Fun-loving Thorn is a serious defender
On a roster filled with international resumes, a club that has attracted some of the biggest names in women's soccer, no player exemplifies what Mark Parsons has built in six seasons as the Thorns' coach better than defender Kelli Hubly — a player nurtured for several years who has become a key contributor on the field and off for Portland.
Entering a Saturday, June 5 home match against Racing Louisville, Hubly has played centerback in all nine 2021 matches for the Thorns, helping Portland win the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup and start the regular season 2-2-0. The 26-year-old native of Chicago suburb. Elk Grove, Illinois, thought her soccer career was over despite a solid 2016 senior season at De Paul, until Parsons invited Hubly to Portland as a trialist, then gave her the option to stay on as a practice player.
"I had no expectations," she said. "I figured, 'Let's just try it. If I don't like it, then I don't have to keep doing it.'"
Athletics is in Hubly's blood. Her father played college basketball at North Dakota. Her older brother, Billy, played college basketball at St. Francis, a NAIA school near Chicago, and now is an assistant coach for the South Florida men's basketball team. Sister Jessie played soccer at Loyola Chicago.
Kelli Hubly split time between basketball and soccer until her sophomore year in high school, when, as a forward for the United States youth national teams at the under-15, under-17 and under-18 levels, the time commitment forced her to give up hoops.
A prized recruit out of Elk Grove High, Hubly lost her passion for soccer by her third season at Kentucky. She moved home and enrolled at De Paul. She did not plan to continue playing soccer.
Only coaxing from Blue Demons' coach Erin Chastain — who Hubly said is the reason she is playing pro soccer — convinced her to give the sport one more shot.
Hubly said Chastain was patient during the year it took to correctly diagnose and treat (by removing her thyroid) the Graves' disease that was sapping her energy and erasing her natural enthusiasm.
"(Chastain) helped me become this player I knew I could have been when I was younger but was never able to reach for some reason," Hubly said. "By the end of that season, I was just starting to hit my stride."
Her passion for competition returned.
"I just started to feel like myself after taking a year off soccer," she said. As her senior season at De Paul wound down, Hubly remembers thinking: "It can't end like this."
She was not confident that the invitation from Parsons to come to Portland as an unpaid practice player would lead to anything. In 2017, NWSL rosters were only 20 players. The Thorns found a host family for Hubly. She had a part-time job and some financial support from her parents. She decided to give herself one year to see if she could forge a professional soccer career.
"In the beginning, I was very intimidated," Hubly said. "But the more time I gave it, the more I ended up really enjoying it and feeling like I could develop and be better."
Hubly quickly learned she could not get by on the athletic ability that had allowed her to thrive in youth soccer and basketball.
"Everyone is just as fast and just as strong as you. You have to be technical, you have to make good passes," Hubly said. "You have to know what you're going to do with the ball before it comes to you because it's so fast paced."
And, if she was going to survive, Hubly had to learn one-v-one defending. In college, she played outside back the last half of her senior season, but relied on athletic ability rather than defensive technique.
Hubly's transformation included learning to "want to defend," she said.
Parsons gives all the credit to Hubly, noting that the players who stick with it need to embrace long-term development, while bringing competitive tenacity to every training session. The coach also emphasizes that Hubly must maintain that hunger to improve.
"Kelli has committed to the process," Parsons said. "I love winning trophies. I love winning championships. I love seeing players like Kelli do what she's doing even more than that. That's why I coach. To see people grow and improve and I'm really proud of the progress she's making."
Until she was forced into duty at central defender when Becky Sauerbrunn was injured in the first game of last year's National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup, Hubly had made only 16 appearances in three seasons for the Thorns, mostly at outside back. Central defense was a new position to her.
She credits the support and constant shouts from central defense partner Emily Menges and left back Meghan Klingenberg for getting her through that first game.
Now, any reluctance to play in the middle of the back line is long gone. This year, an early-season injury to Menges meant regular starts beside Becky Sauerbrunn as the Thorns won the NWSL Challenge Cup.
"I think I'm way better at reading things as a centerback," she said. "It's way more comfortable for me to see when I can step in and when I can win a ball."
That assertiveness reflects one of the big personalities on the Thorns roster. Quiet and shy as a rookie in 2017, Hubly is now a hype machine who is all about positive vibes.
Her pregame routine is to joke and have fun with teammates. It is Hubly who supplies the pregame music in the locker room.
"Any song people can dance to, basically," Hubly said. "Mark (Parsons) really embraces my wild side. We'll all be dancing in the locker room before a game."
Because Parsons gave her the opportunity to play for the Thorns, Hubly will be especially sad to see him leave after this season to coach the Dutch women's national team.
"It's hard to get on a (pro) team. It's very hard. He gave me a chance and he really, really worked with me, and he saw something in me when I didn't necessarily see anything in me," Hubly said. "You never know with different coaches. Someone could come in and love me. Someone could come in and be like: 'This girl's crazy.'"
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