jell into a title-winner last season.

“When any player comes into training with us, any of the kids, she’s the first one that goes over and introduces herself,” Riley says. “She’s an absolute softy off the field. Just a really tremendous personality.”

I’ll battle for my team. I’ll fight for my team. I’ll do anything for them. Whether it’s making those tackles most people will pull out of, I’m willing to do that for my team. I think people confuse that with I’m a mean person, or I’m a mean-spirited person.

Zerboni is aware that others’ perceptions are different. To them, she is an annoyance, almost by design. Identify others’ strengths and take them away, she explains, hinting at an element that belies her 5-foot-4 build. Often one of the smallest on the field, Zerboni is also one of the most physical.

“I think [the perception] pigeonholes me a little bit with the referees,” she says. “I think they have a perception of me, a preconceived notion of me. That makes me a little bit nervous, sometimes, because obviously I don’t want to get suspended or let my team down.”

“I’ll wake up after every game with bruises all over my body, as well. It’s a two-way street. It’s a car crash, right? Both cars get injured. I think people don’t think about that sometimes. They just think that I’m out there going hard, but it’s hard on me and my body, as well.”

That Zerboni is cognizant of her clashing on- and off-field personalities doesn’t change the impact of the duality. Most people’s main interaction with Zerboni is through the other side of force – somebody who’s willing to take and inflict damage to accomplish a job. To hear Zerboni speak about her greater goals, though – why she continues to play professional soccer, at this point in her career – is to hear another view for her relentless play.

“Soccer is my platform to inspire people, to show them what hard work is, to show them what persistence and commitment and just making it through trials [can do]. Right now, I’m just trying to just use what I have around me. Soccer is my tool to help people love themselves and love each other.”

Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

At the very least, perceptions of Zerboni’s play have helped cast her as a role player, a level she admits she’s accepted in the past. That, she says, was about survival – reaching a level of her career when, coming out of college, she could not be the team’s star.

“You can crawl in your shell and say you’re not good enough for this, or you can [have] the mentality I’ve had since I started,” she says, describing her adjustment after making the jump to the pros.

“I think I’ve grown up in my professional career as a role player, just doing what I can for the team and supporting those superstars around me. But, at some point, you have to make that mental switch and say, ‘I can be more than this.’ I think that’s coming alive inside of me.”

Not approval, but reward

Still, the ultimate goal in U.S. women’s soccer is the national team. That she can even been considered on the fringe of the picture, long shot though she may be, is a testament to her rise this season.

“I think most players wake up every day and say: ‘Is the call coming today?’” Zerboni explains, saying she has “never” had to answer questions about a national team future. “But for me, I just say, ‘What can I be for my team today? What can I be for my staff today? And what can I do to make this league a more desirable place to play, and more enjoyable to watch?’ Those are really my only goals, right now.”

Unfortunately, it may take more than one good half-season to get earn a call-up. Even if Zerboni’s having a stellar year, the national team staff hasn’t shown much inclination to select someone who plays her position, repeatedly attempting to convert other central midfielders into deeper players.

But in a club squad with international-caliber talent at nearly every position, Zerboni is still one of North Carolina’s most valuable players. This year, even if she doesn’t get that external validation, she’s emerged as one of the best midfielders in the NWSL.

And for one of her teammates, even that best midfielder label may sell Zerboni short.

“Sam [Mewis] came up to me after the game last week, and said, ‘You know, McCall’s the best player I’ve ever played with,’” Riley says. “‘She’s unbelievable. She’s the best player I’ve ever played with.’ And for her to say that, you know? She’s been with some pretty good players.”

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Richard Farley is the deputy editor of FourFourTwo USA. Find him on Twitter @richardfarley.