With the end of the 2016 Olympic Games, the United States Women’s National Team’s (USWNT) cycle moves into its off years, a time highlighted by the excitement of new call-ups into national team camps.
One player that fans have already started mentioning as one they’d like to see get a call-up to the USWNT is Sarah Killion, the 24-year-old midfielder for Sky Blue FC.
Killion is a quiet but commanding presence on the soccer field, a player that is more technical than flashy. She’s the kind of player that can be easy to overlook on the soccer field because she is almost always where she is supposed to be, doing what she’s supposed to be doing, and that, at times, can make her invisible. But in a good way.
In just her second season with Sky Blue FC, Killion helped turn a team predicted to finish at the bottom of the table into one that was a serious contender for the playoffs. That’s largely because of her self-motivation, the drive to improve daily and a serious sense of competitiveness.
That competitiveness is likely a genetic trait, as is her natural ability on the soccer ball.
“My dad actually played soccer all growing up. He played throughout college as well. And both of my parents are super competitive, and I think they saw that in me at a young age, and soccer was just kind of the route that they kind of threw me into,” Killion said.
Soccer gave Killion an outlet for her competitiveness, and even at a young age, she took winning very seriously.
“Growing up, I think I was the player that people either loved or hated playing against, just because I was so competitive and, you know, if I didn't win, like, it was the end of the world to me,” she said. “It doesn't matter if it was just like a four-on-four little tournament that we had at practice. I always wanted to win.”
Like many other players born in the early 90s, Killion watched as the USWNT won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and those women served as both role models and inspirations for her. But it was FC Barcelona, the professional men’s club in Spain, that really had her heart as she grew older.
“I am such a Barcelona fan, so I loved watching their midfield when it was like Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. I would just watch them all day long, I loved their movement and their passes and just what they could do both on and off the ball was amazing to me,” Killion recalled.
Killion played not only soccer as a kid, but also basketball. Although she loved the sport, she was always better at soccer, so when, during her freshman year at Bishop Dwenger High School, she had to choose between basketball and indoor soccer, it was an easy decision.
The fast-paced, high-scoring nature of indoor soccer made it extremely appealing to Killion, and the sport allowed her to grow as a player and hone skills that outdoor soccer alone would not have.
“I feel like in indoor you get the ball so much more often than you do on like a huge field. That's, like, what I love to do. I love the ball at my feet and kind of trying to be able to control a game and the flow,” she said. “And it kind of made me think quicker, too, which I loved, ‘cause I would always play with the boys and being, like, under those kind of pressure situations where, you know, there's guys flying all around and you got to make decisions, you know, before you even get the ball at your feet, and I loved that challenge.”
Those skills came in handy at Bishop Dwenger, where Killion lettered in varsity soccer all four years. She finished out her high school career with 63 goals and 73 assists, earning her a number of accolades. She was a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year for Indiana in 2009-2011, an ESPN RISE All-American in 2010, a two-time NSCAA Youth All-American (2009-2010), a two-time NSCAA High School All-American (2009-2010) and an NSCAA Scholar All-American in 2010. She was also ranked as the no. 1 recruit in Indiana and the no. 9 recruit in the country her senior year.
During her high school years, Killion also played with her club team, the Fort Wayne Fever, and the Olympic Development Program Region-II Team, with which she traveled to various countries around the world for competitions.
Killion’s impressive high school résumé earned her the attention of many of the top college programs around the country, allowing Killion to achieve her childhood dream of playing Division 1 soccer in college. Although Killion had many top-level programs to choose from, UCLA won out early on.
“I committed at such a young age that I just knew deep down in my heart that it was, it had an amazing soccer program with amazing coaches. I knew that I was going to be challenged and tested every single day that I was there on the field, and I loved that idea. Then on top of that, of course, the educational system at UCLA is, again, incredible as well,” Killion, an honor student who graduated from high school with a 4.4 GPA, said. “I wanted to throw myself into a situation where I was going to be challenged and tested every single day, whether it be through my school work or on the field. I just wanted to improve myself as a whole.”
Her freshman year at UCLA, Killion appeared in all 21 matches, getting 11 starts and recording two assists for the season.
Killion’s sophomore season was put on hold, though, as she traveled with the United States Under-20 Women’s National Team to Japan to compete in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Killion helped her team progress to the World Cup final against Germany, which the team won 1-0.
“Just being able to put on the crest of the U.S. is such an honor and to play with some of the best girls in our country, you know, being able to play with them is amazing and obviously being coached by some of the best coaches in the country as well, so it's just one of those experiences that I'll always look back on and be grateful for and, I mean, nothing can beat winning a gold medal for your country,” she said.
Returning to UCLA, Killion started the remaining 17 games in the season and finished fifth on the team in scoring with three goals and six assists.
In her junior season, Killion started 25 of 26 matches and scored one goal, and her 12 assists tied her third on UCLA’s all-time single-season list. That year she also achieved another childhood goal when UCLA defeated Florida State 1-0 to win the NCAA College Cup for the first time in program history.
“It still, like, gives me goosebumps....You just feel like everything that you worked for and put in the hours for paid off. And that is individually, but even more so as a team ‘cause my freshman and sophomore year we were, we did not do well at all,” Killion said. “To see a team kind of come through that and to come out and to have such a killer 2013 season and, you know, win a national championship, it felt amazing,”
Her stellar performance at UCLA earned her the attention of Tom Sermanni, the head coach of the USWNT at the time. Sermanni named Killion to the senior national team roster for the 2014 Algarve Cup. Although Killion did not dress for any of the matches during that tournament, she said the experience was still an extremely memorable one that helped her grow as a player.
“It was still such an amazing experience, and it was really cool to be able to, you know, be in the locker room, be around the team, still going to training with them every single day and playing against, you know, the best players in our country, which is pretty neat,” she said of her time with the USWNT.
Back with UCLA for her senior season, Killion had the best performance of her collegiate career. Killion scored nine goals and tallied another 12 assists, ranking her second on the team in points, goals and assists for the season. She was named the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year and named to TopDrawer Soccer’s Best XI first team.
With a women’s professional soccer league thriving once again in the United States, Killion declared for the 2015 NWSL College Draft after her senior season, striving to attain yet another childhood goal of playing soccer professionally.
Her successes with UCLA, the U.S. youth national teams and in the USL W-League—Killion won consecutive league titles in 2013 and 2014 with the Pali Blues—resulted in Sky Blue FC selecting Killion as the second-overall draft pick, second only to two-time Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann trophy-winner Morgan Brian.
“That was such an honor. That was, that was an amazing feeling. Again, even to be right after Morgan, but then even the players who came after me are unreal,” she said. “I can't thank Sky Blue enough for giving me the opportunity that they have, you know, these past two years.”
Killion, along with fellow draftee Kristin Grubka, was signed to a contract with the team before the team’s preseason began, a move said to aid the players’ transitions into the league. In her rookie season with Sky Blue, Killion played in 17 games, starting 13. Although her transition from collegiate athlete to a professional was mostly smooth thanks to a welcoming team and host family, her rookie season was not without obstacles.
“I think the hardest part about last year for me was being injured most of the season. I had a little bit of a knee nagging injury that kept me out for a large chunk of the season and a lot of games. So, that was probably the hardest part for me because I had never even experience that in my career as a whole, let alone my rookie season in a professional league,” she recounted.
The loss of playing time due to injury was concerning to Killion, who felt she’d be better prepared for her sophomore season with Sky Blue if she had a few more games under her belt. She was loaned to Adelaide United, one of Australia’s W-League teams.
“Australia was amazing. That team [has] the sweetest, the sweetest coaching staff I think I've ever been a part of, and I honestly can't thank them enough for giving me that opportunity because I was able to go and play about twelve games,” Killion said. “And we tried, you know we tried as hard as we could to make the finals, but we didn't, but it was still such a great experience and, again, I'm just so grateful for them and all that they did for me.”
During Killion’s season Down Under, her team back home was undergoing major changes that had many fans and critics discounting Sky Blue before the 2016 season even began. However, Sky Blue has since seen significant success this season, working their way up the table to be a serious playoff contender in the second half of the season.
Killion’s performance in the midfield is certainly a contributing factor to the team’s success, and it’s why some fans have claimed she deserves another national team call up. While Killion said the national team is definitely still a goal of hers, for the time being, she’s more focused on her season with Sky Blue.
“I watched the 99ers, and that was so incredible to be able to look up to them and it was one of those things that, again, deep down in my heart I was like, ‘Ahh, I would love to be out there,’ you know, I would love to be able to represent my country by being a part of a team like that like they did. So, of course, it's always been an individual goal, but, with that being said, I think that I've always had the mindset that, you know, that the team comes first,” she said. “You know, if things happen to work out individually for me, that's great. But I want this team to strive and get better every single day, and that's kind of what I'm here to do right now."