By Tim Nash
“McCall Zerboni was brilliant again tonight.”
That’s what North Carolina Courage coach said after his veteran midfielder set up the first goal and scored the second in a 2-0 win over the Seattle Reign on July 8 in Cary, N.C.
But it’s not the first time Riley has uttered that sentence. He has coached Zerboni for three straight seasons now and has come to expect brilliance from the 30-year-old, nine-year.
“She just gets in great areas, her distribution is great, and she leads the league in winning duels and tackles,” said Riley. “But it’s her reading of the game that probably the most important thing for us. She picks off so many passes that are going into pockets. She starts the attack and she is very much on the end of the attack as well.”
The skills Riley describes – winning tackles, reading the game, covering group –come from years of experience and dedication to fitness. Zerboni’s professional career dates back to 2009 when she was drafted out of UCLA with the 48th pick of the old WPS draft. Since then, she’s played for six professional teams in three U.S.-based leagues.
“For me, it doesn’t get easier,” she says. “It’s gets harder so it requires more focus, more dedication and more sacrifice.”
The dedication and sacrifice have paid off. She says she is the fittest she’s ever been. But that doesn’t stop Riley from closely monitoring her.
“As the season drags on, you think maybe she’s going to start to get tired,” Riley says. “But she’s so fresh and so full of it.”
Zerboni laughs when told what Riley said. She knows very well about her coach’s watchful eye.
“I appreciate that about Paul. I’ve been so blessed to have been coached by Paul for these past three years,” she explains. “He always tries to protect me – ‘Do you need a break?’ … ‘Are you OK today?’ He trusts me and I trust him. It’s huge. I just have a fiery personality and I want to be with my teammates all the time. I don’t want to sit one out.
“I’ve learned a lot along the way,” she adds. “I think I am getting better and better as I’m getting older and older. I wake up every day and say, I want to get better. For now, I’m still passionate to improve my game and get better and better, and hopefully encourage and inspire those around me. When that stops, maybe it’s time to look at something else”
Sam Mewis, a physically dominant central midfielder with the Courage and the U.S. national team, hopes that time doesn’t come anytime soon. Mewis can’t help but smile when asked about Zerboni.
“I feel like the more I get to play with her, the more I’m like, ‘You are just the most amazing person I’ve ever met,’” she says. “Playing with her is so much fun and it is so easy. She does a lot of my work for me.
“She’s always where she needs to be and if she’s ever not, she’s going to go get the ball back anyway,” continues Mewis. “She is so talented. She has great vision. But she is such a good ball-winner. Every time she goes into a tackle, she wins it. She wins 99 percent of her tackles. It defies logic.”
Mewis is just slightly off. Of the 168 duels Zerboni had prior to the Seattle game on July 8, she had won 73 percent. She had also won 71 percent of her tackles, while completing a team-high 62 percent of her passes.
“I know I will look to the years that I played with her as very important,” Mewis said. “For me to be able to watch what she does and how she does it, to watch her leadership, to watch how she takes care of her body … it’s just so valuable for me.”
Being able to make a large contribution to her team and seeing her team atop the league table is exactly what Zerboni needs at this stage in her career. Having seen two previous professional leagues come and go, Zerboni is optimistic about the NWSL’s future.
“It’s been a roller-coaster trying to build our sport in this country. We’ve had some really low lows but I see some high highs coming,” she said. “I think in about five years, we are going to be in a really good spot.
“My goal is to just build on my game for as long as I can play, and to help build the sport for the younger generation. I will be able to look back at that and say I was a part of it. It’s a great place to cultivate our children and keep them focused on goals and being successful.”