Players come and go in the NWSL every year. For all of them, getting drafted is a dream come true. But the hard reality for many of those draftees is that they often don’t see many minutes — if any — in their rookie year. In a highly competitive league like the NWSL, even players who have had promising careers in college sometimes don’t succeed.
Hard work, patience, and hours and hours of training that we don’t see are just a part of what every player in this league needs to put in if they want a chance to get minutes. This is even more true with a team like the Portland Thorns; a club that has made a name for itself during its 10 years of existence.
Coach Rhian Wilkinson put it well:
“There are players all over the league that get very few minutes, and they’re just grinding every day at training. They’re developing themselves. Sometimes they’re called ‘training players,’ and, I mean respectfully, to be in a roster in a women’s league is a huge accomplishment, but it’s frustrating [when] you don’t get the minutes.”
For Meaghan Nally, it took some time to see the fruits of her grinding on the field. She came into the team during the Mark Parson era, being drafted in January of 2020. That year was certainly eventful for humanity and will be forever in the history books; for Nally, it certainly meant even more.
“It was wild and crazy. I had this line when everyone was like, ‘How was your year?’ I was like, I don’t think I lived anywhere for more than three-and-a-half months because I was in Virginia for January, came out here (Portland) for the month of February. I had to go home in March until the end of May, was here for a month, then went to Utah for a month. Then I was back here, and then went to Germany for the rest of the year. So it was definitely wild. And last year, while it was technically my second year in 2021, I was like, ‘This is like year one-and-a-half.’ The first year it was only like a half-year.”
Certainly, 2020 was confusing for everybody, but not many can say they lived in so many different places in the span of 365 days, let alone in two countries when traveling was banned in many lands. In Germany, Nally went to play for Turbine Potsdam. There she featured in nine games and helped the team get four clean sheets. Those matches helped quench the defender’s hunger for minutes since she hadn’t had any time on the field with Portland, either in the first edition of the Challenge Cup or in the Fall Series. But her loan ended fast and she was back with the Thorns, ready for next year’s preseason.
2021 brought the second edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup and with it, the debut of Meaghan Nally. She came into the match against Chicago Red Stars on April 15. Nonetheless, she had to wait until June 5 to make her debut in the regular season. After that, she played a match in July and another in August. Not enough games in Portland’s most successful year on the field where the team won three out of four possible trophies. It looked like they were going to claim also the championship ... but then, off-the-field issues got into the Thorns’ way in September. How did Nally do in one of the club’s toughest years?
“It was just kind of navigating everything soccer life outside of it. And for me, personally, obviously not playing isn’t the funnest thing in the world, you know? Trying to navigate; how to keep a good attitude every day while also being there for your teammates and for the team. So yeah, there were some tough parts. But what stood out most for me from last year, and continues to stick out, is just how strong of a team culture we have. Where I felt valued, even if I wasn’t playing. And when we were winning and everything, everyone felt part of it. And during a lot of the rough spots, I got to experience some of the best leadership and crisis management in our own locker room with my own teammates. And it was some spectacle to kind of see that in action. There were a lot of ups and downs, but we made it through.”
Team roles are not always assigned, so it’s up to the players to see what their teammates need and to have the correct attitude to be there for them. Being humble and kind can be as valuable as soccer abilities on a professional team, and it’s something that doesn’t go unnoticed. Coach Wilkinson pointed out:
“She’s the first one to welcome new players to the team; the first one to welcome new staff [pointing to herself]. She’s bright and energetic every day, excited to be here, and appreciative of the opportunity she gets. And on the field, will give everything she has, every single day.”
Her teammate Bella Bixby added:
“Nally is a little ball of sunshine. She’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever met, and I’m not only proud of how she encourages her teammates but of how she’s grown as a player. I think I can relate to her position a little bit, stepping in when needed and having to be there in big moments.”
Of course, team culture is not something it can be built overnight. Former Thorns coach Mark Parsons highlighted that word over and over again in his last year in Portland. Looking back, we see how important it was for the team in 2021 — not only to get silverware, but also endure what happened with the club and the league at the end of the season. She says:
“The culture is really great, and Mark has invested a lot of time in the two years that I was here. He invested a lot in culture and Rhian continues to do that. She knows she got a team with a strong culture, and she wants to make it even stronger because, at least in my experience, high performance and sustained success only come once you have good people, connected teammates, and a resilient team. And a great way to build that is team culture. Some of it is talking about team culture; some of it is simply just your actions. But I think culture continues to be huge in the world of sport and in this league to sustain success.”
After two years of having a support role on the team, the Virginia native finally got what she worked so hard for: On March 18, she had her first professional start — against no other than OL Reign. It was a tough match in Lumen Field, with the Thorns finishing with a draw (1-1). After that game, she kept having consistent minutes and her name became usual in the starting XI lineup. For this to be possible, Meaghan points to one key element in her developing career: confidence.
“Someone in the offseason basically just gave me the green light to 100 percent believe in myself and I didn’t know I needed it. But it turns out I did, and here we are now. This person just gave me the green light and is like, ‘Hey, don’t forget about yourself. Don’t forget to look out for yourself a little bit.’ And that was just super, super powerful. I hope I still look out for others; we’ll have to check in with my teammates. But yeah, just kind of allowing myself to think about my own improvement and what I want.”
They say that experience tells you what to do, while confidence allows you to do it. As Meaghan Nally’s example shows, this is very true. She spent more than two years gaining experience, not only in the NWSL but also overseas. She gained minutes, supported the starters, and watched how her teammates did wonderful things on the field. All that prepared her for what was coming next, the next step in her career — and she always had it in her. If there’s something Mark Parsons excelled at was scouting and drafting players that fit perfectly for Portland’s culture and who have so much potential that maybe even the players themselves can’t see it. Parsons also gave them time to grow — and that’s what he did with Nally. All that time wasn’t in vain, and it helped her to grow in confidence.
“I think she has gained a lot of confidence in herself. We have the most confidence in her. But the confidence she has gained to make this really intelligent decision on the ball, distributing to the midfield ... Her versatility is increasing, and I think we’re really excited to see her continue to grow. She’s really stepped into this role, just ready to take it on, and it’s been awesome.”
But gained confidence doesn’t mean anything if a player doesn’t have the opportunity to show what they’ve learned. When talking about Coach Wilkinson, Nally highlighted how she has helped her — not only giving her the opportunity to show what she has learned, but also helping her believe in herself:
“Rhian is really, really great. She gives a lot of opportunities, really. I think she instills belief in each and every one of us and as a team, and she reminds us that this is our team.”
When comparing Meaghan Nally to other defenders on the team, it’s impossible to deny how much she can relate to one of Portland’s best, Emily Menges. Both come from Georgetown University (“Go Hoyas!”), both are defenders, and both stepped up when the team needed them the most. In the case of Menges, it was in 2014, when USWNT defender Rachel Van Hollebeke got injured. In the case of Nally, it was when USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn had knee surgery. Did Nally look up to her now teammate Menges?
“I remember being in our athletic facility back at Georgetown, and we had outside of our locker room, basically award winners, and she’s up there. I was a freshman and hadn’t played a whole lot that season, but in that offseason, I said, ‘I want to be like Menges. Yeah, I could do that. I want to be defensive player of the year.’ And then I progressed past my sophomore year; I’m starting to maybe think, ‘Can I do this pro thing?’ and I’m like, ‘Emily Menges did it. You’re right: You can do it. You can do it.’ And so once I got drafted here, and then I met her, I was like, honestly, a little star-struck. I don’t know if I’ve told her this, but super star-struck; and then once you just get to know her, she is one of the most phenomenal human beings I’ve ever met. She’s just so kind to everyone. She’s so authentically herself. She’s so creative. When she sets her mind to something, she’s going to do it. I’ve never seen follow-through as much as I’ve seen, like in any other person, as much as I’ve seen it with her. And her commitment to the team and the community is really just unbelievable. I do sit in awe of her every single day.”
Of course, Menges is not the only teammate she looks up to:
“When I get to tell my future kids that I got to play with Becky Sauerbrunn and Ellie Menges, that they were my mentors, and I got to ask them, ‘Hey, what do you think I could do better?’ It’s just It baffles my 12-year-old mind; like, me as a 12-year old ... I can’t even imagine. Yeah, so having been surrounded by those two ... It’s just unbelievable.”
Usually, defenders don’t get the recognition they should. In Portland, however, they always find a way to stand out, as we have seen in the previous games, where defenders Kelli Hubly, Natu Kuikka and Becky Sauerbrunn scored:
“That is amazing! It’s a defender's dream, too! It’s fun to be a part of. You walk off the field feeling great. It’s great; it’s super fun. And it’s obviously super fun for the fans. It’s great to give them a lot of goals and thank them for their support.”
After the impressive number of 10 goals in only two matches, everybody is pointing to Portland as one of the favorites to win the championship this season, but Nally and the rest of the team keep their feet on the ground:
“I think generally for us as a team, we don’t really try and look at the standings too much. We just try and improve ourselves with every game. Even when we win 6-0, there’s still some review to be had in there. And so I think it’s always returning to the process and showing up every day, trying to get better, and being kind to each other. And I think that just will continue, hopefully, to reflect in the standings. But for us, it’s just kind of focusing on what’s in our control to continue to grow.”
While Meaghan keeps growing as a player and learns about coaching, a path she recognizes would like to pursue after hopefully many years as a defender, she keeps seizing the opportunity given to her — an opportunity her coach doesn’t regret granting. Said Wilkinson after a match when asked about the new role Nally has:
“So you put Meaghan Nally out there and you hope to see what we are seeing now, and that’s the greatest gift when some things like that happen. Now all of a sudden, we have four starting center backs. What a wonderful situation I am because of Meaghan Nally. Nally’s character and attitude. Phenomenal.”
Now that Concacaf qualifiers for the 2023 FIFA World Cup and Euros are just days away, defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Natu Kuikka will be missing for some weeks. So opportunities keep showing up for Meaghan — and she knows it. She knows that’s how she got her first chance. We just hope that, while she keeps seizing them, she keeps having fun.
“Obviously there are opportunities that came: different formation, personnel left, coming in, what have you. So there are a lot of external factors in it. I mean, we have to recognize that. But yeah, it’s been fun playing.”