At times it may be an overused cliche, but in the case of Portland Thorns FC thirty-year-old defender Emilee O’Neil, timing really is everything.
When O’Neil signed as a discover player with Thorns FC on April 5, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream of being a professional soccer player.
Not many thirty-year-olds can say that and when I talked with O’Neil on Friday, you could tell she was still just soaking up the entire experience.
“The organization here has made this experience so professional. Players who have played in the previous leagues have said Portland has been the most professional by far. It’s been awesome,” said O’Neil.
O’Neil missed out on the first top-tier women’s professional league, WUSA, as she was still playing for Stanford University where she was a four-year player from 2001-2004. By the time she graduated in 2005, WUSA had folded.
When the second professional league, WPS, kicked off in 2009, O’Neil had gone over 4 years without playing in a competitive environment. She had played pick up and was active in coaching youth soccer, but she still shied away from taking a chance at playing in WPS. For O’Neil, It just seemed like she had been away from the game too long.
Yet again though, timing played a key role in O’Neil rediscovering her love for the competitive nature of the game.
When she became a full-time graduate student, O’Neill decided to try out for the Bay Area Breeze in the W-League. She made the team and after a seven year absence from competitive soccer, she completed her first professional season last year with the Bay Area Breeze.
After getting reintroduced to the competitive atmosphere of a professional team, O’Neil was hooked.
“It was more fun than I expected and because it was such a good experience, I was reminded of my passion for playing at that level,” said O’Neil.
Timing was again in her favor in November when the announcement for the new women’s professional league was released. At the time, O’Neil was preparing to finish up her graduate degree in graphic design in December.
“My dad and my husband, Michael, both really gave me the confidence to give it a shot. So I decided I’m not going to regret not trying so I just went for it,” said O’Neil.
After making the commitment to give NWSL a shot, O’Neil decided that Portland was an obvious choice for where she wanted to play. Her husband is from southern Oregon and he has a brother in Bend. O’Neil’s brother lives in Portland.
But it wasn’t just because of family that O’Neil had her eyes set on Portland.
“I knew from the beginning that Portland would be a great city for a team because of the atmosphere and the Timbers in MLS so it was really the only team I pursued playing for,” said O’Neil.
I couldn’t help laughing when O’Neil told me what she did next.
“I went to the website and called the office and asked if I could speak with Cindy Parlow-Cone. She hadn’t even moved to Portland yet but I was able to eventually get a hold of her and tell her my story,” said O’Neil.
O’Neil played centerback and outside back for Stanford University and featured mainly at centerback last season for the Bay Area Breeze. O’Neil says she’s comfortable playing anywhere on the backline. With the small rosters in NWSL, O’Neil’s versatility will definitely be in her favor. O’Neil’s speed, technical ability and composure on the ball also make her a good fit within what coach Cindy Parlow-Cone wants to do on the pitch.
Against FC Kansas City, O’Neil saw her first action as a Portland Thorns FC player coming off the bench in the 61st minute and playing left back.
When asked about her time so far with Portland, O’Neil broke into a huge smile when talking.
“This whole process has been so surreal…so amazing. I’m so thankful for this opportunity. The coaches, my teammates, everything has been so great since I’ve been here,” said O’Neil.
You can reach out and follow Emilee O’Neil’s season on Twitter at: @EmileeONeil