Sponges, Abby Dahlkemper and the hunt for the USWNT's next great defender
I don't think Abby Dahlkemper's thought this out.
The North Carolina Courage and U.S. women's national team defender has a habit of describing herself as a sponge. During the recent Tournament of Nations, the UCLA alum referred to herself as such as four times to FourFourTwo's reporters alone, a pattern that continued when she returned to her National Women's Soccer League club.
“I’m just thankful for the experience with the Courage and with the U.S. team, and just trying to be a sponge,” she told Lifetime after the Courage’s 1-0 victory over the visiting Seattle Reign on Aug. 5. “[I want to] soak it all in and just keep learning and getting better.”
This is, conventionally, what coaches do. They ask their athletes, especially their best ones, to be sponges. Soak up as much as possible from your coaches, from your teammates, from your experiences. Take it all in, and when you’re put into action, send everything you’ve absorbed back into the world.
Hell, even U.S. head coach Jill Ellis is leaning on the metaphor.
“What I love about Abby is she's a sponge," Ellis said during the last leg of the ToN. "She wants information, she wants feedback. I think she's a young player who's really committed to her growth, and that's really going to help her."
But at the risk of taking this metaphor too seriously, here's why I say Dahlkemper, and Ellis, haven't thought this out: Sponges are incredibly simple creatures. They're just, as Ed Yong wrote two years ago in The New Yorker, "a measly two layers of cells, enveloping a jelly-like filling. They lack digestive systems and circulatory systems. They have no left or right, no front or back. Good luck finding a sponge’s head — it doesn’t exist."
Contrast that with Dahlkemper, who, I can confirm from firsthand experience, has a head. In fact, her head may be one of her best assets, albeit not in the sense that it makes her excel in the aerial game on a soccer field.
Intelligence, composure and adaptability are three of the biggest reasons why Dahlkemper, over the last year, has emerged as a potential starter in central defense next to Becky Sauerbrunn. That, along with an enticing skill on the ball and the persistent, upward trajectory of her career has made her transition into the national team a no-brainer, particularly at this point of the World Cup cycle.
"She’s got tremendous poise," according to Ellis. "Her distribution, her quality and her delivery. I think she’s a natural playmaker from the back, essentially. And then couple that with her defending.
"That’s still a work in progress, for her. But she has a ruggedness about her, a physical dimension to her. I think you have to be brave to be in the back; I think she’s brave."
That bravery, something that wasn’t there in the physical sense when she first turned pro, may be the hallmark of Dahlkemper’s improvement. After a rookie year, two seasons ago, when she often played out of position in midfield, Dahlkemper was moved back to her natural position last season, one in which her club finished sixth (out of 10 teams) in goals allowed.
That bedding-in period under her belt, she's been challenged by her club coach, Paul Riley, to be become more of a physical presence on the field. Her progress has helped North Carolina field the best defense in the NWSL.
“She used to be great on the ball,” Riley remembers, “and not so great without, because she didn’t want to put herself in there. Now she puts herself in there nicely.
“I said to her, ‘You have to add this layer to you. You have to add this layer of aggressive to your game, otherwise you won’t play at the top level long.’ Becky’s added that, too. When Becky was young, she didn’t have that. She’s added that. She’s added some steel to her. Abby’s added that, too, and she’s great.”
Let’s put the Sauerbrunn parallels aside, for a bit. For now, let’s get back to sponges.
As much as the metaphor sells Dahlkemper short, the obvious angle – the sponge's absorbency – helps explain how the 24-year-old got here. From college to the professional ranks, and then into the national team, Dahlkemper has been blessed to be surrounded by exceptional talent. She has excelled at each of those levels, and if there was one person in women's soccer you'd want to take the sponge metaphor to heart, Dahlkemper may be your target.
Having, in 2011, entered UCLA as one of the nation's top recruits, Dahlkemper played on a 2013 national title team that included eight other NWSL players-to-be.
Throughout her time in Los Angeles, Dahlkemper would play with 11 players who'd turn pro, six who'd become internationals, and be coached by current U.S. national team assistant B.J. Snow. She was even recruited to Westwood by Ellis.
For someone intent on casting herself as a sponge, that's an immense amount of talent to be around, but the trend continues into the professional ranks. First in the NWSL, trying for a second-straight league title, the Courage roster contains 13 players who have appeared for their country and international level, including seven U.S. internationals.