Meghan Klingenberg enters every season with the same set of targets. Individually, 2020 was no different. She wanted to be the best left back in the National Women’s Soccer League, score and assist on goals, and play “lockdown defense” for the Portland Thorns.
“My goals are very similar every year,” she concedes. As long as soccer stays the same, her job does, too.
But there are also team goals – the ones which, for the Thorns, were completely derailed by the nature of 2020. The idea for competing for the NWSL’s best record or a league title became irrelevant sometime in late May, around the same time a one-month, Challenge Cup tournament in Utah came into view. Such were the realities of our COVID-19 world, and within that world, there were two implied premises: soccer would be coming back; but, given the league was going to a one-site, short-term tournament, the NWSL was probably not going to get a normal season.
For Klingenberg, there was also a third set of 2020 targets: a series of goals that combined life in her sport with life, in general. It was a set of objectives meant to put her career back on course, correcting small problems which, outside the public eye, had emerged over the last three or four seasons.
“I think I was letting other people define me, or letting the national team define me,” she admits well into the conversation, digging deeper on the path she identified for herself over the previous nine months. “I was like, ‘Why would I play soccer just to be on the national team?’ That doesn't make any sense. I play soccer because I [really] love to play.”
Letting other people define us can be one of humanity’s biggest flaws. It takes feedback that can range from constructive to irrelevant and elevates it, making it definitional. To varying degrees, most of us deal with that weight, but for professional athletes, it’s a heavier burden.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
From early in childhood, falling in love with a sport entails others controlling your access to it. Sometimes that access is playing time, or spots on a team. Sometimes it’s just a ride to the field. If you get that access and improve, more and more people get sway over your love: high school, club and academy coaches; college coaches, who have access to scholarships; professional coaches and general managers, who dictate where you live, how much you get paid, and for how long you’ll play; and then the media and fans, who become tastemakers controlling your image.
It becomes a different type of access. Instead of access to opportunity, it becomes access to happiness. In a world dominated by the young – by athletes who peak on the field before they peak emotionally – it can be a recipe for anguish.
Klingenberg has enjoyed the good of that equation, but she’s also been exposed to the bad. She went to the most prestigious program in college soccer and won two national titles at the University of North Carolina. In 2015, she was one of the best fullbacks during the 2015 World Cup, which her team, the United States, won. Two years later, she was part of a Thorns squad that won an NWSL title. From college up, she’s been a major part of championship teams at every level.
After 2017, though, Klingenberg’s arc changed. Her national team path was derailed, with her last appearance coming on June 6, 2017. At the club level, too, things began to change, with the Thorns embarking on two years without a trophy and, in the winter of 2019-20, a makeover of the squad.
“When I was really taking a look at what I was doing, I think that I had lost my way a little bit,” she admits, “and I didn't understand. I wasn't focused on my intentions and my purpose.”
Klingenberg’s “lost way” wasn’t evident on the field. She was one of Portland’s best players in 2019 – perhaps the best during a period that saw the Thorns claim first place in the NWSL before players began returning from that summer’s World Cup in France. But she was too focused on outcomes, she admits. Her happiness was too tied to ideas which, as she reflected last winter, felt reductive. Yes, she wanted the Thorns to win, but tying her personal happiness to those outcomes so directly? Or whether people felt she played well in certain games? Or to whether she could still call herself a U.S. international? Too many of those standards left her happiness in the hands of others.
“To me, it wasn't as fun as it used to be,” she says. “It was just hard. That's not how I want my career to be, so I really started to reflect.
“[I] was putting too much pressure on the outcome. I wasn't enjoying what I was doing. I was still able to succeed and do well, but that's not me.”
The “me” Klingenberg wanted in 2020 was about loving the process; about loving the act of playing the game. “When I'm not so focused on the outcome and I’m having so much fun,” she says, ”I'm living in my present, [and] I can see myself grow.” But that growth is about more than just her relationship with the game, field, or ball. It’s also about the person she wants to be for those around her.
“Connecting more with the group,” was a major goal for her, she says, though Klingenberg was purposeful about how she went about it. She wanted to, “have a bit of vulnerability with them, so I can build trust and community within the group. That was a huge goal.”
“I am really passionate about being here,” she says, reflecting. “About being around my friends. And laughing. And seeing myself learn. That is so fun for me.”
“All of the byproducts of that are amazing. Better relationships with my teammates. Better relationships with my coach. Having to invest more time, but that time is literally exponential instead of just like a slog.”
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
That’s Klingenberg’s platform for 2021. On a team level, “I don’t know what 2021 is going to look like,” she says. “None of us do. So I'm trying not to put any qualifiers on the year.” On an individual level, though, she says none of the personal goals she set for herself were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, or otherwise had to change. The only difference was the context. Even amid the shortened season – the spurts between Challenge Cup and Fall Series that defined Portland’s year – she could still be a better player, as well as a better teammate.
“I like to say that I am content to be unsatisfied,” she explains, “Because right now, I might be a 10 out of a 10. But tomorrow, that might be my nine out of 10.”
Would 2019’s Meghan Klingenberg describe herself as a nine out of 10? Perhaps, but for her 2021 self, that will mean something different. It will mean something more constructive, something more positive, for both her and the Thorns.
“This is what I'm about: the feedback; the honesty,” she says. “That's what I want. It's not going to hurt me. It's only going to make me better. If this is my 10 out of 10 today, then next week, it's going to be my nine out of 10. Because I'm just going to keep pushing, and I think that's what the group can do, too …”
“To me, the group has really laid down the foundation to be special, and only now, after just pouring the concrete, are we starting to see rewards. So I'm really excited, because as long as we keep laying down that foundation and keep making it strong, then I think that this group, we can't even guess what the limit is. And that's what's cool about 2021.”