McCall Zerboni, Sky Blue's inspirational and tenacious leader
McCall Zerboni is the oldest player to make a USWNT debut
She narrowly missed out on making USA's Women's World Cup squad
She chose to get out of comfort zone at Courage to help rebuild Sky Blue
Why would someone leave the champions to go sign for and help one of the lowest-ranked teams in the league? For McCall Zerboni, the answer was simple.
"It's what I wanted. What's a boring life, right? What's a content, comfortable life? I wanted to feel uncomfortable again, be pushed and poked to challenge myself and grow with myself and a new group."
After helping the North Carolina Courage win two National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) championships, Zerboni decided to join Sky Blue FC, a team that had not qualified for the NWSL play-offs since 2013, to be an integral figure in a club culture change.
Within her first few months with the team, they already made history. A semi-final run in the recently-concluded NWSL Challenge Cup, the first team sports league competition to be held in the USA since the COVID-19 pandemic, is an early indicator that Zerboni's influence is massive.
Playing in a "bubble" environment with strict, but necessary, health protocols is anything but easy from both a mental and physical standpoint.
"The time it takes to achieve success with anything is behind closed doors where no one can see," Zerboni tells FIFA.com. "No one will ever know what it was like to be in that bubble. It was hard. It was restricting. It took most of our normal, adult, normal-life freedoms away. We didn't have a choice in many things at all. The one choice we had was who we talked with on our phones everyday or the coffee we ordered at the coffee truck. We saw the same people every day ... for a long time."
Instigating a culture change
During the entirety of the NWSL Challenge Cup the only times the players could leave their hotel was to get to the parking lot, load their vans and be driven to the training or match grounds. It helped that they were in Utah surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Zerboni has often been captured on TV or in photographs in the centre of team huddles, giving inspirational team talks moments before they take the field for kick-off. As natural as a motivator that she is, has it been more challenging than usual during a global pandemic to motivate her team-mates?
"Big time. I was already going through a lot of changes in my career and life. Sky Blue's a new squad, I'm moving house; everything was new, new, new. I had to get my own two feet on the ground super quickly, so I could be solid enough to give those leadership qualities that I normally give. I was never going to make any excuses. I had to power through and figure out a way to still bring my qualities to the club.
"We were the team with the most challenges this year coming from the New York-New Jersey area with so many restrictions and fear. It was unfamiliar ground for everyone. The fact we were able to achieve what we did despite all the barriers holding us back is actually pretty amazing. That's what makes me so excited for next season.
"We saw each other in very vulnerable, sensitive, emotional, open and raw ways which helps bring our chemistry together and want to fight for one another."
What does having a championship mindset mean? "Weather the storm. Dancing in the rain together is the best way I can explain a successful, championship team."
Sky Blue certainly weathered a storm in the Challenge Cup semi-final against Chicago Red Stars. Three-nil down with half an hour left to go and the match finished 3-2. Although they lost the game itself, it tells you everything you need to know about where they're headed. "I'm a horrible loser. I'm still getting over it (laughs). But in all seriousness, not a single player hung their head. We didn't care. We believe in what we're doing."
A mentality of service
'Tenacity' and 'grit' are words often used when describing Zerboni. Her motivational knack comes from being a part of successful team cultures. But don't be fooled. Zerboni is much more than a motivational speaker. Her high soccer IQ and tactical understanding could see her become a coach one day.
"I don't think fans think of me as a brilliant footballer. I think they think I'm one-track minded, but I'm actually a really big thinker. These wheels are always turning on and off the field. I'm constantly analysing and thinking."
A natural holding midfielder, she admitted she played out of position in the No10 midfield role throughout the Challenge Cup, which was a source of frustration for her but it was what the team needed. "I like pulling the strings, organising, cleaning up shop.
"I know I definitely would not enjoy youth soccer. I'm too much of an intense professional for that (laughs). I would love to keep giving back to women's soccer and maybe be an assistant or work with a coach I respect in the league.
"I had a lot of turmoil in my youth and a rough family life, so just that perseverance and learning to be a fighter and knowing that no one's going to hand you anything shaped me for sure. I also view my job and craft in this way: I'm going to go out on the field and battle for you. I'm not afraid to go into tackles because that's what the team needs. I have this mentality of service. I'm a competitor. I'm never afraid. Fear will limit your ability on the field. I love to give to people. I love seeing people succeed."
Her confidence comes from diligent preparation and from the choices she makes. "When it's game day I'm like, 'There's nothing more I could have done. Let's frickin' go'. I want to go out there and ball."
This article is part of our 'Women in Football' series, in which we offer a different behind-the-scenes look at some of the protagonists of the women’s game. Next week we'll focus on Pakistan women's national team midfielder Abiha Haider.