Gabby Seiler, profile pic, 4.19.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Worth the wait: Gabby Seiler already making her mark on Thorns FC

BEAVERTON, Ore. – There’s a new laugh coming from the Timbers Training Center, one as frequent as it is loud. Like the smile it accompanies and the rasp-laden voice it betrays, the bursts have become ubiquitous around Portland Thorns FC, even though they’ve only been part the team for seven weeks.

They’re not the only qualities from Gabby Seiler which, since her long-awaited arrival in Oregon, have helped her stand out. They’re just the most contagious.

“She’s awesome,” left back Meghan Klingenberg said, when asked about Seiler, this preseason. Klingenberg is almost always a positive person, but when Seiler was brought up, the veteran fullback became effusive.

This is what the Thorns missed all last year, even if they never knew it. A first-round draft pick in 2018, Seiler’s first year as a Thorn was curtailed before it started, with the former University of Florida midfielder and three-time All-SEC first-team player learning the day before her NWSL College Draft that she would require knee surgery. The operation, recovery and rehabilitation kept her in Gainesville, Florida, throughout last year’s campaign, leaving the eighth-overall pick largely unknown to her those around the Thorns. The first chapter of Seiler’s professional career would be spent as an afterthought.

This year, that anonymity faded quickly, something that had less to do with Seiler’s personality than her quality on the field. From the moment 24-year-old arrived in Portland, she’s shown why she the Thorns were willing to take her so high in last season’s draft, and why there was little concern in the face of a lost season. Be it in midfield, at fullback, or in central defense, Seiler’s early returns are hinting her Portland arc will be long.

And it was only 16 months ago, back in Gainesville, that it nearly came crashing down.

* * * * *

“I fell down the stairs one time.”

When, last January, Seiler elected to have surgery to repair her right lateral collateral ligament, she was living on the third floor of an apartment building near campus. It’s where she spent her time finishing grad school, last season, and was slated to start for the Gators on the basketball court against Louisiana State University when she got the news.

“I was so pumped, and was like, this is going to be great,” Seiler remembered. She hadn’t played basketball since high school. “Then, I was like, dang it! That would have been so cool. I was really excited.”

Her LCL had been unstable for some time, but it’s the type of injury you can play through. Eventually, if you want to get back to full strength, surgery becomes the option. A six-inch scar down the outside of her right knee, surrounded with the 40 dots commemorating the incision’s 20 staples, is documentation she’ll carry for the rest of her life. She needed to step back before should could move forward.

“I found out the day before the (NWSL) draft,” that the surgery had to happen, she remembers. “It was really overwhelming.”

“There were so many emotions going on, but looking back now, today, I can say I was thankful that I got to have the surgery. Because I was actually contemplating not getting it. Sometimes with LCL, you don’t even have to have surgery, so I was like should I get it? Should I not? Because I could, technically, play.

“I played on it my senior year. I could have played, but I’m thankful I got it now. My knee wasn’t stable.”

In the weeks after being selected, Seiler was relegated to a life on crutches, dealing with the reality of looking down three flights of stairs, hobbled by an immobilized leg, hoping to best gravity’s laws with each descent.

And then, she fell.

“I was coming from class,” she remembers, “And it rains a lot in Gainesville, especially in Florida. I was going down the stairs, and my crutches slipped.”

It was her first week after the operation.

“It was scary. I went to the doctor. They took a look at it. They were like, we think everything’s fine.

“But that was a major low. And it’s funny, too, because at that point, I was like, I really don’t want to go down the stairs if I don’t have to. So, there was a Jimmy John’s that was right next door, and I ordered it so much that they knew my name. When I finally got off crutches, they were like, ‘You’re not on crutches!’”

* * * * *

Seiler isn’t a player who is going to depend on athleticism. Not that it doesn’t help. Beyond her height (she’s 5-foot-5), there’s no physical attribute she lacks, allowing her to react, run and battle with anyone she’ll see in the NWSL.

“I love how composed she is on the ball,” Klingenberg explained. “I really appreciate that she is able to think quickly, and get out of pressure.

“And not only that, I think when you look at Gabby, you probably think, ‘oh, she can probably just play quick, she can probably just keep the ball. She’s a little bit crafty.’ No! She freaking fights! She’s a ball winner.”

Even her height is something she’s used to dealing with. There are reasons why, after originally moving away from basketball post-high school, Florida’s coaches got her back on the court.

“She wins the ball over players in the air, and I love it,” Klingenberg says. “I think there’s a bunch of potential there, and I’m really glad she’s going to be on the Thorns this year.”

Those reasons may be her intelligence, as well as her adaptability, two strengths that are obvious when you see her on the field. Those, and her composure. At Merlo Field last month, as Seiler opened the Thorns’ preseason tournament starting in central defense, next to U.S. international Emily Sonnett, the former Gator was seeing her first competitive time since her operation. Yet in her quick, decisive decisions, as well as her clean play on the ball, Seiler looked like a player who’d never been forced from the field.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

“I don’t think anyone on the team really knew that,” she said, when asked about her first game back. “I didn’t really say anything. I thought about it after the game. I didn’t even think about it (before), because I’ve been training. But that was my first, actual, real game that I had played since I had surgery. So, that was like crazy to think about.”

Crazy to think not only about the return, but who she was matched up against. Fifteen months after major knee surgery, Seiler’s first experience as a professional tasked her with shutting down “the best player in the world,” as Seiler described Chicago Red Star forward Sam Kerr.

“At the beginning, I had so many nerves,” she said of the game, two days after. “I knew Portland was a great city with so many amazing fans, but I was so in awe of everything. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. And on top of it, being my first game. But I was lucky that I’m surrounded by Kling and Sonnett, and even Ellie (Carpenter) – they know the game so well.

“They made me feel so comfortable. After the first couple of passes, I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine.’ Getting those passes out of the way, and then I felt good. I felt comfortable. As the game went on, I definitely got fatigued and tired. But I felt like I did pretty good for it being my first game.”

It was enough to earn a second start six days later, when the Thorns faced the tournament’s other NWSL team, visiting Reign FC. The clean sheet that day, as well as her performances in training, cemented Seiler’s place as a contender for early playing time in the actual season. While she didn’t make her debut in Portland’s 2019 opener against Orlando, she was, at least, in the team’s 18-player squad.

“I told her, after one of the training sessions, this week,” Parsons said, after the tournament, “I want to clone her, have two or three Gabbys, because she can be effective in two or three positions. She looked at me with full eyes and was pretty confused. I said, ‘Gabby, it’s a good thing. I want more of you on the pitch.’”

“Really, really pleased with her,” Parsons continued. “Pleased with her growth. Pleased with what other people have seen and commented on her. This just the beginning for her.”

* * * * *

She isn’t the first player to suffer an injury setback, and she won’t be the last. From a distance, though, it feels like the timing of Seiler's surgery couldn’t have been worse. She had just finished navigating the college soccer gauntlet, and while the basketball court was getting more of her attention, the risks of four years at the collegiate level were behind her. An SEC career, time for the United States’ U-level national teams – it had all put her in position to not only be a first-round pick but to join a situation like Portland’s.

Then, suddenly, you can’t walk. In the beginning, you can’t go outside; at least, without taking huge physical risks. You can’t go to the bathroom or bathe yourself as normal. You can’t even drive your car.

At least, you’re not supposed to.

“I started to drive with my left leg,” Seiler confesses. “I got desperate! My trainer was like, ‘Do not drive.’ I would sneak away. ‘I was like, I have to drive!’ So, I would just drive really, really slow, and I wouldn’t drive on the highway.”

This is the extreme version of knee surgery, one we’ve become less accustomed to in modern sports. Most injuries we hear about are anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL), where the procedure is so advanced that scars come down to a series of small incisions, and patients can be back on their feet in weeks. The full recovery takes longer, but normal life starts coming back soon.

There were still 20 pieces of metal holding Seiler’s incision in place, one week out. Her leg had to relearn the basics, a process that would take months. From debating whether to have the surgery at all to being debilitated in the aftermath of the decision, Seiler’s short-term outlook completely changed course. At its side, her leg had to be cut open.

“Just going through this, I never, ever knew,” she says. “There were times I was like, ‘Am I ever going to be normal again?’ I feel like people don’t talk about that enough. Just your normal, daily life is taken away from you. …

“Like in physical therapy. I struggled with bending my knee. I had to bend my knee as soon as I had surgery, and I went through a little bit of a hiccup where I couldn’t bend it. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It was so frustrating. I had to get on this machine that bent it for me. It was horrible.”

The way Seiler tells the story, though, sounds anything but horrible. Perhaps that’s a year’s perspective coming through. But it may also be the same personality that’s made her laugh, smile and rasp immediate calling cards around the Thorns. On the other side of a year’s hard work, it’s difficult to imagine anything getting Seiler down.

“My surgery was a blessing,” she said, even before revealing the details about her staples, driving, or fall. “It gave me a year to finish my graduate program and kind of find my love for the game, again. Not that (the love) wasn’t there. But that transition all together, it was an overwhelming feeling.

“For me, it was honestly a blessing looking back, and I think I got to train for almost a year. Because I got to work on things that I wouldn’t have going straight out of college, that maybe I needed to work on.”

* * * * *

“What’s funny was that when (Florida women’s soccer head coach) Becky Burleigh called me and told me she had a player who was interested and her name was Gabby Seiler, my first question was, ‘from McIntosh High School?’”

Florida basketball coach Cam Newbauer must have kept the name close. He had shifted schools, from initially seeing her during his time at the University of Georgia. Seiler had originally committed to that school, but for soccer. Three years later, the Florida boss was more than ready to take up Burleigh’s recommendation, claiming the Atlanta prospect he once tried to lure to the Athens, Georgia, campus was, farther south, “going to help the entire culture of (Florida's basketball) program.”

“I would say two things about Gabby,” Burleigh told the school’s website. The well-known Gators coach was one of the prime factors Seiler cites in her return to the field. “One – she is an amazing teammate … She is a person who people gravitate toward because she’s positive, works hard and models all the things you would want in a great teammate but also cares about people at a very high level.

“Two,” Burleigh continued, “from a competitive standpoint, she’s a gritty competitor who – I don’t care what you’re playing, you could be playing checkers – she would bring something to that.”

This is the Seiler the Thorns already know. If the words from her coaches in Gainesville prove anything, it’s that first impressions in Portland are more than show. Sixteen months after surgery, it’s taken her less than seven weeks to make her mark, even if she’s yet to see an official minute on the field.

“I think it would have been easy for me to throw in the towel, say I’m done,” Seiler says, now. “I’m not going to lie, I went through plenty of emotions, where I was like, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.”

“I didn’t believe in myself a lot of the time. Even though I had talent, I think just for anybody, if you go through some kind of knee surgery and you feel like you’re going to throw in the towel, know there are people who believe in you. Know that you can do it.”

Burleigh was one of the people who believed, Seiler says. In the qualities her old coach knows, as well as the qualities Seiler has shown, Portland’s newest midfielder has proven worth the wait. The smile, the laugh, the early contributions on the field. After a year away from her new team, Seiler is no longer an afterthought.