For many rookies just the thought of taking the field with some of the legends of the game—Carli Lloyd, Christine Sinclair, Marta—is intimidating. But to line up next to Christie Pearce (formerly Rampone), one of the greatest center backs in the world, when you make your professional debut?
“She's a world-class player and to have to play alongside her and having to live up and play up to what she produces on the field every single time, I think it's pretty intimidating to have to do,” Sky Blue FC’s newest center back, Miranda Freeman, or Mandy as she’s better known, said.
Since impressing fans in her professional debut alongside Pearce against Seattle on April 15, Freeman has been thrust into an even more intimidating role. After just two professional matches, Freeman is holding down the back line with second-year defender Erica Skroski while Pearce is sidelined by the NWSL’s concussion protocol. In Pearce’s absence, the defense has noticeably struggled at times, as any team’s would without their most veteran player.
For Freeman, that struggle is simply growing pains. Few rookies have a seamlessly smooth transition from collegiate athlete to pro, and few rookies also have Freeman’s talent, skill set and promise that are already shining through while she’s on the field.
“She has the physical and technical attributes to have a very successful career for both club and country.” High praise coming from Christie Pearce herself.
“I was always on the field”
It was a no brainer that Mandy Freeman was going to be an athlete. Athleticism is in her blood—her mother was on the track and field and dance teams at Rutgers, and both of her older sisters played D1 collegiate soccer—and she was immersed in sports from a very young age.
“My mom likes to joke around that I started [playing soccer] when learning how to walk, from dribbling a soccer ball, because I was always on the field and surrounded by the game,” Freeman said.
With two older sisters playing on two different club teams a good distance from their hometown, Freeman was constantly going from one practice to another, and when it wasn’t her turn on the field, she would sit and watch her sisters play, taking in everything she could about the game.
All that time at the soccer park combined with her athletic genes to make Freeman a natural at the game. At just six years, she was playing up three years on a U-9 team, despite being one of the smallest kids on the field. She said her size wasn’t a disadvantage to her; instead, it made her a more aggressively-minded offensive player as she tried to prove herself on the field.
“I took it like a challenge when I was younger to knock over the big kids and take the ball away,” she laughed, a sound you often hear when talking with Freeman. “I would make sure to go into the hardest tackles against the biggest kids because I was kind of a runt, I was pretty small when I was younger, so I'd get into these big tackles against the bigger kids, and I think that's how I came to like defending a lot when I grew up.”
Freeman continued moving up through the age groups with her team until the rest of her teammates aged out and went to college, leaving Freeman without a team. She decided to join her sister’s old team, the Renegades (later Coral Springs United), where she continued playing until graduation.
Growing up, Freeman didn’t limit herself to just soccer. Like her mother and older sister Ashley, Freeman also ran track. In high school, she was the district champion in the 100m, 200m and long jump from 2010-2013.
That speed no doubt came in handy on the soccer field, helping her to score 10 goals and record 12 assists in her senior season at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach, Fla. There she was also a two-time all-county first team pick and a four-time all-conference first team selection. She also received her first call-up to U.S. U-14 camp in 2009 and has been a part of the youth national system ever since.
The Comeback Kid
Unlike her sisters who stayed in the South for college, Freeman packed up and moved across the country to play collegiately for the University of Southern California. At the time she enrolled, the school’s 2007 national championship was all but a distant memory. After all, the USC Trojans had fallen off the national radar and failed to even make the NCAA tournament since 2010. Freeman didn’t let that deter her though.
“I knew that it wasn't going to be the easiest ride, but I thought in the long run it would be very character building and I would learn a lot as well,” she said. “Everything was just right on that day when I was visiting, and I talked to coaches and they were very interested and the girls on the team were very honest about their experiences.
“[It] just seemed like a great fit.”
Her first season at USC was a tough one. The Trojans finished with a losing record and, once again, failed to make the NCAA tournament. The soccer program then underwent a coaching change, with Keidane McAlpine coming in as head coach, and the team began working on their resurgence. At the end of her sophomore season, the team had worked its way back into the national tournament, a moral victory despite being eliminated in the tournament’s first round via penalties. At the end of her junior year, another shot at the national championship didn’t seem so far fetched anymore.
“I think junior year when we made it to the Elite Eight, we knew that—we had a lot of our players returning and we were gaining some new players—that we could really have a great senior season,” Freeman recalls. “With all of the people that were with the old coach, we knew what it was like and we knew what it felt like to lose and to be 11th in the Pac-12….And to have the chance to go on, when we made it past all these rounds and kept winning games, we were like, 'We can do this.'
“We knew that we had the talent and we knew that we were capable of going as far as winning the national championship.”
Which is exactly what the USC Trojans did at the conclusion of their 2016 campaign. On December 4, 2016, USC defeated the No. 1-ranked West Virginia, 3-1, to become only the fourth school to win multiple national titles.
“Knowing that we had just won the National Championship from where we were freshman year, no one believed it could happen except for us, and for our dreams to come true in that second, it was crazy. I couldn't even bring tears to my eyes. Everyone was crying around me and I was trying really hard to be more emotional because it was an emotional moment, but I was so shocked and so stunned that we actually did it, I couldn't even cry.”
Coast to Coast
Freeman’s 2017 started off much the way her 2016 ended: on a high. On January 4 it was announced that the versatile defender, who had also played holding mid for the Trojans her junior year, was one of 30 players called into the U-23’s January training camp. Although it was not her first call-up to the U-23s, it was a very momentous camp for Freeman since, at the end of it, she was one of five players invited by Jill Ellis, head coach of the senior national team, to stay and train with the full USWNT for a few days.
Freeman said that in itself was an incredible opportunity, and another one came also came her way while training with the U-23s. On the next-to-last day of camp, the NWSL College Draft was held, and Freeman had not only declared for it, but was expected by many to be a first-round pick. She admitted that she and some others had watched videos of the previous year’s draft to try to get an idea of what to expect, but even that didn’t fully prepare her for being their in person. Nor did it prepare her to be taken as the No. 10 overall draft pick by Sky Blue FC.
“To hear my name called was just crazy because, when I was younger, I never thought that this was even a possibility,” she said. “To have my name called it was like, a team wanted me? I just thought it was cool that a team out thought that I was good enough to be playing with them.”
Sky Blue Head Coach Christy Holly not only thought she was good enough, but thought her obvious natural talent and ability on the ball could be major assets to the team.
“As I told her recently, when I watched her in college, I felt as though everything seemed relatively easy for her,” Holly said. “She’s physically very well prepared for the pros while also having a very solid technical foundation which will make her very important within our set up.”
So Freeman said goodbye to California and once again trekked cross country to join her new team. Christie Pearce joked prior to the team’s preseason that Freeman, “the new center back,” better not take her spot, but with the departure of Kristin Grubka in the offseason, a spot that seemed made for Freeman opened up. In no time Freeman was lining up next to Pearce on the Sky Blue back line for preseason matches, priming her to do the same in their season opener.
On Saturday, April 15, Freeman took the field for her professional debut, facing off against a Seattle team that was hungry after falling just short of the playoffs last season. The crowd was one of the largest she’d ever played in front of, and she knew the stakes were high. The game ended in a hard-fought draw, and Sky Blue has rarely looked better than they did in the opening half of that match. Freeman especially wowed fans and proved she’s one to watch this season.
“The game was super intense, and everyone put everything on the line every second of every minute of that game, so to come out with the draw was good,” she recalled. “We were excited about our start. No one wants to tie, everyone wants to win, so we were a little disappointed and mad, but we're really excited about what we could produce going forward in the future.”
Since Freeman’s debut, she has played every minute of every match, helping to hold down the Sky Blue defense in Pearce’s absence. In Week 3, she assisted on Raquel Rodriguez’s game-winning goal, her first professional assist, and helped a young, inexperienced back five secure the first shutout of the year. Although she has not been perfect—few players on the field ever are—her potential is obvious, and she has all the makings to be one of the most highly-touted defenders in the league.
“I think she is a very deceptive center back. She tends to let the forward feel she can have the ball before stepping in and dispossessing her,” Pearce said. “It’s been fun playing with her this season.”