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From the Farm to France: Three former Stanford players prepare for Women’s World Cup

About to appear in her third World Cup, Kelley O’Hara '09 (above, left) is one of the veterans on the national team and is integral to the National Women's Soccer League. She is joined by Christen Press '10 (above, right), who has been playing professionally for nearly a decade. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com)

The eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup is set to kick off this summer in France and run from June 7 to July 7. Games will be played in nine venues across the soccer-fevered country, which is home to the reigning FIFA Men’s World Cup champions. The stage is set now, however, for the world’s female stars to take the spotlight, and the United States — the reigning champion and 2-1 favorites to repeat — certainly has a target on its back.

On May 1, the U.S. Women’s National Team and Head Coach Jill Ellis unveiled this summer’s 23-player roster, which includes three former Stanford players: Tierna Davidson ‘20, Kelley O’Hara ‘09 and Christen Press ‘10.

“Naturally, when you name that group, everything becomes about the collective, everything becomes about the team,” Ellis said. “[In] championship teams, not everyone has to be best friends, but they have to have a purpose, a mutual respect of each other and an understanding that it’s going to take all of us to be successful. I think [on] this team, that’s where we’re at now.

Of the 23, eleven players are World Cup newcomers (including Davidson), while Carli Lloyd is the most veteran player and will travel to her fourth World Cup. The roster will not become official until it is submitted to FIFA on May 24, which is the final deadline.

“Selecting a World Cup team is a long process, and I want to thank the players — the ones that made the final team and the ones that didn’t — for all of their hard work over the past two and a half years,” Ellis said. “They all pushed each other in every training session and every game and challenged the coaches to make some tough decisions. These 23 players have been through adversity and success, and it’s a group that has the talent, confidence, experience and desire to help us win the World Cup.”

The World Cup four years ago saw a record-breaking 750 million television viewers. Even more remarkably, as a testament to gender equality, the final between the United States and Japan was the most watched soccer match — for both men’s and women’s — in U.S. history.

“We already feel the buzz about this World Cup,” Ellis said. “I didn’t realize how big that was until we came back to the States, but I think … the interest is off the charts. I think it’s going to be amazing. I already feel our sport is the most popular in the world, women’s football, but I think this will put it on a whole other planet.”

Ellis also stressed that the tournament is not just a series of games, but it certainly has broader social influence. According to Forbes, one of the most important impacts of the World Cup is the predictable domestic rise in youth involvement in soccer that the tournament inspires.

“I think this will be a major world event, and I do believe every event will help springboard our sport onwards,” Ellis said. “Little girls are going to be sitting in South Africa [or] Brazil, and they’re going to see this. It’s going to influence the whole world’s game.”

In preparation for France, the U.S. is hosting three friendly matches before setting off for Europe, and the first was hosted locally at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.

“When you deal with elite athletes, they are always looking for that next thing to attack, conquer or climb,” Ellis said. “I think that might even be an obsession, that might be a game, that might be a journey.”

But even before this pre-tournament preparation, decades of work and play have led up to taking the pitch in Auguste Delaune Stadium in Reims. While most foreign soccer players gain their playing experience by working their way up through academies of club teams or forgoing college in favor of a professional contract, something unique about the American team is that all but one (midfielder Lindsey Horan) prepped in college before going professional.

“When you come into [the World Cup], you all bring your individual experiences,” Ellis said. “I think none of our players ever believe you’re out of it because they’ve been in so many games. I think these players from the time that they’ve been ten years old … have had those types of experiences where you’ve been down 3-0 at half and you come back and win. That builds a well to dip into when you’re in those moments. You’ve been there. You’ve felt it.”

This uniquely American focus on the collegiate level certainly shapes not only the way the women play but who they are as individuals. Davidson, O’Hara and Press all credit Stanford as integral to their professional and personal journeys.

“[The Pac-12] is a wonderful conference,” Ellis, who coached at UCLA from 1999 to 2010, said. “It’s got a history of championships in it, and … the Pac-12 attracts players from all over the country. I think it’s a combination of very good schools, very good athletic programs [and] coaches that I think are highly motivated.”

Ellis led the Bruins to seven consecutive NCAA College Cup appearances, but that streak ended in 2010, when a Press-led top-ranked Stanford prevailed in the Sweet 16.

Keep reading to find out more about each woman’s Stanford career and memories, and how the Farm facilitated their road to France.

Tierna Davidson ‘20

Tierna Davidson might be the youngest player on the U.S. team at age 20, but her skill level cannot be denied. Although she only has 19 caps and one goal with the national team, Davidson has already made history — becoming the youngest-ever defender to make the U.S. World Cup roster and the youngest American to feature in a World Cup since 1995.

The No. 1 pick in this year’s NWSL Draft, Davidson departed from Stanford earlier this year, forgoing her final year of college eligibility to join the Chicago Red Stars as a defender.

“[Stanford] has given me such a unique opportunity to be on this journey,” Davidson said. “I think that as hard as it was to leave Stanford, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I’m excited to travel the world and have a great summer.”

Although she is no longer on campus everyday, Davidson’s father, Greg Davidson, keeps the Davidson name alive on the Farm. The elder Davidson is a member of Stanford’s Distinguished Career Institute and attends classes on campus.

“It is [weird that my father is still a Stanford student],” she said. “I’m texting him about what classes he’s taking and if he’s enjoying everything. My old teammates see him around campus, so it’s good to have that connection a little bit.”

The Menlo Park native made her mark on the Farm early and started all 21 games as a freshman in 2016. Her efforts were rewarded when she was named Pac-12 All Freshman team and All-Pac-12 Second Team. The Sacred Heart School alumna was also integral to the Cardinal’s successful 2017 national championship run, earning All-American and Pac-12 Defender of the Year honors. Davidson was also named 2017 College Cup Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

The 5-foot-10 defender made her senior debut against Denmark on Jan. 21, 2018 and then joined the U-20 squad in Trinidad & Tobago for the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship. She scored the equalizer in the championship match against Mexico, but the U.S. ultimately fell in penalty kicks. On July 18 she was named to the USWNT roster for the 2018 Tournament of Nations.

Sidelined with a fractured ankle as a junior this past season, Davidson only appeared in three Stanford games on the team’s run to the College Cup, but she won the 2018 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year, starting every national team game. Davidson also joined the USWNT on the 2019 SheBelieves Cup roster in February. Although young, Davidson certainly aims high and will be fighting for playing time on the U.S.’s talented back line.

“I’m looking to win a World Cup,” Davidson said. “I know that it’s quite young in my journey here, but I’m looking to learn from all the players on this team and hopefully one day leave the team as a veteran.”

Kelley O’Hara ‘09

Preparing to appear in her third World Cup, Kelley O’Hara is one of the veterans on the national team and is integral to the National Women’s Soccer League.

But before her success on the national level, O’Hara was a star for the Cardinal. Despite once being the kid afraid of sleepovers, O’Hara flew all the way across the country from her home in Fayetteville, Georgia to Stanford for a recruiting trip. Her dread was, “What if I like it?” Four years, 146 points and 57 goals later, O’Hara seemed to like it well enough.

In her first season on the Farm, O’Hara was named to the All Pac-10 First Team, leading her side in points (20) and goals (9). The only season in which she was not an All Pac-10 selection, her junior year, the Cardinal only lost a single regular season match — a game she missed due to a concussion suffered in practice.

“I attribute a lot of my success to Paul Ratcliffe. He was one of the best coaches I’ve had the opportunity to play for. He has a fantastic vision of the game. Tactically, I love the way he wants his team to play. I think I learned a lot in terms of tactics but also just technically and the tangibles — winning at all costs and that sort of thing. I think Stanford has prepared me a lot for my professional career, and I’m really thankful that I got to play there for four years.”

In her senior season, O’Hara became the first MAC Hermann Trophy winner in Stanford history. In the years since, four more Cardinal have won the award, and Catarina Macario claimed it this past season. During the 2008 season, her senior campaign, O’Hara led the nation in goals (26) and points (65), setting Stanford marks in both categories.

In her first season out of college, O’Hara played for the FC Gold Pride in Santa Clara, winning the WPS championship. Not only did she stay local, but O’Hara also worked under Albertin Montoya, who was a volunteer assistant coach at Stanford from 2008-2009. Montoya’s daughter, Allie Montoya, a Mountain View High School freshman, has verbally committed to Stanford.

When the NWSL was formed in 2013, O’Hara joined Sky Blue FC, where she played for five seasons. A trade sent her to Utah Royals, where in two seasons she has been limited to ten games due to injury and national team duty. Midway through the 2018 season, the Royals acquired Christen Press to reunite the two Stanford teammates. In the four games in which both Cardinal have appeared, the club is undefeated.

O’Hara was originally left off of the 2011 World Cup roster, but was added to replace Lindsay Tarpley who tore her ACL in a send-off match against Japan, who the U.S. would eventually fall to in the tournament championship. Making just one appearance, O’Hara came on in the 73rd minute of a 2-1 group stage loss to Sweden.

In Canada for the 2015 World Cup, O’Hara restlessly waited until the quarterfinals for her first World Cup minutes, starting at right midfield against China. The game was won by a Lloyd header six minutes after halftime, and soon after O’Hara departed in favor of Press. In the semifinal, however, it was O’Hara coming on as a substitute and scoring a game-sealing second goal in the 84th minute to push the U.S. past Germany and into the Finals. In the championship match, O’Hara came on for the final half hour of a 5-2 victory to catapult the USWNT to the top of the sport.

“Obviously we have our captains, but I think all our veterans play a big role in leadership,” O’Hara said. “When I first got on the team I had players that would put their arm around me, take me aside, talk me through things and just give me that encouragement that I needed and that reassurance. Now being an older player, a veteran, I’m able to do that for the younger girls. I think it’s so important, and I’m thankful to provide what I had when I first came on the team to someone. It’s all about making sure you bring all your teammates with you. We’re all going for the same goal, and we need all 23 players. It’s important to ensure everyone feels confident and comfortable.”

As a Cardinal on the national team, the Fayetteville native has joined a long legacy of Stanford players excelling on the world’s grandest stage.

“Julie Foudy came before us, Rachel Buehler [and] Nicole Barnhart came before us,” O’Hara said. “We’ve had a lot of Stanford players come through the national team, so I think the Stanford program is pretty strong in that regard. I think there will be a ton of players that will throughout time come through in the future. I went there knowing that, and I feel like it’s a pretty special place to play for four years.”

Barnhart, a goalkeeper and Stanford record holder for lowest goals against average (0.41), played with O’Hara on the championship-winning Gold Pride team, and joins both Press and O’Hara on the Royals, where she has recorded three shutouts in four games this season. In addition to 53 international appearances, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and has served as an assistant coach for the Cardinal.

Although Foudy was accepted to Stanford medical school and passed on the opportunity, Buehler, after a World Cup championship, 100 international appearances, and a ten-year professional career, retired from soccer to become a doctor.

In her third World Cup, O’Hara will spot as a starter on the back line, most likely on the right side. O’Hara, however, was a forward at Stanford and did not move to defense until 2009, when the national team, short on outside backs, asked her to make the positional shift. In her first game at the new spot, O’Hara recorded three assists.

“I’ve definitely always embraced being versatile and doing whatever the coach and the team needs, but I think this tournament will hopefully be pretty set on the back line. I won’t be playing up too much — I don’t think. But, if I got asked to do that I certainly feel able to set that role,” O’Hara said.

Looking to this year’s World Cup, O’Hara notes that play is only getting more intense over time.

“Every four years the competition gets stiffer. The gap between top teams and bottom teams gets smaller, so it’s just part of the course with this sport. I think there will be some sleepers and some dark horses in the tournament and some teams that are going to surprise people, which is exciting. But at the end of the day our goal is to win,” O’Hara said. “Regardless of what the odds are and the chatter, we do a good job as a team of coming together and focusing on ourselves, staying within our bubble and not letting opinions or chatter get to us.”

Although a veteran, O’Hara does not think she’s done yet.

“I definitely through the years have reflected because for me, obviously the destination and the goal is important, but the journey is what makes it so exciting, emotional and just worth it all,” O’Hara said. “It’s been a good journey. It’s been exciting. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day I’m thankful for being a part of this team for so long and the career that I’ve had and hopefully will have.”

Christen Press ‘10

Like O’Hara, forward Christen Press has proven to be a force on the collegiate, professional and international levels.

In her four years at Stanford, Press had an unprecedented career. She followed up O’Hara’s Hermann Trophy campaign with one of her own to finish a career that ranks first in program history in points (183), goals (71), assists (41) and shots (500) in 98 total appearances.

“I had a wonderful college experience. I met a lot of very inspirational, world-changing people,” Press said. “I think that there’s nothing like being on a college campus — especially one like Stanford, where there’s just so much life and energy and desire to make the world a better place. I think that that really inspired how I see the world and how I want to have an impact.”

Following college, the Palos Verdes Estates native played Women’s Professional Soccer, but when the WPS folded, Press boarded a plane to Göteborg FC. Despite her Stanford accolades, and ranking third in the league in goals in just her first professional season, Press did not initially receive a national team call-up. After three months on a breakneck pace of goal scoring in Sweden, however, she received the national team call up for which she had worked tirelessly.

In her first World Cup start in 2014, Press scores the go-ahead goal in a 3-1 victory over Australia. In total, Press appeared in four matches as the USWNT won it all with an emphatic 5-2 final.

Although Press has been playing professionally for nearly a decade, she notes the dynamic of the national team is unique.

“It’s a special time once the roster is set. There’s a little bit of a change in the dynamic of what we’re trying to do. There’s a certain amount of time that you spend trying to earn your spot. And then, when the roster’s set it becomes very team first, team focused,” Press said. “It’s good for us to have that this month — a full month of knowing we’re on the team, being together, training and playing in games and getting ready for what will be the biggest month of our lives.”

From 2014 to 2018, Press returned to the U.S. to play four seasons with the Chicago Red Stars. The final two years she served as captain. Press was traded to the Houston Dash in 2018, but she chose to play for her former club, Göteborg FC, in Sweden instead.

Press returned stateside for a pair of national team games, the first in Salt Lake City, where a week later she would be traded to the expansion team, Utah Royals FC — joining former Cardinal teammate, O’Hara. The amenities and infrastructure of the Royals was enough to lure her back to the NWSL, and Utah was content to part with five future draft picks in order to secure her talents. One of those picks, the first overall pick sent to Chicago was used to draft Davidson.

Like Davidson and O’Hara, Press sets the bar high for the tournament.

“The goal for every one, and me the same, is to win the World Cup and to do what I need to do to contribute to that,” Davidson said. “[I want] help the team be successful in whatever way necessary.”

Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu and Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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