Another year, another season for Boston. Final result? 11 points from 20 games, a 3-15-2 record, and a -33 goal differential. That’s rough, any way you slice it. So how do you cope with that as a player?
Julie King is a veteran of the team and a versatile defender who has been shifted around between wing and center as needed. So she has experience in seeing out the end of a season, and in dealing with a coaching transition. For King, the end of the season has, at least, shown some progress for players, and has closed the gap between coach and team.
“The team in general is just so much different than it was in the beginning of the year in terms of personnel,” King said after practice last week, before the Breakers played their last game against the Western New York Flash. “Just based on that alone it’s just a completely different team, but I think through the course of the season we kind of developed more identity. I think Matt [Beard] kind of came into his own a little bit more, and I think we’re now towards the end of the season getting a better idea of his style. I don’t know if he was exactly comfortable in himself the whole time, which I can’t really blame him. There was a just a lot of inconsistency across the board, obviously in terms of playing, but just in terms of personnel, it was hard to keep up as a player. I can’t imagine what it would be like as staff.”
One big difference maker was the signing of English international Natasha Dowie, who ended the season with three goals in seven games and was third on the team in shots with 21 - and the leader of the team in shots on goal, with 10. King brought up Dowie without being prompted. “I think bringing Tash in was really good for us. She helped to kind of make the team feel more complete that in has been. I’m thinking mostly in terms of roster and being on the field. Obviously she’s made an impact right off the bat in terms of scoring goals but it’s also good to get another veteran in here.”
As for the end of 2016 compared to the end of 2015, when previous head coach Tom Durkin was at the end of two years with the team, King seemed thoughtful but willing to look ahead.
“I think every season is gonna feel different,” she said. “If it doesn’t feel different then probably time to get going out, hang up the boots. It definitely feels different. I feel like last year, in hindsight, it kind of ended very abruptly in terms of we pretty quickly had the coaching change happen and so it was starting off on a new foot last year. In terms of the end of the season, it feels more like a continuous taking the next step...continue to progress and grow instead of starting at square one. That’s a good feeling.”
King continued to reflect on Beard’s tenure, especially in light of his start with the team, when he told them about his plans to make the playoffs. If asked in January of this year, long-time fans of the team probably would have scoffed in unison at landing in the top four regardless of new coaches or new players. Yet King said she liked it.
“I think we had a lot of new players and young people on the team who maybe needed to hear something different from him,” she said. “Personally, I wanted to hear we’re playing to get into playoffs. In my mind, why else are you here if you’re not playing to win and get in the playoffs and win the championship. I understand you have to have short term goals and long term goals. Maybe at that time that was a lofty goal for us, but in my mind, you’ve got to set the bar high otherwise, why are you here.... I’m not playing season after season to just go through the motions and have it be a rebuilding year; that’s the last thing I want to hear. I want to get to the championship.”
That player’s desire to win definitely ran headfirst into a fair number of problems, whether that was inability to score or defensive breakdowns or too many key players being out at the same time. There were lots of reasons the Breakers were losing, which naturally took its toll on players both physically and emotionally. King explained how she got through it.
“I try to remain optimistic throughout the season regardless of results,” she said, “Because if you can’t move on to the next week and look for a win, if you’re looking into the past after every loss, it’s going to be tough to get through the season. You’re just going to be depressed for eight months and you’re just going to keep losing.”
Even with a determination to look forward, losses have a way of piling up until the weight of them presses someone down into an emotional low point. King was honest about hitting bad patches during the season. “I definitely had moments - it’s tough, getting loss after loss when you’re working so hard,” she said. “Especially, this is my fifth season with the Breakers. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. I try to remain optimistic but everybody's human so of course I had some low points. But, [you] show up to work on Monday or Tuesday and put on a happy face and sometimes you gotta convince yourself...sometimes you just gotta brush it off and you really do have to put some of those losses out of your head or else you’re just gonna fall into this hole that it’s gonna be hard to climb back out of. That attitude is so contagious and it’s such a slippery slope within yourself and within your team. It’s so much easier to get down on yourself than it is to bring yourself up so you have to keep yourself up there or else you’re just gonna be emotionally exhausted.”
The team came through it together, with King pointing to the team’s veterans sharing the emotional burden. When someone was particularly low, the others would help carry their teammate along for a while. “We for sure had our moments where it was tough, but I think we did a pretty good job of getting through it,” she said. “I feel like earlier in my career it was more about me and how I’m doing and am I playing my best, and I still have that, but it’s more like why is the team not winning. It’s not that I wasn’t a team player before, it’s just that I was more inside my own head as a player, whereas now I feel the veterans we kind of put the weight of the wins and the losses on our shoulders. And that’s the way it should be. I think I should feel that way. ...I think we did a good job of sticking together and helping each other out and having unspoken moments where one person would take over more than the others and let people get over their stress a little bit. It was definitely unspoken but I felt like we had those moments within the older girls on the team.”
Things got a little better in the second half of the season, though. Part of that was Dowie. Part of that was the team finally starting to cohere, to come into line with the coach’s vision and to understand itself more. “I definitely feel like as a team, the morale kind of perked up a little bit and along with that comes chemistry,” said King. “There’s flashes in games and practices you see and you’re like oh yes, that’s it right there.”
And part of it was finally, finally starting to win. “It gets hard to convince yourself not to go through the motions every day,” said King, “But you have to, or else it’s so easy to fall into that trap. And so [beating FCKC at home] was like finally, a breath of fresh air. We finally got the win that we’d been looking for, and that we deserve.... I think that was definitely a turning point emotionally for sure for the team.”
“I thought after the Kansas City road win, that was really good one for us,” she said. “You can just feel the vibe of the team get lifted, so I think definitely in the second half of the season there’s just more of an optimistic look, and I think players are kind of understanding their roles a little better which makes it easier for everybody.”
There were some standouts for King in terms of players who grew into their roles. “Lollo [Louise Schillgard] when she got here, she’s a veteran, but the transition into the American game is just so different,” she said. “There was definitely, I can’t remember what game or practice it was, but you could tell, she started to make that turnover and recognize how to play the game with us and play to our strengths and she learned how to play to her strengths within the American game. I think Brit Ratcliffe has really grown a lot this year. She’s just one of those players that you know if you tell her to run into a brick wall, she’s gonna run into a brick wall. She’s started to figure out how to hone her skills more.... She’s so fast, she’s such a threat. She’s one of those players that I try to give a little tidbit to here and there because she wants to learn so bad. And she appreciates it and you can see it translate. I think over the course of the season she’s done a really good job of being coachable and figuring out what her role is on the team.”
“With Jami [Kranich], she’s had a crazy roller coaster of a season. I just have the utmost respect for her, the way that she handled herself as a professional and jumped back in here. She was great for us. Not a lot of people can do that. You have to have a certain kind of character to be able to swallow your pride and come back in. She did and she was awesome.”
“I think Brooke [Elby] and Christen [Westphal] have done a good job of rolling with the punches. They’ve definitely had ups and downs trying to figure out how to play in the league and play to their strengths and I still think that they’re learning but it’s been cool to see them come along.”
After all that, another losing season, another new coach, King still had plenty of perspective on being a professional soccer player. “At the end of the day we’re doing what we love,” she said. “At the end of the day I get to play soccer and I get to challenge myself and challenge my teammates and be part of a team that is looking to try to do something and make a difference.... I think that’s really important to have that foundation where no matter what, even if you’re at the top of the leaderboard, you have to have that perspective where you know why you’re doing this. It’s because you love it and you want to make a difference. I’d take this job any day no matter what.”
When asked if she could go back and fix one regret, King had to stop and think for a while. Admittedly, it was quite a question - after 20 games and six months of losses, setbacks, hard-won progress, more setbacks, injuries, and glimmers of hope, only one thing to fix?
“I think in general I would have tried to get the team to be more on the same page from the beginning,” King ultimately answered. “Because now I feel like we are. I don’t really know how I would have done that, but now that I see how we are now, I wish we would have been like this all season. Who knows what the secret ingredient was. It could point to anything, but I think going into next season, I would make more of a conscious effort to see that the team try to be on the same page. Just across the board. Because I don’t think I necessarily realized that we weren’t until it was very obvious, like when we were taking a lot of losses. And it wasn’t necessarily that the chemistry was so bad at any point. I’ve certainly been on other teams where it seems like it’s going to be tough to come back from, but where I see us now, I wish we would have been like that all season. Emotionally, tactically, everything.”