After last Saturday’s match between Sky Blue FC and the Houston Dash, it came to light that the Dash were technically lacking a backup goalkeeper and, if something had happened to Bianca Henninger, forward Rachel Daly would have taken her place in goal.
That had many fans wondering who would go in goal for their team if a similar situation arose.
For Sky Blue, that question may be easier to answer than for others.
At 5’10", 23-year-old Kristin Grubka has a goalkeeper’s height, but what many fans don’t know is that the center back has something that most professional field players don’t: a high school state title as a goalkeeper.
But then again, Grubka isn’t like most players. In a league that is all about versatility, Kristin Grubka might be one of the most versatile players of them all.
Hailing from Melbourne, Florida, Grubka is the younger of two daughters of Mike and Dinah Grubka. Both of her parents were athletes—her father a surfer, and her mother a swimmer—and they introduced Grubka to sports at an early age.
"They signed me and my sister who’s older than me up for a lot of sports because my mom was a big athlete," Grubka said. "She was always into sports growing up, and she just wanted us to feel out different sports so she signed us up for swimming, I did a lot of golfing, just like everything."
That included soccer, which she started playing when she was four years old, basketball and surfing.
"[My dad] grew up in Florida and he was always a big time surfer in the Cocoa Beach area and my mom and him would actually go on dates to go, like my mom would go watch him surf, so he just kind of carried that into teaching us and putting us into surf camps and stuff like that," she said. "But once travel soccer hit, we kind of didn’t get our weekly beach visit and surfing just kind of became a hobby and [put] on the backburner and we really didn’t have much time for it."
Surfing wasn’t the only sport that fell to the wayside as she got older and became more focused on soccer, although she has since started getting back into it. Grubka continued playing golf throughout high school, but she abandoned basketball before her teens. She didn’t like how easy it was to be called for a foul, limiting how physical of a player she could be on the court, a problem she didn’t have on the soccer field.
"I didn’t hit my growth spurt till high school probably, so I was a little on the smaller side or average side for the age group I was playing, but I was definitely still aggressive," Grubka said before recounting a story of an acquaintance whose wrist still cracks whenever she flicks it, the side effect of Grubka breaking her wrist while competing against each other when younger.
Grubka was a force to be reckoned with on the soccer field, and not just because of her tough, physical style of play. As a freshman forward at Melbourne High School, she scored a team high 64 points off of 28 goals and six assists.
In her sophomore year, Grubka led the team in goals (32), had 15 assists and was a key factor in the team making it to the state playoffs. During the playoffs, however, Grubka stepped into goal, and her clean sheet in the championship game helped clinch the state title. For her performance that year, Grubka was named the 2009 Dairy Farmers Girls Soccer 6A Player of the Year and the Florida Girls High School 6A Player of the Year. She was also named to the ESPN RISE All-America team that year.
Her junior year, Grubka again led the team to the state playoffs, only this time, she won the title for her team on the field instead of in goal. In the championship final’s sudden-death overtime period, Grubka headed a ball into the hands of the waiting goalkeeper, only for the ball to be bobbled across the goal line and counted as a goal. Grubka’s championship winner was her 33rd for the season.
At the end of her high school career, Grubka had scored 112 goals and recorded 54 assists. However, while she was also playing with her club team, she was blocking goals instead of scoring them, only not as a goalkeeper.
"My club coach was close with my college coach, and my college coach said, ‘We’re not looking at her as a forward, we’re looking at her as a center back because of her size,’ so then my club coach switched me back to center back so I started getting comfortable with that position," she explained.
That college coach was Florida State University’s Mark Krikorian, a man who was a major factor in Grubka’s decision to play at FSU.
"I went on actually one other visit to a smaller school, [but] I just loved Mark, loved how he handled the recruits and even going, becoming a player there, seeing how other recruits had come through, his professionalism there is unbelievable," Grubka said.
Despite being recruited as a center back, Grubka began her collegiate career attacking for the Seminoles. She played the first half of her freshman season as a forward before being shifted back to holding midfielder. She played in all 26 games that season, including 12 starts, and had three goals and three assists on the year.
Her sophomore year, Grubka was moved back to center back, where she would finish out her collegiate career.
"For the most part I think [the reason I was moved to center back] was my size, and I also worked really well with Kassey Kallman, who plays for Boston now, and me and her, we complemented each other, I think, very well," Grubka said of the position change.
Grubka would go on to start every game that season, helping the Seminole defense set program records in shutouts (17), consecutive shutouts (9), goals against average (0.62) and consecutive shutout minutes (934:09). But even as a center back, Grubka contributed to FSU’s attack with five goals and six assists for the season.
Grubka’s college career continued much the same way. Over her four years with the Seminoles, she started 90 of 104 matches played, recorded 44 points, scored 15 goals and tallied 14 assists. Every year she was at FSU, the team made it to the NCAA College Cup tournament, finally clinching the national championship win her senior year.
On the heels of that national championship win, Grubka declared herself for the 2015 NWSL collegiate draft. Unlike many players in the league who dreamed of playing professionally since they were little, the instability of the professional leagues in the U.S. made Grubka initially uncertain of a chance at going pro. However, as the NWSL showed promise, Grubka decided to give it a shot.
"It wasn’t until junior year when the league was, I think it was about two years into it, or it was getting a little more established and more players were, especially from Florida State, were going into the league, and then I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I want to try it and do it and don’t want to regret anything,’" she said of her decision to pursue a professional soccer career.
Sky Blue FC drafted Grubka as the no. 10 overall draft pick and signed Grubka to the team before preseason camp even started. Without her fate with the team hanging in the balance, she was able to concentrate on the soccer aspect of preseason camp, and soon she had earned a spot as a starter in Sky Blue’s lineup.
"I was a little shocked actually, I’m not going to lie," she said of working her way into the starting XI so quickly. "Especially going into Kansas City, which was the MLS stadium, was a huge deal for our season opener, so it was definitely nerve-wracking, but it helped me, I think, for the rest of the season to be a little more calm and at ease when starting the rest of the games."
She started all 14 games she played last season, many of which were beside captain and fellow center back Christie Rampone.
Although she did not see much playing time at the start of the 2016 season, Grubka is once again back in the starting lineup next to Rampone, who she credits with helping her grow and develop her game as a center back at the professional level.
"I think [our relationship] is definitely better than last year because I started the first three games with her and I was rookie that was playing with pretty much a legend, so I was kind of afraid and just listening to everything she said. And this year definitely, I’ve hung out with her more off the field, so we have built that kind of relationship, which I think helps carry onto the field and I definitely think I know if I step to get a header or something, she’ll be right there behind me, or vice versa. So I just feel that we just trust each other and we work, are working very well together," she explained.
Head Coach Christy Holly has seen Grubka’s growth as a player since last season, and is pleased with the strides she has made as a defender.
"Grubs has really come into her own for us this year," he said. "Her attitude and application since the first day of preseason has been fantastic to see, and all of her hard work has culminated with the great impact that she has had on the playing field. She has developed a tremendous relationship with Christie at the back, and she has been very receptive to feedback, both of which have truly helped her in the advancement of her game."
While she may not be as well known as her center back partner, Grubka is making a name for herself on the field for Sky Blue. She was named the Player of the Match for Sky Blue’s June 11 draw against FC Kansas City, and in each of her seven games played so far this season, her impact has definitely been felt. She has a strong defensive presence and doesn’t hesitate to tackle or head a ball to deny the opponent a chance on goal.
"It sounds weird, but I really like defending, whereas most soccer players will be like, ‘I love attacking. I love scoring,’ which I love scoring, too, but I also just love blocking shots, love going into tackles, love doing all of that," she said.
With her diverse soccer résumé, Grubka definitely has the ability and versatility to be successful anywhere on the field, whether scoring goals or blocking them.