Driving down the highway is no one’s first choice for the moment when they find out if they’ve made the World Cup roster.
But hey, you don’t really get to choose when Jill Ellis, the U.S. head coach, is going to call.
So there I was, heading back to my apartment with my parents after having just landed in Washington. I had joined up with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit for a match that weekend in Houston after coming off of three months in the national team training camp ahead of the 2015 World Cup. It was April and the team was getting down to the final roster spots.
The night before, Jill had told Ali Krieger, one of my teammates on the Spirit and a fellow national team hopeful, that she’d call us about whether we’d made the cut the next day. Sunday. Great, I thought, another day to agonize over it. And I did: By the time we left for the airport in Houston on Sunday morning? No call. While we were getting ready to board our flight? No call. When we landed in D.C. and went to baggage claim? Still no call. When I was in the car with my parents, finally my phone lit up. Incoming call: Jill Ellis.
Ohmigosh, this is it. This. Is. It.
But first Jill started started off with some small talk:
“I saw your game last night, you played forward, how’d you feel?”
“Oh, I felt good.”
O.K., come on. Justtellme. Justtellme. Justtellme.
“Uh, Crys, unfortunately, we’re not going to take you to the World Cup.”
I’m pretty sure she kept going, but after that one line — that one line —“We’re not going to take you to the World Cup,” I only had one question.…
Do I just throw my phone out the window right now?
But I remember tuning back in as Jill continued, “…You know, it’s about numbers…. It’s about the fact that we have a lot of wide players, but we don’t have a lot of central players …”
I honestly can’t even remember what I said, or if I managed to say anything at all, but as we hung up, she wished me luck with the NWSL season, and told me to keep working hard. You know, all the things coaches usually say so you don’t go somewhere and crumble.
Not that I could anyway, because, like I said, I was still in inside a moving vehicle. When the call was over, my parents knew it hadn’t gone well because, you know, parents. They’re perceptive people and they can tell when something’s going on. I hung up and they didn’t even have to ask me, “How’d it go?” I kind of sat in silence for 10–15 minutes and then finally spoke. The line. That one line.
“They’re not taking me to the World Cup.”
My parents knew that I was upset and that nobody likes to hear, Oh, it’s O.K. Because they knew it wasn’t O.K. I was super upset about this, I had worked really hard to to be on that roster, but I fell short. Ever since my first national team camp three years ago, I had been invited to every single one. If I was healthy, I was there. And the rejection? It stung.
I had never known what it felt like not to make the cut, not to make the team, not to hold the trophy.
I’d never felt this way and I kind of had to teach myself how to respond. O.K., this is something that you’ve never dealt with before, you need to feel upset right now. I suddenly had to figure out how to get used to failure, because up until that point, success was all I ever knew.
I know what you’re thinking: Nice, Crys, super humble. But it’s true. I’m an elite soccer player and like most elite athletes, I’ve only known success. Sure, I had lost a game here and there, but I had never known what it felt like not to make the cut, not to make the team, not to hold the trophy.
In 2015 I was coming off a collegiate career at North Carolina during which I had won a national title and the Hermann Trophy as the country’s best player. I had also won a World Cup with the U-20 team and earned a handful of caps with the senior squad. So when I showed up to training camp for the national team last January, I thought, O.K., I just have to push for this spot and show what I can do. I was confident. I felt really good. I was pumped up.
But things don’t always work out how you planned. And Jill’s call kind of brought everything to a halt for me. The roster wasn’t going to be announced publicly until later that week. So it was just me, Jill, my coach in Washington and a handful of friends who knew that I hadn’t made the team. I was just in this weird place, where I had just gotten really bad news and I couldn’t tell anyone. All I could do was just try to accept it on my own. And when they began revealing the roster, I turned my phone off and I took a nap. (Like I said, I had a lot to learn about losing.) I slept for like two hours, and when I woke up, my phone was getting blown up by people calling and texting, “I’m so sorry about what happened,” and things like that. It was a really hard time.
It got a little bit harder a few weeks later when I was out in L.A. for a match with the Spirit. I got another call. Tobin Heath, a wide midfielder for the national team, had been injured, and Jill needed me to come to training camp in California as a fill-in before the team left for Canada.
I’m human, so I’m just going to say what I was feeling at first: I didn’t want to go. It was a punch in the gut. I’d already missed time with my NWSL team. I didn’t make the Cup roster. And now, they need me to come train?
Are you kidding me?
But once my emotions subsided, I’m thought, Listen, Crys, this is another opportunity for you to train with really great players and to help them get to where they need to be. And it was my duty. They’re my teammates.
But it was tough.
When I got to camp, I just put a smile on my face. I’m always going to laugh with people and kid and make jokes. But there were a lot of tears that were shed at night when I was away from the team. When I was in training mode, I wanted to be a cheerleader for everyone. And everyone was like, Hey, Crys! There was no awkwardness. It was almost as if I was supposed to be there, in a sense. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, didn’t want people coming up to me, Hey, good job, champ! Or, Way to stick through this! I did not want pity points.
As the national team left for the their last matches before the World Cup, I joined the Spirit again. And I directed all my focus and drive to that NWSL season. There’s a part of you that plays with a vengeance, like you have something to prove. But I did that all indirectly. Really, I just worked to get better every single game.
I had to trick my mind into thinking, I can do this. I can shine in this league. I can be the player I want to be. I had to be O.K. with my new reality. My new platform was playing in the NWSL, and I just ran with it. And there couldn’t have been a better time to do it. The league has come so far, with record attendance numbers and Nike continuing its partnership and support. So players like me can still go out and play in front of our fans, can still have a home to the play the sport we love.
I had to remember that soccer is the sport I fell in love with when I was three years old, and at the end of the day, it’s still the same game. So I woke up every day and stepped onto the field for every match thinking, I am just enjoying this game again.
It’s kind of crazy because everybody was kind of like, “Aw, Crys, bummer, you didn’t go to the World Cup!” Yeah, but I ended up having the best year of my career. And it wasn’t the 15 goals I scored, or the MVP and Golden Boot awards, those were just icing on the cake. For me, it was just about getting back to being happy and loving the game again — every time I stepped onto the field.
And of course, when it came time to cheer on our girls, I was there along with everybody else who was filling up the bars for each and every game. I’d be lying if I said that was easy, having been so close to making the roster, but watching the women with whom I had trained was incredible. In a way, I felt like I was part of it. Once I saw them raise up the trophy and the beers really started flying around, I finally stepped out of the bar to head home. But again, my phone started blowing up.
Yooo! Did you hear what Abby said?!
No, what do you mean, ‘Did I hear what Abby said?’
She just gave you a shout out.
If you’re playing this game for the awards, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But for me, to hear Abby say that? I realized these past few months were all about being best teammate I could be. Because a few months later, I got another call. Jill wanted me back at camp.
It feels like everything is finally coming together. I’m playing more freely. Everything I worked on last season, I brought with me to our first Olympic qualifying match against Costa Rica in February. Thirteen minutes in, Becky threw in the ball, Alex challenged for it, and it just trickled to me in front of the goal.
Oh my god, Crystal, run through this ball, you’re so close, you could score this.
And I did. It wasn’t pretty, but a goal’s a goal.
People have asked what this team can do heading into the Olympics. We’ve had some big retirements — Boxx, Abby — and some injuries— Rapinoe — and people think we’re young. There’s Hope and Carli, who each have a boatload of caps, and plenty of others who have less than 50. But that’s not something to be scared about. We’re getting creative. We’ve got multiple players who can play in multiple positions. And I think that’s great, especially going into the Olympics, because there’s only 18 players and who knows what can happen.
Obviously, I won’t know myself until I get another one of those calls from Jill. Whatever happens this time, I’m a different player and a different person than I was last year.
I’m not going to be waiting by the phone, I’m focused on the NWSL season, getting my team points and going to the playoffs. And fingers crossed, when Jill does call, I won’t be driving down the highway this time.