Before she took the field as a starter for the Orlando Pride on Saturday, defender Julie King hadn’t played in a soccer match in almost two years.
Her last game was in September 2017, before an ankle injury and a pair of surgeries forced her off the field. A month ago, still recovering from her injury and waived from the North Carolina Courage, King thought her time in the NWSL had come to an end.
Now, after spending almost two seasons on the sidelines, King is ready to make her mark in Orlando.
“I always try to see the silver lining and I always hope that things happen for a reason,” King said. “I was waiting for that reason and then I made it here. It turns it they do happen for a reason.”
King forged an identity as a veteran NWSL defender with the Boston Breakers. She started with the club when it was still part of the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league, making the jump to the NWSL with the Breakers in 2013.
In Boston, King’s staple was consistency — she played in 95 games with the Breakers over the course of seven seasons, tallying six goals and three assists in the team’s five years of NWSL play. For years, King saw herself as part of the backbone of the club, leaning on her athleticism and speed to center the backline.
Then things began to fall apart. After seasons of struggle on and off the field, the Breakers folded in 2018. King was picked up by the North Carolina Courage in the ensuing Dispersal Draft, but she was sidelined after undergoing an ankle surgery at the end of the Breakers’ final season. After seven months of rehabilitation work, King received another blow — she needed another surgery, meaning her season with the Courage was over before it had even begun.
After over a year without seeing the pitch in North Carolina, the Courage waived King in June. She began to seek opportunities to play overseas, certain she had no chance to play in the U.S.
Then King got a call from Erik Ustruck. It wasn’t anything concrete — an offer to come down to Orlando to train with the Pride on a trial basis. King jumped at it immediately, seeing the Pride as her last chance to stay in the NWSL.
“To be honest, I was pretty nervous,” King said. “It’s nerve-racking coming into any club, and the girls have been together for so long since it’s deep into the season now. At first it was just finding my way to fit in there and not screw anything up.”
Although it remained secret to the public at the time, Ustruck and coach Marc Skinner knew defender Toni Pressley’s recent cancer diagnosis would leave a hole in the Pride backline. The team was cautious due to King’s injury history, but she filled the gap immediately. After two weeks of training with the team, the Pride made her a contract offer she accepted.
Despite her lack of playing time during the past two years, Skinner said King brings a wealth of league-specific experience to the Pride backline.
“You always need a base of experienced players that have the experience to know how to win games when it’s not going your way in the attacking sense,” Skinner said. “I just think that we’ve cried out for that. Without that you’ve got kids making decisions and it’s not as consistent as it needs to be just because they don’t have the experience to draw on.”
With only a handful of training sessions under her belt, King’s signing was announced last Friday, only a day before her debut for the Pride against the Houston Dash. King wasn’t even fully back to game form and the transition from not playing in North Carolina to being named a starter for the Pride felt almost overwhelmingly quick.
The presence of the team’s other defensive veterans — namely Ali Krieger and Shelina Zadorsky — calmed King as she became more comfortable with the team, opening up during training to direct her teammates.
Still, her first game in almost two years wasn’t exactly what King expected, descending into chaos in the second half. The defender was one of two Pride players to earn a red card, leaving the game for a last defender penalty in the 61st minute. But King’s teammates encouraged her to take the suspension in stride, chalking it up to the growing pains of readjusting to a position after several years on the sideline.
“It can be really overwhelming for a new player,” Zadorsky said. “We just tried to make her feel really welcome and really encouraged in training and encouraged to be herself. She’s a veteran player and she knows the style of the league quite well. I think when someone like [King] comes in it’s really easy to fit in.”
As King continues to adjust to her new team, she’s also adjusting to a new version of herself as a defender. Before her injury, King saw her athleticism as her greatest asset, helping her to track down attackers and compensate when she was beat on defense.
Now, she recognizes the limitations of her own body. The injury has forced King to focus on the intellectual side of the game, learning to better read spaces and anticipate situations rather than count on her speed and strength to defend. This focus on playing intelligently as well as athletically is a trait that Skinner values, particularly on the backline.
“People call it a natural ability to defend, but I would say it’s a learned ability,” Skinner said. “She reads danger, she knows when to use her body, she knows where the runs will be from the opposition forwards and her instincts to defend were something I saw right away.”
For King, her injury has served as a test of her strength, both on and off the field. She said the hardest challenge was remaining positive, seeking out ways to grow from the experience even after surgery and being waived. Although the loss of a full season means that King might not be the same player physically, she said her intellectual growth in the game will more than make up for any loss of her athleticism.
Now, she’s is ready to make her full return, this time in a purple jersey.
“When I look back on the past two years, it’s been crazy,” King said. “I’ve definitely had some of the most challenging times, obviously physically but really more so mentally. It’s allowed for me to see that it is an honor to step on this field every day and it’s an honor to be able to play with these girls.”