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PORTLAND, Ore. — Kelli Hubly is 27 years old, about to start her sixth year as a professional soccer player, and it’s still unclear how she could grow. She’s improved almost every year since 2017, when she began her journey with the Portland Thorns, so much so that today her club announced a new contract with the defender, one that should allow her ceiling to be tested in Portland.

"[Hubly] is a player who has shown tremendous growth during her time in Portland, exhibiting a strong work ethic and commitment to the club,” Portland general manager Karina LeBlanc said in her team's announcement. Thorns FC confirmed Hubly’s new contract will run through the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League soccer. “She has played an integral role in not only our success on the field but helping to establish a strong foundation off the field.”

That Hubly has carved out that “integral role” after being undrafted is a story onto itself, but the obstacles between her and professional stability started before drat day in 2017. A prominent prospect coming out of high school in the Chicago area, Hubly moved back home dejected after a "traumatic” three years at the University of Kentucky. She wasn’t planning on playing at DePaul University but, after a redshirt year without games, did enough to catch the Thorns’ eye. She joined Portland as an undrafted trialist after leading her team in assists during the Big East season.

When she turned pro, she was projected as a fullback – the midpoint of her positional journey. She's since settled into central defense, but before, she often played higher up the field, in midfield or more attack-oriented roles. Hints of this still come out today, most notably when Hubly has time on the ball. Her willingness to drive into midfield when defenses don’t pressure her has become one of her defining traits.

“I definitely identify as a centerback, now …,” she told ThornsFC.com last year, reflecting on what became a breakthrough season. “I think I'm really good at stepping in and winning the ball, tackling people. It just fits my style better than right back, even though I have more fun at right back.”

When Hubly arrived in Portland, that identity was evolving. She was still becoming the defender she would be, at a position (fullback) she would eventually leave, leaving her in a conundrum most rookies experience. She was learning on the job. But even in that first, transitional year, she won time. She played 15 minutes over two appearances. She got more time in 2018, 818 minutes, before being caught up in a confusing 2019. Portland struggled to third place and, as team managers would admit in the offseason, the Thorns lost some of their identity. Hubly’s playing time fell to 249 minutes over three 2019 starts.

As the Thorns regrouped for the 2020 season, Hubly’s value came into focus. She came into training camp expected to be a depth piece but, between her work in the offseason and the form she showed coming out of the NWSL’s COVID-19 hiatus, forced a change on the depth chart. She won the starting right-back spot as the team ramped up for June’s Challenge Cup and, when Becky Sauerbrunn’s hip injury opened a spot at centerback, slid into the middle. She ended up playing all 10 games in 2020, starting six of them, while making it clear she was no longer just a valued teammate. Hubly could make a major impact on the field.

“She is key to our game model,” then-Thorns Mark Parsons admitted, then. “The way she was distributing and eliminating players with first-touch passes, with a dribble, or a with two-touch, pulling a striker in, letting them get closer to then play to [midfielder] Ang [Salem], who has now got more time because of that touch ... She was being incredibly intelligent.”

The idea of being a high-level teammate and a high-level performer rarely gets mentioned in the same breath with Hubly. Both are important on their own, but one without the other doesn’t paint a full picture, nor does it explain why the Thorns and Hubly are committed to each other. Since joining Portland, Hubly has always been adored in the locker room, but over time she’s won more respect for her consistency, priorities, and perseverance. Her rise on the field has given teammates a public space to show how valued she’s always been, with each Thorn seemingly as invested in Hubly’s journey as Hubly is, herself.

It’s a type of affection that’s unmatched within the Thorns’ group — a combination of respect, hope, and feeling somebody still hasn’t gotten the credit they’ve earned — but also risks overshadowing her value on the field. Since emerging as a starting-caliber player, Hubly has been part of an ongoing, behind-the-scenes debate: Who has been the team’s best centerback? Note, that debate hasn’t been who is Portland’s best central defender. Both Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges have earned the right to lead that conversation. But on a game-by-game basis, as Hubly's confidence in her new stature brings out even more of her game, the debate takes on different, more subtle forms. Who was the team’s best defender last game? Over the last two weeks? Over the last month? Hubly has become increasingly relevant in all those conversations.

Last year, she was seventh on the team in minutes played, logging more time than Sauerbrunn, Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan or Crystal Dunn. Yet aside from an Olympic period where internationals were away in Japan, she wasn’t a consistent starter. As much as Hubly has taken her game to new levels over the last 20 months, she’s done so without guaranteed minutes, a guaranteed role, or a place in a lineup to call her own.

She’s forced the NWSL to recognize her through small windows, forcing the light reserved for starters to expand and cover her, too. She’s now somewhere in between the locked-in XI and trying to win minutes, though with more minutes, she might prove worthy of an even bigger platform.

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That may be the biggest question about Hubly going forward. Can she play? Yes. That’s an inane question to even put in this article, but it provides perspective on the journey. At one point, and before Hubly had given the world enough minutes to judge, that question was being asked aloud. Now, she’s answered the next question, too, because she’s only proven she can play, but she can play at a starter’s level.

Can she get the time she needs is now the biggest question about her path. Can she find that balance between personal growth and contributing to titles, yet stay in position to be a full-timer as the roster evolves? The biggest questions about Hubly now are less about her quality, more about the context around her.

With today’s announcement, that context remains Portland. And it will remain Portland beyond the 2022 season. As much as Hubly has given the Thorns, it’s only fair the club gives her this new deal.