Breaking into the roster of the best team in the National Women’s Soccer League is an extremely difficult task. The North Carolina Courage, lead by head coach Paul Riley, are arguably the best women’s club soccer team in the entire world, and over the last two seasons it has been extremely difficult for new players to earn minutes for the team. Thus far in 2019, forward Leah Pruitt is proving to be the exception.
Pruitt was drafted by the Courage with the fifth-overall selection in the first round of the 2019 NWSL College Draft, and Riley absolutely gushed about her raw ability when I spoke with him in March at a team event. His praise proved the be warranted, and Pruitt has been a substitute in each of her first regular season matches with the team. Last Sunday, Pruitt scored the final goal in the 77th minute as the Courage secured a 4-1 victory on the road against the Houston Dash. On Tuesday afternoon, I had a chance to talk with Leah about her path to the NWSL, her first - hopefully first of many! - goal as a professional, and her role during the World Cup break.
The early years and getting drafted
Leah Pruitt started playing soccer when she was six years old after her sister came home and told her parents that she wanted to play soccer. Pruitt would never stop playing soccer, and she continued to play club, high school, college and then finally at the professional level.
“I expected to play four years at San Diego State, but once I got there I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. I wanted something new and better and more for my soccer career and I knew the right step was to leave and so I found USC. That was definitely my home.”
Pruitt went on to play her final three seasons of college soccer at USC, including a national title during her sophomore year. She put together a phenomenal senior campaign by scoring 12 goals and contributing 9 assists in 22 appearances.
“I always knew that I wanted to play soccer as long as I could, so I was definitely planning on going professional after college and I knew I was probably good enough to do it. So just being able to stay healthy and be able to perform as well as I could my senior year to get the best chance I could would help my goal to play professionally.”
Her senior season turned out to be the exact kind of performance that turns you into a top college prospect, but Leah was still surprised when she was picked by the Courage.
“So, I was not expecting to go that high. I was there with one of my other teammates, Ally Prisock, and we were both sitting where all of the players sit. And so the first, second, third, fourth went through. Me and Ally were sitting there the whole time like ‘oh my gosh, this is so exciting!’ [We were] so nervous, and I was sitting next to my dad, too. And I remember North Carolina was up and I was texting Ally like ‘oh, I didn’t hear from this team, it definitely won’t be me.’ I was expecting to go in like the second or third round, honestly, like I was not expecting to be that high and then Ally was like, ‘yeah, I don’t know.’ And I hear, ‘Leah Pruitt!’ and I throw my phone at my dad and stand up and was so excited. I went up really fast, and yeah, it was so cool afterwards to go up and meet the coaches. They were a championship team, so I was literally like so shocked and excited, and I knew that this could be the best experience ever. That day was really cool.”
Preseason, making the roster, and her first goal
In 2018, the North Carolina Courage had zero of their draft picks make the final roster come the end of preseason. Many of the players stuck around and ended up making it this year, but the league restructured the roster rules for 2019. These changes, like the addition of supplemental players, allowed the Courage to sign all of their rookies this season. Of those rookies, Leah is the only one to get any game minutes during the regular season.
“I felt I was going to make the team when I got here. I prepared really well coming in, and I was really confident and in good shape and just thought that my style, how I played for this team, and I knew I would want to make an impact so I had a lot of drive in myself and I think I had 100% attitude, effort every time I went to practice, and it wasn’t a shock when I made the team.”
“Elizabeth Eddy is one of my close friends here. She played at USC also, but just not the same time I was there. But she did help me a lot. She just made sure I was good. And I think the forwards, just playing with them. Lynn Williams has helped me a lot, too. We’ve played a lot together. She just like coaches me on the field, like, how to step, where to rotate up top. She’s been really helpful. Kristen Hamilton has been able to help me a lot, too.”
Since the regular season started on April 14th, Pruitt has gotten into the game as a substitute in all three games. In the first game against Chicago, she came on and tried to generate a late scoring chance to break the 1-1 deadlock, but the game ended in a draw. In her second match, she combined with Hamilton and Julia Sptsmark - all substitutes in the match - to create the fifth goal of the match against the Orlando Pride. Pruitt collected a deflected ball, passed back to Hamilton, who passed to Spetsmark. Spetsmark took the shot and the ball found the back of the net despite a deflection by the Orlando defense. Then, in the next game, it was finally time for Pruitt to get her first career goal.
“I remember Lynn was, she beat her player down the line and was running down the line with the ball. So I’m like, ‘OK, just get into the box because I know she’s going to get something out of it. She’s going to get a cross or shot.’ So she got the cross off and I was a little bit behind my player and I remember just thinking ‘just get anything on it, just get my body on it.’ And I don’t even remember, honestly, going to use my head and then I just felt it kind of, and it went in. I was so excited. I thought, ‘oh yes, finally.’ I was so happy. It was really cool.”
And a few extra tidbits
After getting the formalities out of the way we had a chance to talk about some of the less work-oriented things.
To start, I asked Leah about where she felt she had grown the most and still had space to learn. She talked about how much her soccer IQ has grown since joining the Courage, including how Paul Riley has been telling her to focus on when the defender is watching the ball and make sure she stays in front of goal instead of getting excited and moving outside of the goal mouth. She is still looking to improve her ability to pick her head up and improve the technical aspects of her shot.
Off the field, Pruitt is still working on finishing her schooling. She doesn’t have a lot of free time, but when she does have time away from the pitch she goes to coffee shops with teammates to work on her classes. Once she’s finally done with her college courses she will figure out something fun to do.
Leah had lived in California for her whole life before moving to North Carolina, so when I asked what she missed most now that she was living in the Raleigh area she naturally said “the beach.” She used to live just 10 minutes from the beach, but she’s much further away now.
Leah is also extremely excited about her opportunity in the coming weeks. She mentioned the Riley had taken her aside and talked to her about increasing her role on the team. She has been the natural substitute for Jess McDonald all season, and the odds are good that she will be gone starting this weekend. Pruitt is optimistic about her ability to step into the starting role if called upon, but she seems like she would be up for anything that helps the team continue its winning ways.
I think every Courage fan is excited to see what the next phase of Pruitt’s career brings. She is going to have a real trial by fire soon with eight to ten Courage players about to head off to France.