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Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Caroline Stanley isn’t afraid to make her own destiny

Through hard work and determination, Stanley is living her dreams of professional soccer.

Trey Madara, Brotherly Game

On Tuesday, August 30, news of a new soccer-based app called Profile Passer dropped. The app and corresponding website are a means for high school athletes to have a better college recruitment experience by providing curriculum on the recruitment process, a direct connection to interested college coaches and even advice from a handful of professional athletes currently playing in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Caroline Stanley is one of these professional athletes who will be doing Office Hours, one-on-one Skype sessions where high school players can ask a pro for advice.

As her own journey into the NWSL proves, Stanley is a master of making her own destiny. Who better to guide the future athletes of the NWSL than someone who forged her own path into the league?

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Caroline Stanley got into soccer the way a lot of kids do.

At four years old, Stanley was an energetic, athletic child, often running around on the carpeted track in the basement of the Missouri church where her dad was a pastor. A member of the congregation suggested Stanley’s parents sign her up for a recreation league team as a means of channeling that energy and athleticism, and before long, Stanley and her younger sister were on the team.

"I fell in love with [playing soccer], but unfortunately she fell in love with doing cartwheels on the sidelines and quit shortly after," Stanley said of that first year playing.

Although she would eventually also play volleyball and basketball, Stanley loved soccer because of its extensive amount of running and the physicality of that sport.

"I just loved running, which is hilarious because I don’t love running now, at all," Stanley laughed. "But I liked sprinting because I was a pretty fast kid, and I liked how physical it was because I was obsessed with football and the fact that I could push kids around. I loved it."

Stanley’s speed, strength and size came in handy as a forward, allowing her to break free of defenders to score goals.

"I kind of hit a growth spurt and was labeled as 'the big blonde.' I was really fast for how strong I was, and I loved scoring. I didn't show it, which is really funny. There is film of me when I was younger, scoring, and I just scored, turned around, and jogged back to the line. And other kids are kind of jumping around celebrating, but I just saw it as, 'Okay, this is my job to score,’" she said.

She also said that, according to her mom, she could also be bossy on the soccer field, an attribute that likely came in useful when Stanley was put in a goal, a decision that Stanley was completely resistant of from the start.

"What’s so funny about that is I feel like kids nowadays are [wanting to play goalkeeper] because in their eyes, it’s cool to be a goalkeeper now thanks to, I think, the allure of the national team players, but I did not want to be a goalkeeper, one hundred percent, with everything in my body and soul. I hated it," she said.

However, the coach of the competitive team that Stanley transferred onto wanted every player to also play indoor soccer so as to help them develop foot skills and tactical awareness early on, and he required every player to go in goal at some time as well.

"I remember the first time he said, 'You're going to go in goal,' I cried. I was a mixture of pissed and really scared, but I just, you know, I had pretty good hands from basketball and I could just catch the ball. I could jump and I found myself, as I got a little older, playing 20 minutes here and there and a half here and there," Stanley said.

Despite her natural ability in goal, Stanley still played predominantly at forward until eighth grade when one of the top coaches in the Kansas City area advised her parents that she should be a goalkeeper. After the initial shock and frustration wore off, Stanley realized she should trust the coach and follow his advice, and soon she was training to be a goalkeeper.

"Towards the end of my eighth grade year, I got a goalkeeper trainer named Dave Wiebenga and it started out as a camp and then before I knew it I was doing private sessions with him behind my middle school in this horrible mud pit of a field, and I just fell in love with it," she said. "So I went into high school knowing that I was going to be a goalkeeper, and that's when things just started happening for me like they weren't when I was a field player."

As a keeper for her high school, Lee’s Summit North High School, Stanley quickly proved to be one of the best goalkeepers in the state. In her senior season alone, she posted 11 shutouts while allowing only 18 goals in 21 games played. She earned back-to-back Class 3 first-team all-state honors her junior and senior seasons, and was named Goalkeeper of the Year by the Missouri State High School Soccer Coaches Association in consecutive years.

With her club teams during her high school years, Stanley also won four state titles and won summer nationals with Kansas City Football Club in 2011, thanks in part to her three saves in a penalty kick shootout to clinch the win. Stanley also played some for her regional Olympic Development Program team before getting a quick call up to the United States youth national teams, playing in goal for the U-15, U-17, U-18 and U-20 teams.

That experience allowed Stanley to achieve her dream of playing Division 1 soccer, signing with the University of Missouri. However, Stanley only played in four games for the Tigers as a goalkeeper, making four saves and allowing no goals. After losing the starting goalkeeping spot and being played predominantly as a forward, Stanley decided she need to make a change.

"I was playing forward against OU, Oklahoma, on ESPN, and my whole family was there and that was a turning point in my career and a turning point as a person because I realized I wasn't happy, I wasn't growing, and I realized that if I really set my mind to it and worked hard that there could be something more for me," she said. "So I made the decision to transfer, and a lot of schools wrote me off because I had been playing forward, I was not getting called into the national team anymore and they didn't know if I had already hit my potential and if I had already hit that ceiling and that talent spurt."

One school that did not pass up on Stanley was the University of Southern California, where she quickly earned the starting goalkeeping spot and would finish out her collegiate career. In her three years at USC, Stanley had 55 starts in 58 games, recorded 10 clean sheets and made 245 saves. She also served as team captain during her senior season.

Despite having what she calls an "average" college career, Stanley declared for the 2015 NWSL collegiate draft in hopes of playing soccer professionally, but when the fourth round of the draft ended, Stanley found herself without a team. Initially hurt by the rejection, especially by her hometown team that drafted so many of the players Stanley had grown up playing with, Stanley began thinking about her career.

"I had a very average college career, I was realistic with myself. I knew on paper, there was no chance that I should have been drafted. But if you sat down and talked to me and saw how hard I was willing to work for it," she said. "And I thought, 'You know, I do deserve to be in with a team and pushing the one and two at least.'

That very opportunity presented itself later that very night when Laura Harvey, head coach and general manager for the Seattle Reign FC, called Stanley and invited her into preseason camp. Although the Reign already had two quality goalkeepers in United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) goalkeeper Hope Solo and her backup Haley Kopmeyer, they would need a third keeper to serve as Kopmeyer’s backup in Solo’s absence as she trained with the USWNT in preparation for the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

"So later that night Laura Harvey called me and she shot me straight, and with her honesty, she won me over. She said, 'I've seen you play a little bit. I've talked to some people about you. I want you to come in. You probably won't be contracted, but I definitely want you in for preseason and after preseason, we'll make a decision if you're going to be with us the rest of this season,’" Stanley recalled.

Soon Stanley was in Seattle with one of the best teams in the league, but it quickly became apparent just how unprepared she was to be a professional goalkeeper.

"I was stunned with their level of competition there and the change of pace. I was in over my head. I couldn't save anything even if it hit me. I was slower than everyone. My reaction time was slower. I read the game poorly. I mean, I was in over my head," she said.

Stanley worked extensively with Kopmeyer and Ben Dragavon, the Reign’s goalkeeper coach, to try to get up to speed.

"I had a month to prepare for Hope coming in because she was with the national team and the goalkeeper coach there, Ben, and Haley Kopmeyer really took it upon themselves. They didn't have to do that, neither of them," Stanley said. "I wasn't contracted. Ben didn't have to do all the things he did to make me better, and he picked me apart from top to bottom, he picked apart how I was moving my feet, how my body was shifting, how I was catching the ball, how I was going down and just everything. And I was so overwhelmed but I was unbelievably and eternally grateful for how hard he worked to make me better."

By the time Solo returned from training with the national team, Stanley felt more confident in her ability to push Kopmeyer, who could then in turn push Solo. She also felt more confident in her ability to actually stand in goal for the Reign, an opportunity that presented itself on August 1 against the Boston Breakers.

"I remember Laura Harvey said that, she said 'Hey, wait, relax. No one's nervous. We're going to win this game, we're going to win three points, and you're going to have your first pro start.' And at that moment, looking at that back four, looking at how accomplished all of those women were and how much older than they are than me, could have been really intimidating, but I felt pretty comfortable," she said.

With Stanley in goal, the Reign defeated the Breakers 2-1. It would be the first, and last, time Stanley stepped in goal for the Reign. At the end of the 2015 season, Stanley was waived, and she once again found herself without a team.

However, not one to be deterred and determined to not see her professional career end, Stanley decided to take control of her own destiny.

"Honestly, it came down to me making some very humbling phone calls to GM's and coaches saying, 'This is who I am, this is how I am as a player. I have one game under my belt, I have zero pro experience, I have no international experience except for being a 15 and 16-year-old kid on the youth national team. I had a very average college career. I have no records, I have no accolades, I was not an All-American, I was not all conference, but I promise you, I will be your starter. One hundred percent, hand on the Bible, on my own life, I will be your starter this year if you give me the opportunity,’" Stanley recalled.

One such call was to Tony Novo, president and general manager of Sky Blue FC, and the two had a good conversation about Stanley, the team and the upcoming season. When Christy Holly was named as Sky Blue’s new coach, he contacted Stanley and after a few conversations, Stanley had landed herself a trip to New Jersey to sign with Sky Blue.

"[Holly] was honest with me and said, 'We have an international goalkeeper coming in, and if we can get a world-class keeper in here, we're going to.' And I love Christy Holly, but that lit a fire under my freaking butt because, like I said, on paper I'm no one, but on the field I feel invincible and that's where I feel like someone. And so I wanted that to come out in my playing and, I mean, I wish I got here and it was like, 'Oh, it's easy. You're the starter,' but it was not it at all," she said.

Stanley was joined in Sky Blue’s ranks by Caroline Casey, a standout goalkeeper from William and Mary who Sky Blue had drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft. Although Stanley saw more time between the posts for Sky Blue in its two preseason matches, Casey was tapped to start in goal for Sky Blue in their season opener against Stanley’s former team, the Reign.

"That was a very difficult pill to swallow coming back there, somewhere that was so near and dear to my heart, to not get that nod, and it was a hard pill for family and friends who were there to swallow as well," Stanley said of sitting on the bench in Seattle. "And it's so hard to not be happy when you see your team win like that, and it's so hard to not be happy for your friend who had a great game and secured the win. But there is absolutely no bitter taste in my mouth towards her."

In fact, the two goalkeepers have become close friends over the course of the season, both as a result of their time training together and because of their open, honest communication between the two.

"We're really honest with each other and we work really well together and we can break things down with each other and tell one another when we're doing something wrong and, you know, we push each other every single day," Stanley said. "And I think that we've developed a really good [relationship]. It kind of feels like big sis, little sis relationship, because I met her—she’s two years younger than me, about two years younger than me, and we met in high school actually. We met at Dynasty Goalkeeping Academy. So it's a really good relationship."

That relationship allowed for there to be no hard feelings when, after just two games, Stanley took over the starting spot over Casey in the April 29 match against the Houston Dash. In her appearance for Sky Blue, Stanley faced a strong Houston attack who fired off 26 shots, but her seven saves on the night was enough to record a clean sheet. Stanley continued starting in goal for Sky Blue for the next 9 games, making 24 total saves and allowing 11 goals.

However, an injury in Portland on July 2 saw her time between the posts be put on hold. In the 13th minute of that match against the Portland Thorns FC, Stanley came off of her line to go 1v1 with forward Nadia Nadim. Colliding with Nadim on the play, Stanley was able to prevent her from scoring, but it was not without cost.

"I knew in the thirteenth minute when I made that save, I knew two things. I knew one, that it was a really important play in the game because it was early on and had she scored that goal, it would have changed the game completely. And I knew two, that I had just heard one of the loudest crunches I had ever heard in my life come from my left shoulder and that it was not good," Stanley recounted.

She tried to remain in goal for Sky Blue, but after Dagný Brynjarsdóttir’s goal in the 39th minute, she realized she was unable to get her left shoulder up and she would be doing her team a disservice by staying on the field. Stanley came out of the match just before halftime and was immediately taken to the hospital where it was discovered she had separated her left shoulder.

Luckily for Stanley, her injury came less than a month before the NWSL season’s Olympic window, so she only had to sit out four matches, but it was enough to see some of her goals for the season fall short.

"Obviously injuries you never plan for, and I've actually never been injured at the extent and time period that I was these last couple of months, but I think it was just something that wasn't preparation. It wasn't fatigue. It was just kind of a freak thing," she said. "So those are things that you don't plan for, but those are things that make or break you as a player and I think that it allows me to set even more goals moving forward."

One such goal is to finish out her first season with Sky Blue by helping them reach the playoffs, a goal that, with four games left in the regular season, is still within reach.

"I don't think there's any question about whether we can do that or not," Stanley said. "It's just so important that we continue to take it week by week, game by game and not think about the fact that we have three games in six days coming up and not get sidetracked by any of the distractions that possibly can tear us away from that goal of being in the final. And I think that we're a team that's capable of doing all of that."

Stanley also wants to help high school athletes have a better, more successful recruiting process than what she had. To do that, she has joined with Profile Passer, an app created by Sam Weber and backed by former USWNT players Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx.

"What my role—as well as Bev [Yanez], Jen [Hoy], and Liz [Eddy's] role is going to be—is something really unique called Office Hours. We basically have a calendar online and it shows what hours we're available and players can go and log in and can sign up for a half hour session or a one-hour session with us. It's face-to-face via Skype. They're free to ask us absolutely anything," Stanley said.

Through Office Hours with Profile Passer, Stanley will be able to help guide and mentor high school athletes as they go through the college recruitment process.

As a professional athlete, Stanley said it is important for her to use the platform she’s been given to do good in the world, and by continuing to work with younger athletes, she’s able to keep her career in perspective.

"I just kind of want everyone to feel like I'm just the girl they knew from high school or the girl who trained their sister," Stanley said. "If I get really blessed to go to the national team level, I never want to feel like a celebrity and I don't want people to look at me that way, as untouchable or having everything all together, because it couldn't be more false."