NEW BRITAIN, August 21, 2010 – It’s been nearly seven years since Avon’s Kia McNeill set foot on the smooth grass of Willow Brook Park in New Britain as a soccer player.
The last time she played here, she was the prolific scorer and a two-time All-American selection for the Avon High girls soccer team. In the championship game with Joel Barlow, she had a goal in a 2-1 victory for a third straight Class M title.
“I remember that feeling,” McNeill said. “I was young and having fun with the game.” She wore a super woman shirt under uniform and flashed it briefly after scoring her school-record 93rd goal. “I don’t do that stuff anymore,” she said with a grin.
McNeill, 24, returned to New Britain on Saturday night as a young, second-year professional with the Atlanta Beat of the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league. Instead of scoring goals, the 5-foot-9 McNeill makes her living stopping others from scoring as a center defender for the Beat.
Atlanta kept its slim playoff hopes alive with a 3-2 win over the Boston Breakers before 4,071 fans at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, building a 3-0 lead and holding off a furious Breaker rally.
McNeill has been a defender since her senior season at Boston College, where she scored 24 goals in her first three seasons. Injuries had battered the Eagles and her coach moved her to defense. But a one-game experiment turned into a permanent switch and she helped anchor the BC defense that allowed just 0.475 goals per game in 2007.
After playing a year in Sweden in their top women’s league, McNeill was the No. 9 pick in the 2009 WPS draft by St. Louis, where she anchored a defense that allowed the second fewest goals (15) and second most shutouts in the league (10). In February, she was traded to Atlanta.
Now, she is a center defender for Atlanta, playing in front of U.S. National Team goalie Hope Solo for the second year in a row. And she is the team captain.
“Before I was just a player,” McNeill said. “As a defender, you have to be a student of the game. You’re the quarterback of the team. You need to see the whole picture and its up to you to organize and communicate.”
Solo has seen McNeill’s growth the past two seasons. “Everyone thinks she is this really experienced player,” Solo said. “But she is still young and is still learning a lot. She has always had the athletic ability but now she is really implementing the tactics, taking the leadership role in the defense and organizing it.”
Solo and McNeill spent time in South Africa during the recent World Cup tournament to work on a global HIV/AIDS awareness project and host some soccer clinics for young South Africans. They also saw plenty of soccer and McNeil studied the play of the athletes, especially the defenders.
“When you say organizing the defense, most people think about communication,” Solo said. “But you have to read the game and Kia is still learning to do that.”
Solo isn’t shy with her opinions and defended McNeill earlier this year. “Just because she is stronger, faster and more physical than some of the best players in the league doesn’t mean she is (a) dirty (player),” she said in a Twitter post in April.
In the off-season, McNeill worked with current Atlanta coach James Galanis for five weeks to improve her skills, including fighting for the ball in the air.
“There are some defenders that when the ball is in the air to be won, they’ll come right through whether you are there or not,” Atlanta forward Eniola Aluko said. “That’s the kind of defender Kia is.”
Against Boston, McNeill wasn’t afraid to leap into the air to head the ball upfield, even blocking out a teammate to head the ball upfield on one occasion.
Solo said, “She is so good in the air and she is brilliant in tackles. She wants to win and puts her body in front of the ball to block any shot. As a goalie, you want to play behind that type of defender.”
McNeill said, “Anyone who watches the game knows I am a physical player. I’m going into the air for the ball. But I’m a fair player and I have a lot of respect for the other girls in the league.”
It’s been a challenging year for Atlanta, who went 0-5-2 before winning its first game. The win over Boston gave Atlanta (5-10-5) its fourth win in the last eight games.
The Breakers featured U.S. soccer legend Kristine Lilly, the Wilton native who has represented the U.S. in three World Cups, and goalie Alyssa Naeher of Seymour who made her first career start.
But McNeill had quite a cheering section at Willow Brook Park including family and friends from Avon and the area.
“I felt like I was at home so there was no extra pressure,” McNeill said. “If anything, it gave me extra energy to put everything on the field.”
A year ago, McNeill was an assistant coach with Boston College. But this year, the WPS schedule was extended a month cutting into the collegiate season. So, McNeill will stay in Atlanta in the offseason. She’ll work with the Beat and explore some other coaching opportunities and prepare for the 2011 campaign.
But on this afternoon, McNeill was pleased to be back home with family and friends. “This is where my heart is,” she said.
Referee: Ted Unkel; Referee Assistants: Kristen Schiereck, Russell Wolf; 4th Official: Daniel Hristov