PORTLAND, Ore. – At some point, Celeste Boureille is going to have to take a break.
For nearly three years, she’s been playing soccer almost without end. From her final season at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 2015 until now, when she’s grabbed hold of a spot in central midfield for the Portland Thorns, the 24-year-old San Franciscan had been plying her trade non-stop. The short break she had as she transitioned into the National Women’s Soccer League has been her only reprieve since leaving school.
“I’ve been very fortunate to stay healthy and be able to do that,” she explained in February, upon returning to Portland from a four-month spell in Australia. She was in no position to concede fatigue, mental or physical. At that point of her career, she was still trying to move up.
“As long as my body is letting me do it, I’ll do it as long as I can.”
It’s an opportunity few in her position are afforded. Berkeley to Portland. Portland to Canberra, Australia. Back to Portland and then again to Oz in Brisbane, with a spell with the United States’ under-23 team mixed in. All the seasons run together, with Boureille departing the States each fall to go south for Australia’s spring. Then, when winter comes to Cascadia, she’s back, taking only a few days to recover from the travel.
This is the life of an emerging NWSL talent, somebody whose path hasn’t been paved by national team attention. Boureille is a smart player, capable of filling a number of roles through midfield and defense. The all-around presence she had in college has settled into a player whose natural position at the base of midfield, in front of the defense, reacting to play coming out of the opponent’s end and helping retain the ball. Tall, strong, willing to fight for a ball (if not defined by her aggression), Boureille’s physicality is a perfect complement for what are probably her main strengths: her intelligence, awareness, and adaptability on the field.
But in these, the first stages of her career, that’s translated to a life of transience. If she is going to establish herself as a professional soccer player, she has to go to the ends of the Earth, almost literally, to prove what she’s willing to do.
And now, over the past two months, that willingness has begun to truly pay off.
For seven games in a row, Boureille has found herself back in the Thorns’ starting lineup, a group she had momentarily been dropped from, during the middle of this season. She knew the change was coming, having started the campaign’s first five games while the team balanced their roster challenges, but at some point in early summer, Portland’s first XI started to miss her. The anchor she’d provided in the middle? The stability she brought to the formation? As the team went 2-2-1 with her on the bench, often missing a needed element of structure in midfield, the lineup began reflecting what it has lost.
It also started reflecting how far Boureille had come. In that first year out of Berkeley, she played only six games for the Thorns. An offseason with Canberra United and the U.S. U-23s helped her more than double that playing time come 2017, but most of that time came at right back, where she was forced into action before the return of Katherine Reynolds. After another offseason in Australia, though, there was no question where Boureille belonged. Given players like Brazilian international Andressinha were with their national team to start the 2018 season, Boureille was going to get her chance to prove herself in the middle.
“It’s definitely been fun playing in the midfield, again, just getting on the ball a little bit more, rather than other positions that I’m not used to,” she conceded. “Having players next to me like Lindsey (Horan) and having everybody give me my full support has been really helpful and giving me confidence going forward.”
“Celeste, you look what her journey has been, …” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons begins, “undrafted, came in, played a little bit of everywhere, has been coming off the bench. Last year, ended up playing a lot of minutes at right back, and a few other positions, at center back. And this year, an opportunity to play her a load in the center midfield at the beginning of the season, and now, since more consistency’s been there, and she’s been our most consistent player next to Lindsey.”
“I’m in position to do whatever my team needs me,” Boureille explained, refusing to see herself as entitled to any playing time. “Whether that’s starting a game or coming off the bench, I’m just going to try to make an impact any way that I can and just roll with it.”
Rolling with it has been part of the story throughout her first three years as a pro. She gets a chance when Andressinha is gone, or perhaps when players like Amandine Henry and Allie Long, in the past, were on international duty. Kath Reynolds is hurt? Let’s try Boureille at right back! But beyond those glimpses, the story of her career has been largely unfolded in the background.
It’s made Boureille one of the favored members of the team – somebody whose success everybody is invested in, having seen her years of work– allowing the entire squad to take some satisfaction in her success. Arriving the same year Parsons came from the Washington Spirit, Boureille is one of the first Thorns products to be molded by his system. Perhaps Hayley Raso, who arrived two years ago from the Spirit, can be seen in the same light, but Boureille was undrafted, straight out of school, without a clear path to professional success. Her work has forged that path, to the point where she is starting games as the team chases a second-straight title.
“It’s crucial for a team dynamic,” Parsons admits, about players like Boureille, who become favorites within the group. “It’s crucial to have that player. And for someone who has been at the club, developed through the club, developed through the good times, developed through the pain, it makes it more important. And it makes it more important at this stage of the season.”
Over the last six games, the impact that path’s had on the team has been obvious. Horan just won National Women’s Soccer League Player of the Month, but that award would not have been possible without Boureille’s presence beside her in midfield. The stability Boureille’s provided as the team’s deepest midfielder has freed up the U.S. international, while the ball-winning and distribution the defensive midfielder has provided has the Thorns playing like their former selves. The long periods of pressure that have pinned teams like Houston and Utah have depended on Boureille’s decision-making and execution.
“Without her in there,” Parsons says, “Lindsey doesn’t just get to do what she likes to do, and [Christine Sinclair] doesn’t get to do what we like Sinc to do.”
“After the performance against Houston at home,” on July 15, Parsons alludes, “I grabbed her and I said, ‘Hey, I’m watching the game, I’m clipping the game, and all I see you do is play one touch. And all you’re doing is playing one touch to someone who can face up and go forward. Not backwards, or slow.” At times in the past, Thorns midfielders had struggled to find the right pass forward.
Parsons became obsessed by it, a little. How many times was Boureille playing the ball with one touch? Playing it forward? As he put together film to show Boureille, he counted.
“Cel’s on the half-turn, playing one touch and going forward,” Parsons continues, “receiving and playing two-touch and breaking lines. ‘So I sat there and clipped every time you had possession, and you had 30 actions when you could have taking one touch or taken more. You were 18 on one touch and 12 on more than one touch. That’s 60 percent one touch. I haven’t seen anyone in the league play like that.’”
Yes, at some point, Boureille will have to slow down. She can’t play soccer 12 months a year forever, nor should she have to. At some point, the work she’s put in will pay off, the progress she’s made will have its reward, and she will have established herself. And when she does, it’s likely more people than just Parsons will notice the player she’s become.
“I definitely want to keep moving forward,” she says, when asked about her non-stop soccer. “Playing in Australia and getting a lot of time and minutes and just getting more experience is what’s helping me, at this moment. Playing with so many world-class players out there is so great for me in my position, to just keep moving forward and improving as a player.”
Right now isn’t time to slow down. The Thorns need her, something that’s the biggest compliment you can give her ascent. After two years, two positions and two leagues, Boureille has started to make herself indispensable.