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Finnish soccer player begins second season with Portland team after dealing with personal losses.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Pictured in a 2021 match, Natalia Kuikka is feeling more at home off the field starting her second season with the Portland Thorns and is excited about her role under new coach Rhian Wilkinson.On the field, Natalia Kuikka adapted to the Portland Thorns and the National Women's Soccer League pretty quickly as a newcomer in 2021.

The Finnish international started 20 of the 25 matches she played in, most of them as a right-side defender, displaying the competitive fire and calmness on the ball that belied the pressure she put upon herself to perform.

Beginning her second season with the Thorns — who play home matches Wednesday, March 30, against Angel City FC and April 2 against OL Reign — the 26-year-old Kuikka is more settled on the field and away from it than she was a year ago.

Coming back to the United States in the midst of a pandemic was rough for Finland's 2020 and 2021 national female soccer player of the year. The isolation was difficult, and made significantly more emotional because her family in Finland was dealing with deaths. Last spring, as Kuikka was trying to acclimate to a new team and new city, both of her maternal grandparents died. So did an aunt, and a close family friend.

"It was really hard. I'm not gonna lie," Kuikka said. "I came here with soccer going really well for myself. But then I had a lot of things going on my personal life. I had a lot of loss in my family. … So that was really hard, not able to be there for my mom."

A newcomer to the club, Kuikka said she wasn't comfortable sharing with teammates everything she was going through. Being a world away from home, she felt helpless.

To cope, she turned to therapy.

"I did go to a lot of therapy. Therapy is really good for me. Even if you don't struggle with anything specific, it's always good to have someone to talk to. I relied a lot on that," she said.

Kuikka arrived in Portland a player who former Thorns coach Mark Parsons had pursued for her soccer acumen and competitive toughness, characteristics that helped her as a captain for Florida State's 2018 national championship team and as a defender for the Finnish women's national team.

But that competitiveness couldn't erase the isolation Kuikka felt during her first months in Portland.

"Looking back now, I don't know how I survived the first six months. It was really hard," she said. "But I think around July I started feeling a lot better. I got to go home for like five days, so that really helped kind of get my life back on track."

On the field, Kuikka adjusted to playing a more direct, transition, fast-paced style of soccer than she experienced at Florida State — which preferred a Barcelona-style possession game — or in Sweden with Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC.

At least one thing was familiar: winning.

A member of championship teams at Florida State and in Sweden after her college days, Kuikka helped the 2021 Thorns win the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup and finish atop the NWSL standings.

As the season progressed, she became more comfortable in Portland, too. A chance meeting at a bank with Matina Otto led to a friendship and expanded social circle. Simone Charley, now with Angel City, and Taylor Porter, who saw her first game action for Portland on March 26, became close friends on the Thorns.

The opportunity to play for defending national champion Florida State made the college choice easy when Kuikka decided she would attend college in the United States.

As a freshman in 2015, Kuikka scored six goals and had five assists playing in midfield for a Florida State team that reached the national semifinals. But, she was shifted to central defender as a sophomore, starting every match and helping build a foundation of what became the national championship team of 2018. She accepted the move to centerback when coach Mark Krikorian said it was best for the team.

"I want to win, so if that was the best opportunity for the whole team to be successful, that was an easy choice for me," she said.

Left central defender is now Kuikka's primary position when she plays for Finland. But, as a sophomore in college, Kuikka said the transition to central defender presented challenges. Among them was not knowing how to measure her contribution to the team.

"If you have played a lot, you kind of know how to play every position," she said. "But not knowing how to determine if I'm being successful in how I play, I think that was the hardest part."

After her time in Florida, Kuikka wanted to get back to Europe, to be close to her family and friends in Finland and to experience European soccer. She knew she would eventually return to the United States, figuring it would be easier to put her degree in criminology to work over here. But, after two seasons in Sweden with Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC, she didn't think she would return to America so soon. Even when the Thorns presented an opportunity, Kuikka said she took her time before agreeing to return to the States.

After playing under coaches who prioritized possession at Florida State and in Sweden, Kuikka said it took a while to adjust to the pace and intensity of the transition, high-pressure soccer Parsons wanted from the Thorns.

Now, Kuikka and her teammates enter a new era with Rhian Wilkinson as coach. Kuikka has played as the club's right-side wing back in Portland's first two NWSL Challenge Cup matches and looks comfortable in the position. She got up field to deliver one-touch passes that led to the team's goals in each of its first two matches.

"There's frustrating days and there's those really good days when everything works out really well," Kuikka said about learning Wilkinson's system. "For now, it hasn't felt like too big of a change. I'm pretty much allowed to roam the right wing as much as last year."

Kuikka said she is comfortable at right wing back, and that shifting to the left central defender role with her national team is an adjustment, but not a significant one.

A perfectionist by nature, Kuikka hopes that as she progresses in her soccer career, she is better able to cut herself some slack.

"We all want to be perfect. We can't be perfect. So I think that does create some type of pressure, but I'm learning new ways to forget about the pressure and just go out there and enjoy playing," Kuikka said. "I just hope that when I get older I can get rid of expectations and the pressure that I create for myself. Be able to play with more freedom, I guess. That's what I wish for my older self."

While soccer remains her focus, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has Kuikka following the news like never before. Her family in Finland is safe, and she doesn't know anyone directly impacted, but the war has impacted Kuikka.

"Being part of Europe is a big deal. We've had peace for a long time there and you're allowed to travel without your passport within European countries. So it's like, you feel so connected to other countries," Kuikka said. "But, then when this happens, it shakes your core. I'm lucky that I don't have any family members affected by this. But it seems like we have to be careful because you never know what's going to happen. Finland is kind of far away from Ukraine, but we're still neighbors with Russia, so it's always a little tricky."

Kuikka thought her criminology degree might lead to a career as a detective until a class in college turned her focus to human rights. She pointed to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine as an example.

"Helping those refugees finding new places to stay and figuring out how to help them, that would be something that I'd be interested in to do," she said.

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