The grass grew so high in Houston-area public parks this spring that Kristie Mewis could scarcely see where she was going.
With the start of the NWSL season on hold during early days of the coronavirus pandemic, pressing forward each day proved a challenge as the soccer player sought to hone her foot skills.
“It was a mental battle,” Mewis recalled of lockdown workouts. “Just getting through every single day like, ‘Why am I doing this, are we even going to have a season?’ And then with everything else going on in the world, it was like, ‘Is this even important anymore?’”
But soccer was that important to her. Not just important, but integral. On some level she knew she was closer to her goal than she had been in a long time. Closer to playing for the United States, something she did in more than a dozen games in 2013 and 2014 but never since. Closer to again playing alongside Sam Mewis, her younger sister who grew into a world champion and international star in those intervening years. Closer to being one of the best in the world at the game that consumes her.
She is almost there. Kristie was named to the U.S. roster for the national team’s game against the Netherlands on Friday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the first game for the defending world champions since March. The conversation is no longer about the rising star of American soccer that she was supposed to be or about a player in search of an NWSL home. The narrative is no longer about the player that she could have been if not for a knee injury, or the player that her sister is for the United States and Manchester City.
“I’m not shy to say soccer is a huge part of just who I am as a person — it is everything to me,” Kristie said. “It is my job, it is my passion, it is literally my entire life. I’m not ashamed to say that, I just love it so much. So when your goal and your dream of being on the national team is taken away from you, it obviously does affect you personally as well. I think I did lose a sense of who I was off the field as well — and on the field. And it took me a long time to get it back.”
A place on the field this week marks a fitting finale for someone who made more of 2020 than almost anyone in the sport. Kristie starred as the Houston Dash won the NWSL Challenge Cup — the bubbled event in June and July that marked the return of professional team sports in the United States. The midfielder repeated her efforts in the league’s abbreviated fall schedule, totaling two goals and a league-best five assists as the Dash again excelled in compiling the second-best record.
Not that U.S. national team coach Vlatko Andonovski needed an introduction. As FC Kansas City’s first coach in 2013, Andonovski selected Kristie with the third overall pick in the inaugural NWSL college draft. That partnership lasted only a season before she moved on to Boston, Washington, Chicago and finally Houston, but few coaches know her better than one who has studied her for the past eight years.
“The 2020 version of Kristie Mewis is almost like a different person, different player,” Andonovski said. “She’s more mature, understands the game, she’s more into it, definitely more intense. Her approach to the game, mentally, is totally different.”
Pass through Kristie’s apartment these days and the television will likely be tuned to a soccer game from somewhere in the world. Sometimes she watches what is on screen, more often she studies it. Her favorite case study is Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, a midfield master craftsman who emerged as the best in the world only after struggling through a high-profile move to Chelsea when he was still a young prospect rising through the European game.
Kristie, too, was a rising star who hit a snag. An All-American who stayed close to her Massachusetts home and took Boston College to the College Cup in 2010, she played for the United States in the 2008 Under-17 Women’s World Cup and 2010 Under-20 Women’s World Cup. But at some point she became a player without a clear role.
Was she best suited to play in wide spaces, dominating the touch lines the way midfielder Tobin Heath has for so many years? Was she better suited to a central role, providing the kind of bold attacking imagination Rose Lavelle now serves up in front of Kristie’s sister in the U.S. midfield? Or was she, as first Tom Sermanni and then Jill Ellis came to believe with the national team, a fullback prospect at the international level, asked to do what Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn have done?
“I was with the national team at the time, but I didn’t really have an identity as to where I belonged on the field,” Kristie said of those years. “I think I was obviously a good player, but I was just a little bit confused about my identity, my soccer identity. I think now that I’ve matured, I’ve been able to become more comfortable with who I am as a player and more confident in it.”
It’s how she made an impact for the Dash, not just this year but while starting 20 games last season after returning from an ACL tear that cost her much of the 2018 NWSL season. That injury proved a turning point after several seasons spent bouncing around the league.
“I think it was kind of hard for me for a while to admit to myself that it wasn’t over,” Kristie said. “I just remember I was OK with being average for a couple of years there. I had some injuries. I just lost a lot of confidence, I lost a lot of belief in myself.”
Kristie said the experience made her realize her dream of returning to the national team was slipping away. She returned more committed to fitness and to the game.
“It’s obviously a tough injury to go through,” her sister Sam said, “And I think it made her realize how badly she wanted to push to get back to being the best that she could be.”
Thus when Andonovski visited Houston this fall and spent a morning talking with Dash coach James Clarkson, it wasn’t a conversation about shoehorning Kristie’s skills into some other position of need. The coaches talked about her ability to consistently influence games from an attacking position.
“We even changed the formation going into this year, playing with one holding [midfielder] and two high, in order to get her higher up the field and use her qualities, which are her ability to run into space, run with the ball, her passing, her shooting,” Clarkson said.
There is still room for improvement in turning her creativity and intensity into more tangible goals and assists.
“She is an absolute winner,” Clarkson said. “She has a very bubbly personality, and she’s happy and says some goofy things at times and makes everybody laugh. But she’s really focused.
“She sees what her sister has achieved at the international level, and she wants some of it.”
Kristie and Sam, who attended UCLA, played together just twice for the senior national team — both in the 2014 Algarve Cup. They talk just about every day, with Sam serving as Kristie’s closest friend and support system for years.
“Being a professional player can be difficult and challenging at times,” Sam said. “For a lot of people who have never done this, it is kind of hard to understand all the ups and downs. … Whether it’s an injury or getting cut from a team or winning a big tournament, I think having someone that you’re so close with that is in your family that can share those moments with you is really special. It’s brought us closer in a whole different way than I think anything else could have.”
Yet as Sam emerged as a cornerstone of both the 2019 World Cup title and the national team’s future, Kristie remained on the outside looking in.
“I was able to separate it, and I was so, so happy for her,” Kristie said. “But I obviously wanted to be next to her doing it. I’m still trying to push for that, that’s obviously my ultimate goal is to be considered for the national team. But I was able to separate it.
“A little bit of her success, I felt it also a little bit. Just because she’s my sister, she’s my blood, we did everything together growing up. I do feel like I’m a part of her. I do feel like her having success, I felt like I had a little success too. And it also pushed me even harder to try and play with her again at some point.”
And now Kristie and Sam will spend Thanksgiving together in the Netherlands.