Just a few days before Christmas, Tierna Davidson stepped into the dining room at her grandparents’ home during a family celebration and announced that she would be leaving Stanford to become a professional soccer player.
A year prior, Davidson couldn’t have imagined making such a decision.
The Menlo Park native had long dreamed about reaching the professional level and representing the United States, but couldn’t have expected to have the chance to do so so soon. At the start of 2018, the sophomore had been invited to only one senior national-team camp and hadn’t even seen the field.
All that changed when an injury to national-team defender Becky Sauerbrunn thrust Davidson into the U.S. starting lineup for a Jan. 21, 2018, game against Denmark. Before returning to Stanford last fall, Davidson had played more minutes in 2018 than anyone else in the national-team roster mix. Her season came to an abrupt end when she broke her ankle in Stanford’s game against North Carolina in September, but she had done enough already to impress national-team coach Jill Ellis, who on May 2 selected her for the U.S. team that will play at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The World Cup begins June 7 in France and Davidson and her teammates continue their preparations Sunday with a game against South Africa at Levi’s Stadium, the eighth of 10 games in the Americans’ “Countdown to the Cup” series.
“Of course, there was a sliver of doubt after the injury of like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I can’t come back, what if I’m not the same?’” Davidson said. “But I think between the Stanford staff and the U.S. staff, they really made me feel like it was just a small bump in the road.”
After the injury, Davidson, 20, realized that she needed to make a decision nearly unheard of in women’s soccer: In order to put herself in the best position to claim her coveted spot on the World Cup roster, she would have to put college on hold.
“Once the World Cup became a possibility and I started to think about what I could do to make myself the best soccer player possible, I started leaning toward joining a professional team,” Davidson said. “Both my parents and I value education a lot, but school will always be there for you to go back to. Our ability to play at a high level isn’t permanent.”
Midfielder Lindsey Horan created a blueprint for top women’s soccer players seven years ago when — as an 18-year-old — she decided to forgo college to turn pro with Paris Saint-Germain. Forward Mallory Pugh followed in her footsteps when she left UCLA before playing in a match to join the Washington Spirit in 2017. Both are now integral players on the national team.
But making a career out of soccer is still a precarious proposition for most female athletes. Unlike in men’s soccer — in which it is common for players to bypass college to play professionally — the majority of female players still earn their degrees before trying to make it at the next level.
For players who don’t make the national team, the incentives to go pro domestically are limited. Players in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the top U.S. professional league, still struggle to make a living with annual salaries ranging from $16,538 to $46,200.
“I think it has to be the right situation for the right person,” said Stanford women’s soccer coach Paul Ratcliffe. “I think Tierna is in a unique situation with the timing of this World Cup and her wanting to be a part of that.”
Davidson was raised to appreciate the value of education by her father, Greg, a Stanford alumnus, and mother, Helen Wilmot. It wasn’t until high school that it even occurred to her that soccer could take her places.
Davidson remembers watching her teammates with the De Anza Force, a top Bay Area youth club, earn opportunities with the national-team youth program.
Having not been called up herself, Davidson assumed she wasn’t good enough to play at an elite level. Even when Stanford started to show interest in her during her sophomore year at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton, she was skeptical. Force coach Andres Deza had to convince her to take the offer from the soccer powerhouse seriously.
Ratcliffe was impressed with Davidson’s athleticism, technical ability and intelligence, but it was her work ethic that set her apart at Stanford. The coach was shocked to see Davidson leading the pack during conditioning drills in the first weeks of her freshman year. She won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore, helping the Cardinal take the 2017 national title.
“After working with her during her freshman year and seeing what she was capable of doing, I said, ‘Wow, this is a student-athlete that’s going to go places in whatever she chooses to do,’” Ratcliffe said. “She’s got the mental toughness, the determination and the work ethic to get to the top. I’m not surprised to see her ascend as quickly as she has.”
Davidson’s first call-up to the national team came in September 2017. She wasn’t prepared. The speed of play stunned her, as did the skill and ability of the players around her.
She left camp without making an appearance, but she at least had a benchmark to work toward. When she returned to the team four months later, she no longer was overwhelmed.
After making her debut, Davidson started the next eight games, a remarkable feat for a 19-year-old. A left-footed defender, she was able to fill a hole at either center back or left back. During a match against world No. 4 France in the SheBelieves Cup 13 months ago, Davidson finally realized that she could hold her own against the world’s top players.
“I think a big strength for her has been her ability to come in, manage the moment and then be able to perform,” Ellis said. “She’s somebody that wants to be on the ball and that speaks a lot about a young player, if in those big moments they want and ask for the ball.”
After the SheBelieves Cup, Davidson began to think seriously about leaving Stanford.
Majoring in management sciences and engineering, Davidson had been one of the top performing students on the Cardinal team and wasn’t ready to give up on her degree entirely. But as the youngest player in the national-team mix, she knew there were elements of her game that needed to improve before the World Cup.
Against top competition in the NWSL — she was selected No. 1 in the league’s draft by the Chicago Red Stars — she wouldn’t be able to get away with mistakes that might go unpunished against lesser opponents at the college level. She would have to make quicker decisions and be cleaner on the ball as she defended top forwards on a daily basis.
“Top players need to always be in an environment where they’re going to get challenged and pushed by the other players,” Ellis said. “The challenge becomes finding an environment that’s going to demand the same level of execution required at the top international level.”
Davidson is doing everything she can to seize the moment.
“The main crux of the conversations that I’ve had with Jill are that I’m young, but I can be a real contributor to this team, whether it’s going to be at center back or left back,” Davidson said. “I’m continuing to work to refine my skills, so I can be prepared when I get the call.”Click here for the full article...