North Carolina Courage forward Kristen Hamilton entered the National Women’s Soccer League record books last Friday when she became just the second players in league history to score four goals in a single match; a game the Courage won 5-2. The only other player to accomplish that feat is the amazing Sam Kerr, who has won the NWSL Golden Boot award for the last two years running and currently leads the competition once again despite missing a chunk of the season due to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Hamilton’s journey into the record books hasn’t been smooth, but she has persevered through each challenge that has come her way. I had the great opportunity to talk with Kristen on the phone Tuesday afternoon. The interview was lengthy because she gave great answers and was easy to talk to, so the following transcript gets at the meat of what we talked about and chronicles her trying journey to the NWSL record book and has been lightly edited.
Aaron - What did you eat for breakfast on Friday, because we all want to be that good at our jobs?
Kristen - [Laughs] The amount of times I’ve been asked that question. Everyone’s like ‘ what did you eat?’ or ‘You must have eaten your Wheaties!’ In all seriousness I always have a plate of pancakes so nothing unusual. It wasn’t anything crazy different, but something worked!
What made you choose the University of Denver for college?
I actually had played for coach [Jeff] Hooker who was the coach there. He had been my club soccer coach when I was around 10 years old, so I was pretty familiar with him. Familiar with the school. Obviously, it’s a good academic school as well, and that was important to me. I honestly committed pretty early. Part of me wonders what could have been if I had waited a little bit, but I also had a great career at Denver.
And then you got drafted in 2014. Had the plan always been to go into soccer professionally? The NWSL was pretty young. What did you know about it and what made you apply for the draft?
I think not much, honestly... I didn’t know much about the NWSL. I knew it was young and that it was a professional league. And I think most soccer players you talk to have grown up with the idea that they want to play professionally when they’re older. So it was always in the back of my head. I was actually supposed to go study abroad in Australia that last semester of my senior year. You know, part of me was just like ‘oh, well I’ll just declare for the draft.’
I ended up being the very last pick in the draft, so I had to call my study abroad and call it quits for the moment. But yeah, that was kind of it.
Then the whole first season you were out due to an ACL tear. How did you handle that mentally?
That was tough. I had never been injured at all. Like, not even muscle strains, nothing. I played and started every single game of my college career. And then to go into my first team professionally and have that type of injury as my first injury it was pretty tough, because I’d never had to deal with it at all throughout my career. So I kind of had to figure out, one, I had to analyze my career and whether I wanted to push through this, and once I decided that that was the case, I kind of focused all of my energy on rehab.
You were drafted by the Flash. How did you feel about going up to Buffalo, or that area, to play soccer?
[Laughs] I’ll be the first one to admit that I was not very well traveled. I had gone to Mexico one time. I had been to other states and stuff, but I had never been to Buffalo. Didn’t know much about it. I did actually know a girl who played for University of Colorado who was drafted the year before me who was actually playing in Buffalo for the Western New York Flash, Amy Barczuk. Yeah, she was playing up there, so I kind of reached out to her and talked to her. It was really nice to have a familiar face there.
Buffalo was...not my favorite place to be [Laughs] if I’m being honest. But it was good. They have beautiful summers, and I had an amazing host family there my first year. They were awesome. So to have them and pretty much a home away from home, and a family away from my family, it really helped a lot.
So the first season you played, it wasn’t a whole lot of playing time, but you got into a good number of games with the World Cup and everything going on. What do you remember most about that first season?
The most memorable thing, honestly, from that season was from outside of soccer personally, because soccer was not really going great. And so I kind of, that first year, it was kind of coming to a point where I had to really dig in and be like ‘is this something that I really want to pursue,’ and I’d go home on my breaks and all of my friends are getting jobs and getting paid super well. I was kind of like ‘is this really what I want to pursue?’ But I’m glad I stuck it out. Honestly, I just learned so much more about myself.
Then Paul Riley comes and becomes the coach. What were your first impressions of him?
Um...that we ran a lot. [Laughs] We were going to be fit. [Laughs] There was no doubt about that.
We kind of knew it was going to be challenging. We had obviously had quite a bit of turnover [from 2015 to 2016]. So to have that turnover and for him to come in and step in. I think everyone was super excited with a new coach who could bring refreshing ideas in. To get started and to almost start fresh, which is really nice. Yeah, Paul was awesome. He was always so genuine and somebody you felt like you could talk to and have a conversation with, and it always felt like he had your back.
When you found out the team was moving to North Carolina, how did you feel about that?
I thought it was awesome. I was actually in New Zealand with Abby Erceg and we couldn’t be on the team conference call, and we got all of the team messages the next day, and we were like ‘holy...’ I wasn’t expecting to hear that. I was really psyched about it. In general, you know, Buffalo wasn’t a really youth-friendly city. We were excited about the prospect of having a city like Raleigh, up and coming and continuing to grow and a nice, cool city for young people to be in.
Yeah, I don’t think there was one person who was disappointed. Maaaybe Sabrina D’Angelo, because she used to be able to drive home. [Laughs]
(Sabrina D’Angelo is a Canadian national team player)
Then, in 2017, you’re down in North Carolina. You get your first career goal. Do you remember it and how did it feel?
I remember, because of some injuries, I started up top with Ashley Hatch and she was a rookie that year. Paul was just kind of like ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen, but here we go.’ And he instilled so much belief in me. Hatch, too. In those moments I remember feeling super confident, super calm. There was never a point when I felt like I didn’t belong on the field, with the players who were on the field. So, this team was always super good about building up everybody’s morale and supporting each other.
Yeah. I just remember it was so quick, too, that I was just kind of shocked at first. I don’t think that’s a moment that I’ll ever forget. And then, I mean, on top of that I scored two goals that game. Paul was just kind of like, ‘yeah, you’ll never forget this moment.’ I was like, ‘I know!’ I really don’t think I ever will. It was such a long time coming, and it felt like everything was finally paying off a little bit.
Your first year you’re injured. Then three years of not a lot of playing time. How did you stick with it and stay motivated to play soccer professionally?
For me personally, I just love the game. I just love the lifestyle that comes along with it as well. Especially when Paul came and took over, I continually felt like I was getting better every single day whether I was in the starting eleven or not. I think that’s really rare to find; a team where, even if you’re not starting, you’re still loving it and you’re enjoying the trainings and the practices and the coach and the team. I think it’s very difficult to find. Paul does and amazing job of doing that. Almost everybody. Even the practice players who aren’t on the roster are inspired because you get better. So I think having him there. Just getting better day-in and day-out, seeing that progress, really helped me stick with it. Because the first few years, I don’t think I got to showcase the player that I know I could be. And I think that really drove a lot of my desire to keep pushing, to continue to play, because I wanted everyone to see what type of player I can be, and I knew I could be playing better than what I was.
Obviously, on this team it’s really difficult to get into the starting lineup. There’s some motivation there, and eventually I proved myself. I knew I could play better than what I was. And then on top of that, I’d go home and my friends are working these nine-to-five jobs, and I’m like ‘I don’t really think I want to do that.’ [Laughs] I have my whole life to work a desk job. I can’t come back to soccer if I take a few years off, so I might as well play while I can as long as I’m having fun, and happy and healthy.
The next year, 2018, you get a ton of playing time. Obviously, the team was excellent. Pick out a memory or two from that season that really stands out to you.
The one thing that really sticks out to me is the Utah game that we lost, because it was the only loss of the season. I think it was really good for us at the time because a lot of pressure builds up, and as playoffs get closer, championships get closer, where if you haven’t lost a game it kind of builds and builds and builds. So I guess we kind of needed to lose that game. I think it really helped us win the championship that year.
Then, this season, you scored three goals against Orlando, which is as many as you’ve scored in any other season in your career. How did that game feel at that time?
That was awesome! I mean, there’s no other words. It was awesome. I loved it. I was really cool because it finally felt like things were clicking, and my finishing was obviously getting better over the years. Paul really taught me a lot about runs off the ball and types of finishes and whatnot. They were all great goals and good chemistry with my teammates, which is really cool. I think that’s the biggest thing this season. I feel like the players I’m playing with. I’ve been with them for such a long time and getting games, getting minutes with them, we just have a better understanding of each other.
To see that all come to fruition against Orlando, it was just a lot of fun. It’s hard to score three goals and not have fun.
Do you feel like your success has come from playing more where you’re comfortable lately?
Yes. Yeah, I mean, definitely to an extent I do. There will be trainings where Paul is like ‘you’re a 9,’ and I’m like, ‘I know! That’s what I’ve been telling you for years.’ [Laughs] You know, I’m like, ‘I know!’ So it’s kind of nice to be like, actually... It’s not Paul’s fault by any means, like I said, I’m happy to play any position we need, but it’s nice to be able to play in the formation or position that I’m super comfortable with and I’ve played my entire life and it’s just no thinking. I don’t have to worry about which player I’m pressing where and when. It just comes naturally and flows.
Yeah, so just that and being comfortable with the players that I’m playing with, just continuing to build confidence. I think as these goals have come I’ve just grown more confident. Just a year ago; I was having this conversation with Abby Erceg, and it was about the third goal that I scored this past weekend and she goes, ‘A year ago you would have laid that ball off for somebody else to shoot,’ and I was like, ‘ I know, I would have,’ because I didn’t necessarily have that confidence to take a player on myself and cut her and get that shot off. It’s nice to see that all of the things that I’m working on in training are translating to the field.
And so now you’re basically Sam Kerr, because she’s the only other person who’s scored four goals in a game.
[Laughs] I mean, I wouldn’t go that far yet. I need to show some consistency to be compared to her. She’s phenomenal.
You’ve now won two Player of the Week awards already this season. What goals do you have for yourself for the rest of the year?
You know? I used to set goals and I used to say ‘I want to be the leading scorer,’ or ‘I want to get so many assists.’ Whatever X, Y, Z. But now I feel like that puts so much pressure on you as a player and obviously it works for some people, but for me, I think personally I just want to get better day-in and day-out. Continue to build on these performances. You know, yeah, I’m scoring goals but how can I start helping Lynn (Williams) score goals? How can I help Deb (Debinha) score goals? You know, there are different facets of my game that I want to continue to improve, and I don’t think that I have developed the consistency that I want to have. So I just think continuing to get better every day, continuing to help my team in whatever role that is. You know, everybody is coming back from the World Cup so you never know what position you’ll need to play. What players will be on that field, but just whatever kind of role that I’m thrown into I just want to do the best of my ability and do whatever I can to help my teammates win and get better every day.