A New Jersey Soccer Story: Kristen McNabb

Montville, New Jersey's Kristen McNabb persevered through two ACL tears in college to make it to the NWSL. Photo by Seattle Reign FC

download-1At least one Seattle Reign player felt some love in the stands when the team travelled across the country to face Sky Blue in August. The rookie defender Kristen McNabb, who grew up in part less than an hour away from Sky Blue’s stadium in Piscataway, N.J., had her own cheering section that night.

“My whole family, they all have jerseys with my name on them. All of them showed up,” McNabb said, joking. “When we played Sky Blue, I had the biggest squad in the stands. The coaches on Seattle were like ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger cheering section.’ I just smiled and was just like yep, that’s my family.”

McNabb’s father, who was an All-American at Babson College and trained for a bit with Chelsea in England, put a ball at the feet of McNabb and her older sister Lindsey‘s as soon as he could. The family lived in Southern California for those early years but moved to Northern New Jersey the summer before McNabb started seventh grade. By the time, she was already hooked on the sport.

When the family arrived in New Jersey, it became clear that the Players Development Academy was the best and virtually only option if McNabb was going to take soccer seriously.

“I remember the summer we moved I went to a camp up at Rutgers. It was almost entirely PDA kids and then I joined the team like shortly after that,” McNabb recalled. “Now I feel like there’s a lot more options, but when I moved there it was literally only PDA, especially in Northern New Jersey. I feel like there was a couple clubs in southern Jersey, but that was too far away and PDA still seemed like the better option.”

If you’re options are limited, you could do much worse than PDA. McNabb believes the combination of her training in California and New Jersey molded her into a well-rounded player. She even had so much faith in her PDA coaches that she chose to train with her club teammates in the off-season and forego high-school soccer.

“PDA was definitely huge for me. I loved it so much. I loved my team growing up. We were together until we graduated high school,” she said. “I think in California I learned a lot of skills. I developed a lot of that technical stuff out in California. Then New Jersey I think really helped me tactically and physically to improve a lot.”

As captain of the PDA Charge, McNabb led her team to two national championship appearances and garnered an invitation to the United States U-18 team. Having always had her eyes set on playing Division I college in the Atlantic Coast Conference, she wasted little time in committing to the University of Virginia in her junior year.

Before she could even kick off her college dreams, though, a torn ACL in her senior year took her out of action. While an obvious disappointment, the injury gave McNabb extra time to adjust to college and soak up everything she could as a redshirt freshman.

“It was difficult. I never really had any injuries growing up. This was my first one and it was pretty major,” she said. “It’s just never easy to sit on the sideline and just watch, but I did learn a lot. I watched all the players who were above me and probably far better soccer players at the time. I just watched and learned a lot and tried to take it all in.”

Everything seemed to be working out for McNabb the next year. She was a regular off the bench and cracked the starting lineup twice. However, she hit another setback in the final game of the regular season when she tore her ACL in the opposite knee.

“It was more emotionally exhausting at that point. It was like the last regular season game of the season versus Tech, who we hate. It was a bit of shock, but then it was just like alright this is the situation I’m in. I was more mentally prepared to deal with it than last time because I knew what I was dealing with. After the initial shock, I think I actually handled it better than my first one.”

The second ACL injury wasn’t enough to divert McNabb from her path. In 2014, she asserted her position as a starter in every game for the Cavaliers, helping the program advance to the NCAA College Cup final before losing to Florida State by one goal. McNabb calls her time at Virginia “the best five years of my life.” Altogether she started in 71 of 89 appearances as the Cavaliers went to four-straight NCAA tournament appearances.

After dealing with major knee injuries, McNabb started every game of her sophomore and junior seasons at Virginia. Photo by Paul Burke/ Cavalier Daily

After dealing with major knee injuries, McNabb started every game of her sophomore and junior seasons at Virginia. Photograph by Paul Burke/Cavalier Daily

Thoughts about moving on to the National Women’s Soccer League didn’t start to enter McNabb’s mind until her senior. Despite playing well as an anchor of a Cavaliers back line that allowed just 18 goals and recorded 11 shutouts in her senior year, McNabb felt nagging injuries kept her from playing to her potential and was unsure of her professional prospects. Cavaliers Coach Steve Swanson tried to assuage her worries.

“The NWSL is probably on the minds of a lot more freshman now, which is good. I think because at the time the leagues were so unstable, it wasn’t the first thing I thought of as a freshman,” she said. “I kind of had like zero expectations. Steve and I had a bunch of conversations. Sometimes you think you know and then it goes a completely different direction. He was telling me no matter what happens we can get my foot in the door some other way. I was still thinking it would be amazing to be drafted, but if I didn’t it’s not the end of the world.”

Seattle made her sweat it out, but McNabb was selected 37th of the 40 players taken in the draft. As gratifying as getting the call from Seattle was, it did not come with a guaranteed roster spot. That she still had to earn. Fortunately, the experiences from her past injuries helped her keep a measured approach throughout the process.

McNabb was the standout addition of Seattle’s preseason. Coach Laura Harvey was impressed enough to offer the rookie a deal and take her along to the U.S. U-23 team’s tournament in Spain in March. A month later, McNabb was on the field for Seattle’s season opener against her hometown Sky Blue. Her place has been cemented over the course of the season as she’s made the starting lineup 20 times, leaning on mentoring from veterans like Lauren Barnes along the way.

“I definitely did not expect any of this. I was making short-term goals. My first goal was to make the team, so I was super pumped when I did that. It’s all been kind of evolving as the season has gone on,” she said. “Laura helped me a lot. She’s unbelievable. Playing alongside her, she’s always giving me tips and covering for me when I make mistakes. I’ve definitely made a lot of progress, just from the first week of preseason to where I am now. It’s kind of like going into college again. After that adjustment period, it was more of just settling in and playing my game. I definitely need improvement in a couple areas, but I think I’ve evolved for the better this season.”

Now that she’s nearing the end of her first NWSL season, McNabb has a hard time imagining doing anything else.

“There’s nothing else I want to be doing right now. It’s like college soccer with no school. It’s so much fun. It’s my work every day to go and play. I really can’t complain about that at all.”