For Taylor Lytle, it all started with the 99ers.
Like so many other girls her age, it was watching the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) clinch their second Women’s World Cup that inspired her dream of playing soccer professionally.
"After the women won the World Cup in 1999 and then started the WUSA, I just knew right then, I was like, ‘I want to be like these women and I want to play pro,’" she said. "And honestly, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do it because they did it.’ It was nice at the age of 10 to think that."
That dream sparked a fire in Lytle at an early age, but little did she know that just 14 years later, she would be a veteran on the same team with one of the very women who inspired her dream.
Lytle, a 27-year-old midfielder hailing from Las Cruces, New Mexico, began playing soccer when she was just six years old, following in the footsteps of her older brother whom she idolized. That desire to be like her big brother soon turned into a genuine love for the game, eventually beating out track, basketball and volleyball as her main focus.
"I think from the get go, soccer was just so much fun for me, and I just really enjoyed playing it," Lytle said. "I was just out there having fun, whereas I feel like with the other sports, I was kind of always thinking about them and not really playing really well, and soccer just kind of came easy for me."
That ease of play for Lytle was raw, natural talent, and her skill was obvious on the field from the start. In high school her club team, Rio Vista FC 89, won the state championship, and she was a member of the New Mexico State Olympic Development Program (ODP) team.
At Las Cruces High School, Lytle was an integral part of her team, helping to lead her school to state titles in 2003 and 2005. She was named first team All-District and All-State all four years in high school, the New Mexico State Player and Gatorade Player of the Year in 2005 and one of Soccer Buzz’s Top 125 Freshman for the 2007 recruiting class. She graduated from Las Cruces with 78 goals and 81 assists under her belt.
Lytle also began getting national attention at an early age. She was called into multiple United States national youth camps, from the U-14s all the way to the U-23s, throughout high school and college, which she said help her grow and develop her as a player in preparation for competing at the next level.
"I loved getting called up for camps just because you’re playing with the best of the best," Lytle said of her experience with the youth teams. "It was people from all over the United States, which is just awesome because I feel like every region kind of plays soccer a little differently, so I think just being called into those camps and playing a few weeks at a time with those players just really prepared me for college, but also prepared me for the pros, because everyone is so good at that level. Everyone there is a star."
Her successes at various levels of soccer in her teens would land her a spot playing Division 1 soccer for Texas Tech University, where it looked as though she would be immediately starting in the midfield for the Red Raiders. However, her collegiate play would have to wait a season after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) just two weeks before her freshman season began.
Medically redshirted for what should have been her freshman season, Lytle wasted no time in breaking Texas Tech records once on the field. It was said that, in just her first two seasons, there wasn’t a top 10 list in the Red Raider record book that didn’t have Lytle’s name on it. She broke the record for number of assists in a game, assists in a season and shot attempts, and was the second player ever to receive first team All-Big 12 honors from Texas Tech.
Lytle would go on to serve as captain for her team in her last two seasons with Tech and finished out her collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader in assists with 27. She started 67 of the 72 matches she played in and scored 14 goals, including six game winners.
Shortly after graduation, Lytle found herself rostered with Sky Blue FC for the very first time. In March 2012, the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league was suspended after three seasons. However, Sky Blue had already scheduled a training camp and two international friendlies in Japan, so they assembled a roster of 20 players from Sky Blue, other WPS teams and collegiate players for the trip. Lytle was one of the players called up to travel with Sky Blue to Japan.
"That was an amazing experience. I was very thankful that Jim [Gabarra] thought of me and invited me to that type of trip. There were some big names going with us on that trip, and to be able to practice and train with them kind of gave me a glimpse into what to expect to play at the next level," Lytle said. "Playing in Japan and playing against those teams, I mean the Japanese players are insane, and it made me double think like, ‘Ok, I can still get better. I still need to get better and work on things.’"
Not long after Sky Blue returned from Japan, it was announced that the WPS had officially folded, and with that, Lytle’s dreams of playing professionally were put on hold.
With the disbandment of the WPS, many professional players resorted to playing in the United Soccer League’s (USL) Women’s League, a semi-professional league consisting of both collegiate and professional players. Lytle joined the Pali Blues, the two-time W-League champions, and helped them once again reach the league championship game. However, they were denied a third title by the Ottawa Fury, who won the game in penalty kicks.
"That was definitely a very good learning experience, playing on that team because at that point, everyone was playing in the W-league because there was no NWSL, so it was a very competitive league," Lytle said.
The following season in 2013, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was formed, and Sky Blue FC once again joined its ranks. They signed Lytle as a discovery player, and she once again returned to a Sky Blue roster, this time for her first professional season. She would be making her professional debut on a team with USWNT defender and then-captain Christie Rampone, one of the very women who inspired her to play professionally.
"I was just really excited because there was a pro league again here in the U.S.," Lytle said. "I was just really, really excited to finally become a professional soccer player and be able to play at this level with hundreds of other women who are in this country and who are so good."
In her first season with Sky Blue, Lytle started in 12 of the 21 games she played and earned a reputation as a super sub for the difference she made whenever she came in off the bench. Her four goals for the season helped Sky Blue finish fourth in the league, although they eventually fell 2-0 to the Western New York Flash in the semifinals.
Riding the high of her first season's individual and team successes, Lytle was eagerly anticipating her second season in New Jersey.
"I was heading into my second season just very excited to play and was like, ‘Ok, I got my first year under my belt.’ I knew what I need to work on and I worked on that in the offseason, and I came in and thought I was playing really well and got injured," Lytle said.
That injury was a left tibia plateau fracture, suffered on May 11 against the Flash. The injury required surgery, once again sidelining Lytle for the rest of the season. Returning from that injury for the 2015 season, Lytle felt she was starting the new season much the same way she did her very first year with the team.
"Coming into last year, you know I was fighting for a spot again basically, and it was a mental game and I think I just tried to do what I needed to do on the field to get the job done, whether that was starting or coming off of the bench," Lytle said of her return. Last season, Lytle started in 11 out of the 15 games she played and tallied an assist on the season.
As Sky Blue approached the start of its fourth NWSL season, Lytle saw the team undergo a major overhaul as the team was hit by coaching changes, retirements and departures from the team for a variety of other reasons. Along with USWNT defenders Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara, she and defender CoCo Goodson were the only players left from Sky Blue's 2013 roster.
"The off season was definitely a very weird, very hard off season just because there was so much stuff that happened," she said. "I just remember talking to some of the players that came back in the end, and I think that we were all like, ‘Okay, we just control what we can control. We have to make sure that we come in ready to kind of lead the team in the right direction.’"
Those changes also meant that Lytle’s role on the team changed, and she suddenly found herself thrust not only into a regular spot in the starting lineup for Sky Blue, but also into the role of a veteran and a leader, a role that she is happy to undertake.
"I enjoy [being a veteran]. I embrace it. I like knowing that people can look up to me. I’m not the loudest talker and stuff, but I like to think that I speak up with the way that I play," she said. "I want to be there to help all of the young ones coming in with questions or anything and let them know that they can definitely compete at this level if they just work hard and really believe in themselves and fall into what we have been taught to believe in."
Lytle’s leadership and play on the field immediately began to make a difference for the team. In the April 17 season opener against the Seattle Reign FC, Lytle assisted on Kelly Conheeney’s game-winning goal, lifting Sky Blue to a 2-1 win over the two-time reigning Shield winners.
"Coming out with a win that very first game against Seattle was huge for us, and I think that it just goes to show that everyone on the team fell into what the coaching staff had put on the table during preseason," Lytle said of the victory. "I think that it definitely propelled us, though, into the season in a positive way, which is what we needed with the off season that we had. I think it just showed us what we can do and what we can achieve."
Fellow veteran CoCo Goodson has seen just how easily Lytle has stepped into her leadership position with the team.
"Tay is awesome. She is one of those players who picks you up anytime you are down. She is the type of professional who always shows up to everything on time and ready to go, and she is someone you can truly always count on," Goodson said.
Head Coach Christy Holly agrees with Goodson’s assessment of Lytle and is pleased with Lytle’s evolution as a player and leader for Sky Blue.
"Taylor is a fantastic player. There are many reasons why she has been with our club for such a long time, and she plays a vital role in everything that we hope to achieve on the field. Not only does she bring a vast amount of experience to us, she also brings a good understanding of what is expected within the league," Holly said. "I think she is one of the most underrated players in the NWSL, and you can see week in, week out how important she is to what we are trying to accomplish in our attack. We could not be any more delighted to have her as part of our organization."
As for Lytle, despite all the twists and turns she’s taken to get to where she is today, she’s just happy to be living the dream of playing professionally.
"I’m just thankful that I’m playing in this league and playing against the best people in this nation," she said. "I’m just happy to be here and be along this journey with this league."