When the Boston Breakers took on the Seattle Reign on a windy April evening, they were entering the game with a pretty disheartening record. Seattle were 9-0-1 all time over Boston. Even though Boston had just earned a very solid 1-0 win over Sky Blue the weekend before, it was only the third game of the season and Boston needed to prove that winning was not a fluke. Enter Adriana Leon.
You know that movie line, “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum”? Adriana Leon was fresh out of bubblegum.
She ended up with a goal and two assists, along with a portfolio of gif-able moves.
Where did this Leon come from? Her first stint with the Breakers was fairly unmemorable. Nor did she make waves like this with the Chicago Red Stars or the Western New York Flash. Yet here she was once again in Breakers blue, defiant and relentless.
I met with her after practice this week to discuss this new chapter of her career. Leon was fresh off the field (another blustery spring day in Boston, windy enough to blow the hat off your head) and was preparing to hit the weights at Harvard Stadium’s training facilities. Nevertheless she sat on the concrete steps overlooking the machines and reflected on the path that led her back to Boston.
“Since I’ve joined the league when I was 20 I never really had the seasons I wanted to have,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was progressing and kind of just hit a plateau for a while.”
2013 was Leon’s first year in NWSL, when she and now-retired Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson were both allocated to Boston. Boston’s press release at the time called her “an emerging star for Canada.” She had just received her first call-up to the Canadian senior team and had scored her first international goal in January against China. She was one of the young players being looked at as a potential strike partner for Canadian legend Christine Sinclair.
But Leon’s promise didn’t quite materialize in Boston. She ended up with one goal in six games played, with 163 total minutes for Boston. Boston traded her mid-season to the Chicago Red Stars for defender Carmelina Moscato. Leon went on to earn one goal and one assist for Chicago in 790 minutes over 10 games.
In 2014, that marginally improved to one goal and three assists for Chicago in 1,173 minutes over 20 games. In 2015, one goal over 277 minutes in five games. Then another trade, this time when the WNY Flash traded for Leon ahead of the 2016 college draft. That season? No goals, no assists in 342 minutes over 10 games for WNY. Leon knew it was time to leave.
“Coming off and on the bench, it’s really hard as a young player to deal with that,” she said. It was affecting her mentally, seeing her minutes diminish with fewer and fewer results on the field. So she started looking around. “[My agent] approached me with the idea of going to Switzerland and I thought it was a good idea, so I just did it. Just went for it.” She landed with FC Zurich in the Swiss Nationalliga A.
Leon wasn’t just clearing her head from NWSL; she was also on the outs with the Canadian national team. She was a member of the 2015 World Cup squad, but didn’t make the 2016 Olympic squad, not even as an alternate. She wasn’t getting called in anymore. Other players, even younger than her, were getting developed with the NT while her pro career in the United States was dwindling. Leon seemed reticent to go into her feelings on the matter, although being Canadian, “reticent” came off as slightly more reserved but no less polite than the rest of the interview.
“When that all happened I tried to just push it aside and really not think too much about it,” she said. “I didn’t agree with the choices that were made but there’s nothing I could do about it. So I just focused on myself and just focused on my training. I was training at home for almost a year on my own. Had to go find personal trainers and do everything on my own so that’s what I did, and it worked out.”
It did occur to her at points that maybe she should quit. “You start to lose confidence over time,” she said. “You start to doubt yourself and question, oh is this really what I should be doing with my life? You kind of get into that red zone.”
But she didn’t quit. In her first Champions League game with Zurich, she bagged a hat trick in a 6-0 whomping of Austrian side SK Sturm Graz. Zurich had 23 attempts to Sturm’s one, so it wasn’t exactly the most competitive match, but you can’t discount the mental effect of seeing the ball in the back of the net and being on the field for 90 minutes.
“After that it just kind of, everything clicked. I just gained my confidence,” said Leon. “I felt like the last few years I hadn’t been given a chance. I feel like in Zurich I got that chance, and I was playing 90 minutes every game, and I got my groove back, and I fell in love with the game again.”
Leon liked living in Zurich and gave glowing descriptions of the beauty of Switzerland even though it was “super expensive.” More importantly, she was getting minutes and seeing results. “It was a good time to just clear my mind and go live out on my own for a little bit,” she said. She laughed as she added, “Even though we ended up losing big time to Lyon. But it’s okay. It was a great experience and it was really cool to live in Zurich for the three months that I did.” (Lyon handed Zurich an 8-0 loss in the round of 16.)
With her Zurich contract coming to an end, Leon was on the hunt again. She talked to her agent, ready to continue moving around Europe, continue working on her game and her confidence. And then it turned out Boston was looking for a forward as they worked through a grueling roster overhaul - they’d had their own disheartening 2016 season and were looking for a change. That led to a phone call with head coach Matt Beard. “He was looking for that player that would go one on one,” she said. “A hardworking player that wouldn’t stop running and who would put the team first. And he needed someone who would score goals and create goals for the team.” That ticked a lot of boxes for her. Leon was also familiar with the city from her initial allocation as a 20-year-old. She ended up committing to the team shortly after that phone call.
So now Adriana Leon is back in Boston, four years older and a lot of games wiser. She’s living with fellow Canadian and Breakers defender Allysha Chapman. They both recently got called in for CanWNT friendlies against Sweden and Germany in early April. And no more on-and-off the bench keeping Leon in playing limbo. She played 73’ against FCKC, 75’ against Sky Blue, 85’ against Seattle. For now, she seems to have earned a firm starting spot. She won NWSL player of the week for her runaway performance against Seattle. She’s fresh out of bubblegum.
Next up? Boston takes on the current team to beat, the North Carolina Courage. Leon has one goal for the game: “Get the W.” As for the rest of the season, she thinks Seattle is not the ceiling of her game. “I definitely feel like I can progress further for sure,” she said. “I also feel like I still have a lot of things to work on. It was just one game and the challenge now is to keep that consistent and improve game by game.”
The way Leon talks about leaving NWSL compared to her quiet confidence now is remarkable. “When I first left back in August I didn’t think I was ever going to play in the NWSL [again],” she said. “I was just done with it. It was good for me to get away. When I came back I was ready to make a good change.”
The interview ended on a lighter note with the question I’ve been asking around the team: if you were stuck on a desert island with one teammate, who would you pick? Leon needed some time to think. “I feel like I would choose Kylie Strom, because she’s just so nice,” she said at last. “She’d let me survive. I don’t know about Chappie [Allysha Chapman]. I think there’d be no hope for both of us if we were stuck on an island together.”
Fortunately for Boston, her skills on the ball are better than her skills at surviving on a desert island. It’s a new era, for both Leon and the Breakers. “I’ve gained my confidence,” she said, “And I’m feeling like the best I’ve ever felt.”