'She's just a ray of sunshine:' Portland Thorns' Meaghan Nally steps up in back
From the outside, it's easy to believe that Meaghan Nally's emergence as a regular contributor for the Portland Thorns happened in a hurry. Because of injuries to stalwarts Emily Menges and Meghan Klingenberg, the third-year pro was thrown into action this season.
But, Nally's story is not one of overnight success. The 25th selection by Portland in the 2020 National Women's Soccer League Draft, Nally's introduction to professional soccer was interrupted by COVID-19 and included a meaningful stint in Germany before she stepped into a match for Portland.
"She's been working really hard behind the scenes, and she's been a phenomenal addition to our center-back pairings," Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson said. "Then you put her at fullback and that's a top professional and she just gets on with it."
Speed and a good feel for reading the game — evidenced by Nally's 84.4% pass-completion rate entering the Aug. 10 game at Washington, a homecoming for the Herndon, Virginia, native — have helped Nally acclimate to the pace of the NWSL. Her versatility has earned her playing time and is a trait Wilkinson values, one the coach sees as vital as women's soccer evolves.
"I like center back because it feels very instinctual to me," Nally said. "I like wide center back because you get to be on the ball a lot. I like center center back because you kind of get to pull all the strings. I like fullback because you get to be more involved in the attack and run a lot. So, there's a lot of special things about each position."
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For the 24-year-old, landing with the Thorns was a dream come true. She'd followed Menges' legacy at Georgetown and, like so many others, she'd grown up admiring Becky Sauerbrunn. So, to be a teammate of both, to soak up their experience and be treated as an equal by Menges and Sauerbrunn has been "insane," Nally said.
Sauerbrunn and Menges have been mentors on and off the field, showing Nally "how to be a good human being and how to be a great leader."
The process of going from inexperienced rookie to a workaday pro was made easier because the Thorns' veterans embraced younger players, Nally said.
"Last year, when I wasn't playing a bunch, I would come down from the suite for our (postgame) rose parade and Becky (Sauerbrunn) would ask, 'Hey, did you see anything?' I'd be like 'You talking to me? That was really huge for my confidence."
An only child whose father played soccer through high school and recreationally as an adult and whose mother swam in college, Nally competed in both sports from an early age through high school while growing up near Washington, D.C.
"It was the best thing my parents ever did for me. They gave me summer swim team," Nally said. "I did that from four until 18. Soccer was never not fun. But swimming was just that fun sport, no pressure."
Nally remembers being one of the faster swimmers on her team at age 8. Even when her teammates who swam all year round passed her, Nally didn't lose her enthusiasm for swimming.
"I got the spirit award my junior year (of high school) because I was always great at cheering for my teammates and being loud," she said. "I don't know if that's changed too much."
According to Wilkinson, it hasn't.
"She's just a ray of sunshine," the Thorns' coach said. "I think sometimes characters like hers get almost lost, because you say she has top-quality character, but she's been working very hard for many years to get the opportunity she's gotten this year and she's earned those minutes. You can see her growth has been fantastic, but it hasn't come out of nowhere."
Nally was a wing player on her early club team. She was around age 9 when a coach saw her speed and competitiveness as qualities for a central defender.
"I hated it at first because I thought that if we get scored on it's all my fault. My coach said, 'But, you're good at it.' I learned to deal with that pressure."
Nally played a lot of left back, too. She was right-footed, but that experience forced her to develop her left foot. She's always embraced such challenges, a personality that helped her in her first college start.
It came in the national semifinals at the 2016 College Cup tournament. She learned moments before kickoff she would start. Georgetown lost 1-0 to USC, but Nally wasn't overwhelmed.
"I didn't have time to think about it, so it kind of helped me realize that not thinking and not anticipating playing really helps me just let myself live in the moment," Nally said. "I've kind of carried that through to now, (focusing on) being present."
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When she's not playing soccer, training, or studying for her C-level coaching license, Nally enjoys musical theater and reading. She's twice seen her favorite show, the Tony Award winner "SIX: The Musical." For reading pleasure, Nally is currently enjoying Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels.
Because of COVID-19, Nally's rookie year was a scramble. She spent time in Portland, back home in Virginia, at Utah for the Challenge Cup and in Germany playing for Turbine Potsdam.
"I'm not a very impulsive person like that. So (playing in Germany) was a huge growth moment for me," she said. "Germany was great. I got to play a whole lot and Potsdam was absolutely beautiful."
She said she adapted quickly to the language — forced to learn to count in German to execute drills in training — and found she enjoyed living alone.
"I just kind of got to be myself, which was just a huge, huge thing," she said.
Nally's first start for the Thorns was last August against Houston in the International Champions Cup. Before this year, she'd played only 22 minutes in NWSL regular-season matches.
But the stage has not overwhelmed Nally, who trusts her training.
"In the game is where you don't have to overthink, you just kind of get into that flow state. So that's been how I've handled it, just letting myself read the game and play the game as it is," Nally said. "Just being able to step on the field is obviously the dream. I'm grateful for every time I get to do it."
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