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Kayla Mills: From late bloomer to first-round draft pick

Taken as the no. 4 overall draft pick, Mills has already begun to make her mark on Sky Blue FC.

Kayla Mills controls the ball during Sky Blue’s match against the Boston Breakers.
Mike Gridley, ISI Photos

If Kayla Mills’ soccer career started out slowly, it didn’t stay that way for long.

At about four years old, Mills made her foray into rec league soccer after watching her older sister play. Whether she wanted to be like her older sister or soccer just looked fun, the West Covina, California native doesn’t recall, but the mental image of a young Mills on the soccer field was one she could not forget.

“I, first of all, looked like a really dorky kid because I wore my glasses when I played because I refused to get goggles and I just didn't want contacts at the time,” she laughed. “And my jerseys were too big for me because I was really small and whatever, so I was being swallowed and I had glasses on, if you can imagine that happening.”

For a while it seemed Mills’ athletic ability may have matched her less-than-athletic appearance. Joining the same team as her older sister, Mills tried to play up a few years but was never good enough to see much, if any, playing time. Wanting her to see more time on the field, her parents began looking into other teams for her to play on, only to be told her lack of soccer prowess would keep her from playing much on some teams in her own age group. However, her family was finally able to find Mills a team that was a match for her age and her playing ability. As Mills said, “They were linot as great as the other teams at the time, so it was a perfect fit for me.”

Despite lacking the skill and competitiveness of other teams around, that team was exactly what she needed and before long, it just clicked. Mills suddenly began to improve as a player, developing a love for dribbling around opponents--and sometimes her own teammates. As Mills continued growing and developing as a young player, it became clear she was simply a late bloomer.

From there Mills went on to join an older, more competitive team and would play with them for several years. Although she would dabble in basketball in middle school and run one year of track in high school, soccer was always Mills’ priority, and that focus and dedication led to much success on the field for her.

In high school, Mills was a two-time All-American, was named to the All-CIF Southern Section First Team, and won championships with her club, high school, and Olympic Development Program (ODP) teams. She was also a member of the U.S. U-17 team, and all of those factors helped paved the way for Mills to take her game to the next level.

When it came time to pick a college, the University of Southern California was an easy decision for Mills, although she did say its proximity to her hometown was a negative for her at first. However, the USC soccer team had won the 2007 College Cup, the first ever national championship in program history, and there was still promise in the program despite the team failing to advance past the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 in the years following their championship win. Mills saw the promise that still lay in the Trojan program, which appealed to her.

“It wasn't dead, it wasn't impossible to do anything there. I could see myself helping to maybe do something that would be of use in the soccer park,” she said. “Also USC, it's a great, great institution regardless of soccer. I was always told to to make sure you go to a school if something happened with soccer, and I would definitely go to USC if soccer wasn't in the picture. So it was a great setup.”

Mills and USC seemed like a perfect fit. She played in all 20 matches her freshman year, starting all but one of them, and was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman squad. Over four years at USC, Mills played in 89 matches, scored 8 goals and recorded 19 assists for 35 total points. She was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team three years running (2014-2016), was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year her senior season, and was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watchlist ahead of her senior season. She was also named TopDrawerSoccer’s top defender in the U.S. women’s national team youth pool in 2016, having played with the U-20 and U-23 teams while at USC.

Her versatility made her an asset to the team and allowed her to be shifted anywhere on the pitch as needed. Mills played at every position but goalkeeper while at USC, although she split most of her time between the midfield and backline. When playing as a holding midfielder, Mills was skilled in shutting down the opponent’s attack while helping to create scoring opportunities for her teammates, while her attacking mindedness and speed on the flank made her dangerous at outside back.

With players like Mills on the squad, USC began to rebound and eventually found its way back into the NCAA tournament action. During her senior season, the Trojans made an impressive run through the NCAA tournament to advance to just their second-ever College Cup Final. Before them was a daunting task: the no. 1 seed and no. 1-ranked team in the nation, the West Virginia Mountaineers.

Despite both teams entering on relatively equal footing--each team had only given up one goal in all of tournament play--the Mountaineers, led by Canadian-internationals Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, were favorited to win. Mills said she and the rest of her squad used that to their advantage though.

“[We definitely had] an underdog mentality because no one else expected us do to do it. So we were like, 'Okay, well, if no one else expects us to do it, we've got us and that's all that matters. We got ourselves here, we'll get ourselves through this game.' And we were the only ones in the end that we could count on, and we didn't need anybody else to believe in us because we knew what we had. We knew that we were capable.”

The Trojans were more than capable, handing the Mountaineers a convincing 3-1 loss to win their second national title.

When Mill talks about that game, the excitement returns to her voice, almost as if she’s standing on the pitch as the final seconds tick down and the final whistle blows, signaling their championship win.

“The fact that everything kept happening to build up to us actually winning was like, 'Oh my gosh, we're getting closer and closer.' It happened and we were like--when we scored that third goal, we were like, 'There's no way.' Or when there was 10 seconds left, me and my friend looked at each other and we were like, 'Stop, like you can't smile,’ like it's not over, you know? And then it happened and it was just such an unreal feeling. I was shocked--well not shocked--but I reacted slower because it was just like, it was crazy. It was crazy. It was like God really did this. It was just such a blessing for that to happen and it was--our team is amazing and I was with my friends and it was a great moment.”

For Mills’ stellar tournament performance, she was named to the Women’s College Cup All-Tournament Team. That, combined with the rest of her impressive collegiate and youth national pedigree, made her a natural choice for a first-round pick in the 2017 NWSL College Draft.

Christy Holly, Sky Blue FC head coach and holder of two first-round picks, had extensively checked into Mills and knew she was the kind of player he wanted at Sky Blue.

“We were able to speak with people who knew her on a personal level and then those who knew her on a competitive level, and all feedback was very positive, so we knew she would fit in with our already terrific group of people,” Holly said. “Furthermore, we knew that we wanted to add depth in the full back position, which is her natural position, and we were very confident she was the best fit for us coming out of the draft.”

Mills, who was training with the U-23 team there in L.A. at the time, went into the draft ignoring speculation about her draft stock, knowing that regardless of when or where she was drafted, she’d have to be able to perform at the next level to earn a pro contract. Instead, she said she just left it in God’s hands and let whatever was meant to be, be.

Luckily for Mills and her family, who were also able to attend the event, she didn’t have to wait long to hear her name called. Sky Blue used their first selection, the no. 4 overall pick, to draft Mills.

Kayla Mills was taken with Sky Blue FC’s first draft pick, the no. 4 overall pick, in the 2017 NWSL College Draft.
John Todd, ISI Photos

Two months after the draft, Mills relocated from one side of the country to the other to join Sky Blue for preseason training. From the get go she looked poised to make an immediate impact with her new pro club, starting in each of Sky Blue’s preseason matches.

It was no surprise then when she was included in Sky Blue’s starting lineup in their 2017 season opener against the Seattle Reign. In that match Mills impressed fans and critics alike, playing well beyond her years and experience against a dangerous Reign attack that included the likes of Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe. Although she had some pregame jitters, Mills quickly settled into her game and helped Sky Blue play some of their best soccer. At the final whistle, Mills’ strong defensive play helped the New Jersey side finish with a draw and walk away from Memorial Stadium with a hard-fought road point.

“I don't get nervous until really soon before the game, so like by the time that we were changing jerseys and getting ready to go, I was like, 'This is happening. I'm going to play a professional game right now.' And like, you know, I just said a little prayer to like keep me calm and thanking God for the opportunity to be on the field and doing what I love as a professional, and then it was game time. I can't think about it too much or I'll psych myself out, but I was honestly just so thankful for the opportunity, and it was unreal,” she said about her professional debut. “And when it was over, Mandy [Freeman] and I did a little celebration. We were just like, 'We just played our first professional game!' So that was cool.”

The next match didn’t go as smoothly for Mills or Sky Blue, and the team dropped their second match to the Boston Breakers, 1-0. As she did in Week 1, Mills was once again included in the starting lineup but was subbed out in the 63rd minute as Holly tried to switch tactics in search for an equalizer. Despite a less impressive showing than on opening weekend, by both Mills and the rest of the team, Coach Holly remains impressed with Mills’ talent and what she brings to the team, on and off the field.

“She’s a fantastic player with a lot to offer and a great personality that brings a lot of fun to an already great group of players,” he said. “She has a steep learning curve ahead of her, but we are very confident that through our environment and her attitude, she will transition smoothly into the pros and have a huge impact for Sky Blue FC.”

Only time will tell if Holly’s prediction will come true, but Mills has one of her own. When asked what the future has in store for her, she confidently replied, “A lot of Sky Blue wins.”