PORTLAND, Ore. — The last time Natalia Kuikka lived in the United States, it was hot. Really hot, and really hot wherever she went. For the most part, where she went was Tallahassee, the Florida capital located at the east end of that state’s long, trademark panhandle. She was at Florida State University from 2015 to 2019. For one summer, though, she lived at the edge of Los Angeles, at the point where L.A. stops being L.A. and you start climbing the mountains into the Central Valley John Steinbeck wrote about.
“It was a really nice area,” the new Portland Thorns defender remembers about Santa Clarita in 2017. Urban sprawl has made the city into a Los Angeles suburb, one best known for being adjacent to the theme park Magic Mountain. “But it was hot. Like sit on a car and melt hot. Your skin gets stuck. I was like, ‘Damn, [we have] to try to play [soccer] in that?’”
Santa Clarita’s high temperature in the summer of 2017 was 110 degrees Fahrenheit. That was Aug. 31. The city started September with a slight reprieve. Sept. 1 topped out at 109.
“We played super late, too,” she remembered. “[The] whole day was wake up at like seven, and then you have to wait until like eight or nine [at night]. And then we played. It was just so hot.”
Kuikka’s return to the United States is different. After graduating from Florida State, the Finland international began playing professionally in Sweden. Following two seasons with Gotebörg FC, she’s back in the U.S., on the field at Providence Park, speaking in the minutes after her second full practice with the team. It's the third day of February, and the weather feels like home.
“It’s similar to Sweden,” she says, scanning skies that have turned grey above her new home stadium's wooden roofs. "Natu," has she likes to be called, has lived in this part of the world before. Between her freshman and sophomore seasons in college, she played in for a semi-professional team in Seattle. This day “is a little bit warmer” than Sweden, she says. “It is cloudy and rainy. I'm kind of used to that.”
What was new about Kuikka’s return was the isolation. Toward the end of January, she left Finland targeting the start of the National Women’s Soccer League’s preseason. Full training could begin on February 1. Kuikka, though, would have to endure a prolonged quarantine. The team had helped her get an apartment across the street from Providence Park, but for her first 10 days in Portland, that proximity didn’t matter. She was inside, and she was alone.
“I can't lie,” she said, between descriptions of West Burnside Street, as seen from her apartment window above, “I felt super alone being in a place that I've never been before, and having minimal contact with humans and people. Yeah, I can always FaceTime or call my family and friends, but they're still like 10 hours away. It’s really hard to connect and talk about how I feel.”
Flattened out, the words describe shock. They reflect a person still processing their ordeal. To the ear, though, they’re measured, chosen for definition above impact. There’s no irony, hyperbole or exaggeration. She’s not looking for sympathy. At 25, Kuikka’s already somebody who’s made three major moves in her life: to Florida, back to Northern Europe, and then to Oregon. Whereas most American players at her age are still on their first professional journey, Kuikka is well-traveled. She's lived in three different countries, within three or four different cultures, and has had to embrace two languages beyond her own. None of that makes 10 days in isolation less arduous, but it does lend perspective. Being alone was bad, and if your description is honest, it's going to seem harsh. But it’s also something other people have to overcome.
Kuikka knew she'd have to embrace the relocation, and the quarantine that came with it. There were other factors, too. National-team duties. The U.S.'s unique social and politic moment. And, of course, COVID-19. It all was part of the decision-making process when considering the Thorns’ contract offer.
“That's why it took such a long time for me to even be comfortable signing here, and really deciding that this is the right move,” she explains. The courtship between her and the Thorns played out over months, with much of that time spent at the edge of a decision. “It is really far away from home and my national team, and we have important games, and all this is going to affect my games, there. Just being away, the situation with COVID and then the social environment that's going on here. Thrown into an unexpected environment where you don't really know what's going on, it is kind of scary.”
Her main outlet was video games. Fortnite and Call of Duty, sometimes for four hours at a time. “It's just a way of relieving stress and doing something that's totally different to soccer,” she says, but amid her isolation, the games became more. “That's also one place I can communicate with people. I have friends who play, so I either play with them or just random people.” Headphones and a mic let Kuikka got beyond her walls.
“I did start learning how to play guitar when I was in Sweden,” she said, smiling, self-conscious after adding up the video-game hours. “But then we started playing, and I just got so busy. But I think I'm going to pick that up again, get myself a guitar and pass my free time trying to learn how to play that.”
Now Kuikka has a better idea of how much free time she’ll have. Daily training has finally begun, usually giving her three or four hours with teammates at Providence Park. She reports to the stadium mid-morning, sometimes for a meeting before taking the field. There's usually something to do when practice it’s done. Sometimes it’s a gym session. Sometimes it’s more meetings. Aside from her get-up and get-ready routine, the first part of her days are spent at her job. That part of her life has gotten back to normal.
The rest of the changes are still profound. With Portland’s businesses and restaurants restricted by COVID-19, there isn’t much of a social life to build, and even if those options were fully open, the Thorns would be taking precautions. More than usual for team-sport athletes, the work life has also become the social, though for Kuikka, dealing with changes of this magnitude was inevitable.
“[A change] was something I had to do to grow as a person,” she says, “and to just see if I can compete with some of the best players in the world, here. I had to do it for myself just to see how far I can go.
“I did my research on Portland, obviously. Seeing the community and the fans that I have behind here. They don't even know me, and they're still supportive of me. It feels nice. Yeah, maybe it's a new place, and I'm here by myself. I didn't know anyone here, before. But then knowing that I already have a lot of fans and supporters behind me, it makes this transition easy. It makes me feel like this is something that can be really good, or great.”
Kuikka is currently back in Europe. She helped Finland qualify for next summer’s European championship tournament with her performance this morning against Portugal. In four days, she’ll close the international break in Cyprus. Then, it’s back to Portland, another quarantine, and more time on Fortnite.
At least this time, she’ll know what to expect. And she'll know what awaits when it's over. This time, she's already a Thorn. The next chapter of her career has begun.