U.S. midfielder Keelin Winters is already a world champion, having helped the U.S. U-20s to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup title in 2008. But now she is working hard to earn a consistent spot on rosters for the full Women’s National Team and at some point, her first cap. As the USA undertakes an intense training camp in Florida to prepare for the Olympics, ussoccer.com sat down with Winters as she answered 11 questions about her experience with the U-20s, her move to Germany later this summer, her genetic predisposition for basketball talent and making the jump from the pro league to the National Team.
You were one of the key players on the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2008 in Chile. What did that experience mean for your soccer career?
Keelin Winters: “(Current U.S. WNT teammate and 2008 U-20 teammate) Meghan Klingenberg and I were just talking about it today. Winning that World Cup in Chile has been our most memorable soccer experience thus far. It was a huge honor for me and our other two captains, Becky Edwards and Nikki Washington, to not only represent the U.S. at the U-20 World Cup, but to take on more leadership roles and to lift that trophy. That whole experience gave me some really good insight into how to lead a team. We were a team filled with college players from all over the country. We all missed our NCAA playoffs that season, so it was a huge thing for all of us to commit to the team and commit to each other, and I think that was one of the biggest reasons we did so well.”
Even with your youth WNT success, you know as well as anyone how tough it is to break into the full team. How has the process been for you so far?
KW: “It took me two years after the U-20 World Cup to get a call-up with the full team. It has been something I wanted to do ever since I saw the ’99 World Cup. I knew from that moment that I wanted to be on the full team. We met Pia [Sundhage] at the U-20 World Cup -- she came to the semifinal and final – and back then I hoped I would get my chance, but it’s been a one-day-at-a-time experience to improve enough to get called in. After college, I went into WPS. I had a pretty good rookie season and just being on that stage playing with National Team players from the USA and abroad got me seen by the National Team coaches and it got me my first invite.”
Knowing what you know now, what would be your advice to the current U-20 players who have full WNT aspirations? They are currently preparing for their World Cup this fall.
KW: “I would say the biggest thing is to be patient and not give up hope that you are good enough to get here. If you are not ready now, you might be at some point. Patience is the key ingredient because making progress can be slow and tedious at times, especially at this elite level. You can make improvement, but you can only make so much no matter how hard you train. So it’s about staying patient with yourself and if you work hard enough and have the talent you can eventually get here.”
When you are not making rosters for tournaments and without a pro league, how difficult has it been for a player like yourself to keep playing at the level necessary to compete with the WNT?
KW: “That’s probably been the most difficult aspect of the last two months for me. In order to keep myself in shape, I’ve been swimming and doing spin sessions on the bike and running. Soccer is the hard part because you can only do so much by yourself. You need a team in order to play, so I’ve been training with a U-18 boys’ team in Seattle until the Sounders practice schedule got started. The great thing about playing with boys is that they are faster and quicker than me so it forces me to play faster than what I am comfortable with, which is immensely important when you come into WNT camp.”
You recently had a trial in Germany with league leaders Turbine Potsdam in Berlin. How was that experience?
KW: “It was a different experience for sure. Being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language was difficult, as was being out of my comfort zone, but the practices were really fun. I really enjoyed them. For both practices that I participated in, we ended the session playing for a full hour non-stop. There were no water breaks and the coach was saying some things in German that I didn’t understand. As a holding mid, one of your most important jobs is to organize so before practice I was asking (U.S. goalkeeper) Alyssa Naeher (who starts for Potsdam) how to say “right,” “left” and “man-on” in German. In practice, I thought it was going to be really difficult, but once you get playing soccer, it becomes a language in itself. That was one of my favorite parts of the experience. Even though I don’t speak German, I could still communicate with the game and body language.”
So it was a successful trial?
KW: “Yes, it was. I decided to commit to the team for next season and signed a contract which starts July 1 and preseason begins July 8. It’s been a dream of mine since high school to play overseas so I am really looking forward to the experience.”
ussoccer.com: Your dad, Brian Winters (pictured above), played professional basketball in the NBA. Tell us about his career and did any of that hoops talent rub off on you?
KW: “He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played one season, and then he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he finished his career. He was part of the trade that brought Kareem Abdul Jabbar to the Lakers, so I guess we know who got the better end of that trade. But he had a great career and he was a sweet shooter. He played nine seasons and was an All-Star twice and his jersey is retired in Milwaukee. That’s also where he met my mom! As far as me getting his basketball talent, I played through my sophomore year and he always says I would have made a great point guard, but soccer has always been my passion.”
How would you compare a National Team training session to any of the others you’ve had with many teams on the pro, college and youth levels?
KW: “The main difference is the speed of play. I thought jumping from college to WPS was a pretty big jump, but going from WPS to the National Team was yet another huge jump. The players surrounding me are obviously the best in America so they are just as athletic as me, some even more so, and I think that’s something you definitely have to get used to. I think just the overall physical ability of everyone is amazing. Everyone is really strong and fit – thanks to our fitness coach Dawn Scott! – so you can’t really out-run or out-muscle anyone. You have to learn to out-play them with quick decision-making and the intangibles.”
Are you anxious to get that first full-team cap? Or is it more, “when it happens it happens”?
KW: “It kind of goes back to waiting for my first-call up to the full team. Now that I’ve been with the full team in a couple camps, I am waiting for my first cap. But it goes back to being patient. Yeah, I’m anxious, but I am more excited than anything. When I prove I play with the best of the best I know I’ll get my chance.”
Keelin is a unique name. How did your parents come up with that and have you ever met another Keelin?
KW: “My mom found it in an Irish name book. All of my brothers and sisters have first names that are Irish: Cara, Brendan, Kevin, Meghan and Ryan. And if you want to go beyond that, they are Irish-Catholic as all of our middle names are Saints: Therese, Michael, Patrick, mine is Mary, Cristine and Joseph. And I have met another Keelin! One of my teachers in high school has a daughter named Keelin and she would always come out to watch us play. It was great knowing another little Keelin.”
You know that Meghan Klingenberg is a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo, but she is much smaller than you. Do you think you could take her?
KW: “Well, three years ago with the U-20s, I did try to see if I could take her down, and unfortunately that did not turn out well for me. But I think I am older and wiser now and I want another shot.”