CARY, N.C. — Any chance Paul Riley gets, he lets anyone within earshot know that he believes Jaelene Hinkle is the top player at her position. After a September victory over the Orlando Pride, the North Carolina Courage head coach said Hinkle was the “best left back in the country, maybe the world.”
The particular play during the Sept. 14 match that sparked Riley’s praise of the 26-year-old Texas Tech product came in the 40th minute. The Courage were leading 2-0 and had a chance to put the game away rather quickly, it seemed.
And then Hinkle went to work.
She received the ball between the touchline and the left side of the Pride’s penalty box and two defenders quickly closed in on the left back. With delicate touches and quick feet, Hinkle danced with the Pride defenders. She made one bump into another, then cut to her right, spun to her left and knocked the ball into open space. Hinkle caught up with the ball as the defenders chased her, then — in what seemed like one motion — flipped around on the ball and blasted it into the penalty area.
Her teammate, Jessica McDonald, was waiting for the cross and knocked the ball into the net with ease for the third Courage goal of the first half.
“That goal to Jess-Mac today, that was – she’s done it for weeks and weeks, and months and months, and years and years, and I want people to recognize that this is a great footballer here,” Riley said of Hinkle after the match. “Nobody has a left foot like Jae Hinkle in this country. She’s got speed, she’s got skill… And she’s gotten better defensively. She’s evolved into such a fantastic player.”
— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) September 14, 2019
Her impressive play in 2019 strengthened Riley’s assessment and kept alive the question of whether Hinkle will ever feature again for the U.S. women’s national team.
Hinkle, a 5-foot-4 Denver, Colorado native, has a controversial and contentious history with the USWNT. After eight appearances for the U.S., Hinkle declined a call-up in June 2017. She revealed the following year during an interview with Christian television program 700 club that she turned down the national team because she did not feel it was her job to wear the jersey honoring LGBTQ Pride Month that the rest of the team wore during that time.
Multiple USWNT players and then-head coach Jill Ellis are openly gay. The team received support from a large portion of the fan base after Hinkle’s comments. Others criticized and accused the team of blacklisting Hinkle for her religious beliefs since she had not been called back into camp.
Hinkle received another call-up in July 2018, but was cut from camp three days later.
Ellis told reporters during a conference call in May that her decision to leave Hinkle off the 2019 World Cup roster was “solely based on soccer,” citing Hinkle’s lack of versatility.
During the World Cup this summer, Hinkle’s interview with the 700 Club was dug up and aggregated mostly by right-wing news outlets. As the story swirled on social media, the year-old interview caught the attention of U.S. and Orlando Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who called Hinkle homophobic in a tweet and said she doesn’t belong in soccer and would never fit into the national team.
Hinkle never publicly responded to Harris, but in November wrote a blog post addressing the attention she received during the World Cup. “Satan tried to use my past to haunt me, again, as I was called out on social media for things I had never said,” Hinkle wrote. “I was shook. I felt isolated. Vulnerable. Alone. Yet I knew the Lord was going to use it for His glory.”
Despite all of the controversy, Hinkle is eager and optimistic for another chance to represent her country.
The national team is now entering a new era with new head coach Vlatko Andonovski. And players who weren’t in the mix before could get opportunities as the team prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
“I think there’s always hope when a new coach is coming in,” Hinkle told Pro Soccer USA. “I don’t know what their game-plan might be, but I am hopeful that with the year that I’ve had, there might be an opportunity for my skills and my talents to be displayed again.”
Support from Riley
Riley is confident Hinkle will get another shot at the national level as well.
In her fifth year in the NWSL, Hinkle may have had her best season yet. On top of helping Riley’s side capture its third title in four years and third straight NWSL Shield, she was a finalist for the league’s Defender of the Year Award, voted to the NWSL Player’s Association Best XI and named by her teammates as the Courage’s Defensive MVP.
In August and September, she was named to the NWSL’s Team of the Month. On Sept. 21, she scored her first goal in a Courage uniform as one of her crosses sailed into the back of the Utah Royals’ net instead of connecting with a teammate.
A ball played towards the net by @JaeHinkle_15 started as a cross, but ended as a goal.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 22, 2019
“She needs less touches to do things than she used to. She’s much better defensively. She’s made great improvements to her game. She’s really a great all-around left back,” Riley said. “I’m sure down the road, she’ll get another chance with the national team.”
Riley has coached Hinkle since 2016, when he was hired by the Western New York Flash. Because of their familiarity and his ability to put her in positions to succeed, his comments matter a great deal to her.
“It means a lot. I don’t think it means everything, but I am grateful that he sees me as being that valuable,” Hinkle told Pro Soccer USA. “I think having Paul as our coach has really laid the foundation for our team itself and feeling free to improve and make mistakes and learn from them. I think it says a lot about him as a coach. Each year that I’ve gotten better, it’s a testament to him because he’s the only coach I’ve had outside of my first year.
“I am grateful that he has such high words for me and I hope that I show that each time I step on the field.”
Riley’s recent praises aren’t so different from what he told Pro Soccer USA about Hinkle before the start of the 2019 season.
“When I came in, I thought Jaelene was a good player. Now she’s a great player,” Riley said back in March. “She’s the best left back in the country – Crystal Dunn will tell you that and she plays left back for the national team.”
The best left back?
Dunn plays as an attacking midfielder for the Courage, but was thrust into starting at left back for the Americans at the World Cup. She performed admirably there and the U.S. won, but Dunn has since said that fullback is not her favorite or best position.
During media day before the NWSL Championship in October, Pro Soccer USA asked Dunn: Is Hinkle the best left back in the U.S.?
“Um… Well, I’m going to say yes, because she’s on my team and not only that, but she’s had an incredible year,” Dunn said. “I think she is someone who has been consistent throughout this year, which I personally love in her. It’s so easy to have one good game, two good games, and then think you’ve made it, but I think her ability to stay in every single game and impact every game has been really incredible for her. She’s been a spark and helped the team win.”
Hinkle stuffed the stat sheet this year and helped the Courage capture victory after victory with her reliable play. She led the league in minutes played (2,370), was third in touches per 90 minutes (79), was fifth in passes (1,248) and was tied for third in the NWSL in assists with six. To say she was a big part of the Courage’s attack would be a massive understatement. She was crucial to it, one of the main engines making the goal-scoring machine work.
She also led the league in crosses attempted, sending 161 balls flying off her boot in search for a teammate looking to score. That’s more than double what Hinkle’s teammate Merritt Mathias had, who was second in the league in crosses attempted with 79. Kealia Ohai of the Houston Dash was third with 65. Hinkle’s large total in that stat speaks to her ability to outmaneuver defenders along the flank and create enough open space to fire a cross towards a teammate or into the box. She’s a large reason why the Courage set the NWSL scoring record this season.
“I think for me, it’s been consistency,” Hinkle said. “Early on, in my rookie year, I was very inconsistent. It was good games, bad games, kind of in the middle games. I think just being with Paul and his direction and his guidance and just him constantly making sure I’m at the same level has been big. I think my service on the ball too. I think that’s such a big factor for our outside backs – just delivering the ball – because we have such really tall forwards that can get on just about anything. It’s just up to us to give us the ball we need.”
Added Riley: “There’s a lot of space for her to run with the narrow box we play and she’s got a great engine. She’s very good going forward, a natural lefty, delivers a great ball and sees the game quickly.”
Hinkle also had 43 key passes, 37 tackles, 25 clearances, 25 interceptions and a 49 percent success rate on duels this past season.
With Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper and Mathias, Hinkle isn’t just an exceptional attacker from the fullback position, she has also helped the Courage form a formidable back line. The Courage allowed the fewest goals this season (24) and faced the fewest shots-on-target (81). They also posted 10 clean sheets, tied for the league lead.
“We’ve got a really good relationship,” Erceg said of Hinkle. “I don’t really talk to her a lot, because I just know what she’s going to do. I know in most situations how she’s going to play. It makes it a lot easier. We don’t have to look after each other, in a sense.”
Hinkle’s play at fullback has helped the Courage pile up trophies the last four seasons. Could she help the national team win more gold as well?
It remains to be seen whether Hinkle’s past controversy impacts her future. She wasn’t among those invited by Andonovski to a talent identification camp being held Dec. 9-14 for players who aren’t regularly called into the national team.
Still, should an invite be extended to Hinkle in the future, she would welcome the opportunity.
“Hopefully I’ll have a chance at another run with the team,” Hinkle said. “That would be awesome. Hope is definitely still there.”