CARY, N.C. – When the first whistle sounded Saturday night, officially starting an NWSL game between the North Carolina Courage and Sky Blue FC, McCall Zerboni stood at midfield with the ball at her feet.
Many were surprised to see Zerboni on the pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park, figuring the 32-year-old midfielder from Camarillo, Calif., was a lock to make Jill Ellis’ United States national team roster for the upcoming World Cup. Zerboni had been called up consistently to play for the Stars and Stripes, notching nine caps since October 2017.
But Ellis, apparently, has other plans. Zerboni will not be part of the U.S. team that competes in France next month. She was left off the roster, leaving her at home with the Courage.
While she may have not expected to start for her club against Sky Blue on Saturday, if Zerboni was at all disgruntled by not being with her national team, she didn’t show it, turning in a solid and professional performance in a 0-0 draw for the Courage.
“I’m incredibly mentally strong. That’s why I’m able to put in a good shift for the group tonight,” Zerboni said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the group. Sometimes when things happen in your life, you just got to set those things aside and focus on what’s in front of you. I still have a lot to be happy and grateful about, and I have a fantastic club that I love playing for.”
In front of Zerboni now is a stretch of games where she will be tasked with leading the Courage while they play without a bevy of talented starters who have – or soon will – depart for the World Cup. Zerboni’s U.S. teammates Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Sam Mewis have already left the Courage. Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe will join Canada this week, Brazilian midfielder Debinha will leave later this month and captain Abby Erceg will join New Zealand at the end of May.
In all, the Courage will be without seven starters from a team that won women’s soccer’s treble last year, taking the NWSL shield, the league championship and the International Champions Cup. For some games, they will also be without super-sub and decorated veteran Heather O’Reilly, who will do broadcasting work for Fox Sports during the World Cup.
Now that she’s staying with the Courage, it will be part of Zerboni’s job to bring the team together, to help the new players in the starting lineup mix with the mainstays and to guide the Courage to results and points during this World Cup stretch.
“I think for the players who haven’t had game minutes in the NWSL in a while, there’s some rust that they want to shake off, and just kind of getting to know the tendencies of the new pieces in the new spots,” Zerboni said. “We have a philosophy as a group and we stick to it, and we always play the way that the Courage play, with our strengths.”
The Courage got their first taste of mixing in new faces Saturday night. In the midfield, Zerboni paired with Denise O’Sullivan instead of Mewis. On the backline, Kaleigh Kurtz filled in for Dahlkemper. Up top, Julia Spetsmark and Kristen Hamilton slotted in for Dunn and McDonald.
For North Carolina, the result wasn’t perfect, but one point is better than no points. Head coach Paul Riley knows it’s going to take time to find the right balance.
“We’ve got some good pieces. I just have to do a better job of finding the right blend,” Riley said. “The effort was excellent. I thought Sully and McCall did a good job in the midfield for us.”
Riley was planning on having five new faces in the Starting XI Saturday. Expecting Zerboni to be with the Stars and Stripes, he had prepared to have Cari Roccaro start in the midfield with O’Sullivan.
When Riley was scheming for the upcoming season, he had three teams in mind: one with all of his players, one without some of the World Cup talent and one without all of the World Cup call-ups. Zerboni did not figure into the arrangements for those final two squads, but obviously, she will now. And Riley is happy to rewrite those original plans to include a player he values so much.
“The great thing about having McCall is her leadership, her organizational qualities and she gets on the ball, man,” Riley said. “Her percentage passing is very good. She’s very clever with the ball. She’s not a true No. 6; she’s probably a 6/8. She creates quite a bit going forward. Her passing is clean. It’s like having another coach on the field.”
Zerboni created three chances Saturday, took a shot, had 76 touches and tallied two tackles.
Like Riley said, she’s superb as a central defensive midfielder and can deliver smart and hard tackles, but Zerboni can also build offense with her field vision and passing skills. And what doesn’t show up in the stat sheet is the way she leads on the pitch.
When asked about Zerboni during a conference call after the World Cup roster release last week, Ellis had nothing but praise. Ellis has known Zerboni since she was a teenager. Zerboni spent her collegiate playing days under Ellis at UCLA, winning a few Pac-12 championships and making deep NCAA tournament runs together.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Ellis said of Zerboni. “If you asked me, coming out of college, if I saw her going into the (national team) program, I probably would’ve said, ‘I’m not certain.’ But to see her and what she’s accomplished and how important she’s been, not just to her team, but to the league — she’s been one of the most consistent players in (the NWSL).”
Zerboni has been playing professionally for a decade, beginning with the Los Angeles Sol in the WPS in 2009 after her UCLA career. With the Courage, she’s played her best soccer, being named to the NWSL’s Best XI the past two seasons. In fact, she’s the only member of last season’s Best XI that won’t be playing in the World Cup.
Ellis said leaving out Zerboni and Chicago Red Stars defender Casey Short “were very, very hard decisions to make.”
“Those last few positions were tough, and a lot of things came into play,” Ellis said. “And they did everything they possibly could to make it hard, but ultimately the conversation turned toward the players that were selected and I feel good about the depth we have, good about the versatility. But also, those players have been a massive part of our preparation to date and I give them full credit for that as well.”
When the next World Cup rolls around in 2023, Zerboni will be 36 years old. This summer was her best – and likely her last – chance to play on the sport’s biggest stage. But the roster makeup is out of her hands.
For now, Zerboni is focused on what she can control, which is helping the Courage win games and defend their titles.
“It’s kind of fun and interesting because each team has new players playing, so it’s kind of like learning whole new teams,” Zerboni said. “You think you know the squads you’ve been playing against the past couple of years, but now they have new players in new spots, so you got to do your studying and figure out how games are going to go. They’re going to be completely different games now.”