Whenever Natalia Kuikka misses home, she will often bike from her apartment to Portland State’s downtown campus where she finds solace in being alone with only a soccer ball for company.
Those moments of individual training rekindle memories from growing up in Finland as well as playing in Florida and Sweden, a reminder that while life situations change many things stay the same.
“I became really centered in that,” Kuikka said. “Even if I’m [in Portland] it’s the same thing I was doing in Sweden. It really helped me settle in and come to terms with where I was.”
A stalwart of the Finland Women's National Team and on the eve of competing with them at the UEFA Women's EURO in England, Kuikka isn’t afraid to admit her adjustment to Portland wasn’t all sunshine and roses. After debuting for Thorns FC in 2021, an ache to be back in Europe with close friends and family constantly tugged at her early in her NWSL career. Amidst a pandemic and a continent – as well as ocean – away from those closest to her, Kuikka had every excuse in the world to want to return home.
But she remained in the Pacific Northwest where a year later she is beginning to settle and see her personality begin to flourish. A professional soccer player for both club and country, Kuikka holds a degree in criminology from Florida State and loves exploring the Portland metro area by bike. Content to stay out of the spotlight, Kuikka has been a welcome addition to the Thorns locker room by being herself, and in doing so has slowly adjusted to her new home.
While Kuikka began her professional career with Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC in Sweden, she first popped up on Portland’s radar as a collegiate athlete at Florida State. Her skillset piqued the interest of then-head coach Mark Parsons, but the Finland international made the decision to forgo the NWSL Draft to sign a contract in Europe upon graduating.
Interested in a new challenge after helping Kopparbergs/Göteborg win the Swedish Damallsvenskan, Kuikka remembered Portland and began to have conversations with the club. Despite never meeting Parsons in person until she touched down back in the United States, the coach convinced Kuikka to join the Thorns and she put pen to paper on a two-year contract in October 2020.
However, between then and her arrival in January, Kuikka began to second-guess her decision. Maybe joining the NWSL was too much too soon, she thought. Even though she knew deep down things would probably improve, it didn’t prevent her from keeping a tab open with flights back home that she checked almost daily for a month.
“Everybody on the team was stuck and struggling; we were so locked down and it was strict,” Thorns defender Emily Menges said. “We couldn’t go out as a team for two full years and those are the times when you get to know people.”
Family and friends encouraged Kuikka to give the situation a chance, but as she struggled to adjust to life in Portland early on, she couldn’t help but ask herself how long she feasibly could.
“Was I really trying or was I just giving up?” Kuikka said. “I’m, not a person who would just give up on things, so figuring that out and sticking with [my decision] helped. At the end, if I were to leave, where would I go? I made the commitment to come here, and I wanted to stick with it.”
GOAL | Natalia Kuikka with a nifty finish against the Pride
Players hungry on the road have occasionally been met with an odd sight when they enter the team meeting room to grab a snack.
At first glance, with the lights dimmed and little sound, the room appears empty. But upon walking in, players have found Kuikka, often alone, playing video games projected on the big screen.
A bit of a wildcard, Kuikka has fit right into the Thorns locker room. Menges described her as funny, but also reserved and aware of everything around her.
“You can make eye contact with her across the room, and you know she has been paying attention to the conversation,” Menges said.
For her part, Kuikka wants people to know she isn’t as mean as she might sometimes look, especially when many only see her competitive demeanor on the field.
“I have a face that looks mean, but I’m actually a super kind and nice person,” Kuikka said. “Sometimes I have an alter ego that I think is a 14-year-old boy, super goofy, and sometimes it comes out to play.”
Menges chuckled as she recalled one of her first interactions with Kuikka, which came after one of the Finland international’s first training sessions. Walking off the field, she made an innocent comment about the day’s practice.
“The coaches coach so much,” Kuikka told her teammates.
Since arriving in Portland, Kuikka has quickly cemented herself as a regular starter for Portland, both with Parsons and now under new coach Rhian Wilkinson. With her athleticism and unique flair, Kuikka has played as a wing back on both sides of the field in Wilkinson’s 3-5-2/5-3-2 setup and lives for shutting opposing forwards down in one-on-one situations.
Former Thorn and current Washington Spirit assistant coach Angela Salem said not many players have been able to beat Kuikka in those situations, even in training. Midweek battles between the defender and Sophia Smith in front of thousands of empty stadium seats became intense affairs, but even the club’s most crafty players – like several other NWSL forwards – have had trouble beating her.
“She’s like, ‘Ang, I sometimes like when people get behind me on the field because I just love hunting people down,’” Salem said. “That’s just her mentality. She’s always ready for a battle and she trains that way too.”
Then, as quickly as she snuffs out dangerous chances out wide, Kuikka turns the table on forwards, making them defend her. Sometimes she will even pass the ball to herself down the end line, beating a pressing forward to the ball.
“That was her favorite thing to do when she first got here and we all asked what she was doing,” Menges said. “But then she would get to the end of it, and we were like ‘she just passed the ball to herself, that’s awesome.’”
As a little girl Kuikka dreamed of working in a hospital morgue.
Growing up with a sister who eventually went to medical school and a family friend who was a cop, she thought it would be cool to be a forensic pathologist – her fascination with murder mystery and true crime also didn’t hurt.
“I didn’t want to be a surgeon because the risk of killing someone was way too high,” Kuikka said. “But [as a pathologist] they’re dead already, so I can’t make a mistake.”
Years later, those youth aspirations led her down the path of a criminology degree at Florida State. While Kuikka would love to say criminology is what she always aimed to study, even before arriving in Tallahassee, the truth is even simpler.
Instructed by Florida State soccer coach Mark Krikorian to read through a list of potential majors and select a few of interest, Kuikka noticed criminology near the top of the alphabetical list and thought it would be fun to pursue.
In addition to her off-field interests of mystery and crime, Kuikka is an avid biker. A good way to get away and clear her head, biking also reminds her of home, where she spent a large chunk of her youth biking around until she could get a driver’s license at 18.
To get to know Portland, she would grab her bike and head out into the city before eventually finding her way back home. Sometimes those adventures took her around the block or to an area of downtown she had never explored; other times, it has taken her past waterfalls and out to the Vista House along Historic Columbia River Highway.
Often content to spend time alone, whether biking or sitting down to read a good murder mystery novel, Kuikka also has a favorite social activity: eating. She calls herself a foodie and her time with friends often consists of finding a new local restaurant to try. A taco fiend, she’s a sucker for ¿Por Qué No? Taqueria.
“It’s too dangerous for me,” Kuikka said. “I would have ¿Por Qué No? every day if I could. That was the first place I had here.”
While she admits that she probably won’t be a detective – at least anytime soon – and her forensic pathologist days are in the past, Kuikka hopes to use that criminology degree someday, at least when her playing career winds down.
Between her love of true crime, food and biking, there’s another side to Kuikka others either don’t know about or often see. But as she continues to take longer bike rides and try new restaurants, Kuikka has grown more comfortable in Portland which has in turn helped her grow more confident on the field.
“What everyone is seeing from [Kuikka] now is who she really is as a person and a player,” Salem said. “I hope everyone continues to see her amazing quality and see her as the amazing person she is.”
With several COVID-19 restrictions in place when she arrived in Portland, the first true relationship Kuikka formed was with Salem, her roommate. Between training sessions and games, Kuikka often found herself at her apartment, either gaming or watching a new episode of Criminal Minds. For social interactions though, she leaned on Salem, and the two discussed everything from travel and soccer to the city and their families.
“She’s an introvert a little bit until you get to know her then she really opens up,” Salem said. “I think she felt really comfortable living with me and vice versa. She opened up pretty quickly with me and we had really good conversations.”
Over time Kuikka became even more popular in the locker room, aided by her gifts of chocolate she often brought back from Finland after international duty and dumped on the couches in the locker room ahead of practices.
With COVID restrictions easing, Kuikka wants to continue building relationships during her second full season in Portland. She knows that there will continue to be ups and downs, but her goal going forward is to find a nice rhythm and balance between soccer and life.
“My mom always says ‘life is gray,’” Kuikka said. “When bad things happen, they’re black and really high moments are white. The combination is gray, so making that gray feel really good, that’s how my mom put it.”
“It sounds better in Finnish,” she added.
It’s by no means a perfect situation yet, but Kuikka said she feels much more at home in Portland this year. Her personality – both serious as well as goofy – has helped her endear herself to her teammates. On the field, Kuikka’s talent speaks for itself; off it, she's happier now than she has ever been.
“It took her two or three months to get adjusted, but since then she hasn’t looked back at all,” Salem said. “I think she’s showing it again this year that she is an amazing, amazing player and she looks so happy in the photos. When I saw her [a few weeks ago] she said she was in a good place and the team loves her, she loves the team, and she’s just really happy.”
Follow Kuikka's play at the 2022 Women's EUROs in England:
- July 8 – Finland vs. Spain @ 9 a.m. – ESPN+ (Kuikka)
- July 12 – Finland vs. Denmark @ 9 a.m. – ESPN2 (Kuikka)
- July 16 – Finland vs. Germany @ 12 p.m. – ESPN2 (Kuikka)