Haley Hanson stood on a practice field in Florida this week, hoping to prove she belonged in the United States women’s national soccer team camp. But she was admittedly a bit awestruck by her surroundings.
Behind her was captain Becky Sauerbrunn, a World Cup veteran who joined the U.S. youth national team before her 14th birthday. In front of her was Carli Lloyd, a two-time FIFA player of the year who has been representing her country on the soccer field for 15 years.
Hanson, a former midfielder at Olathe East, took a bit of a different route. A much more unlikely one.
When Hanson was a teenager in high school, a couple of her club teammates were selected for youth national team camps. Hanson was left out. While she was at Nebraska, it more of the same — teammates called to join the U-23 women’s national team, and Hanson stayed home.
“I would say in that sense I feel like the underdog,” Hanson said in a phone interview. “I’ve been used to that, looking back at my whole career. I’ve always seen myself and thought maybe I deserved more. But I’ve always used that as motivation.”
It’s the latter that Hanson credits for where she is today: She is a member of the U.S. women’s senior national team for the first time as it winds down its final preparation for World Cup qualifying. The Americans face Mexico on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., and again Sunday in Houston.
“I’m overwhelmed. I’m excited,” Hanson said. “It was a bit shocking. That’s not where my mind was when I got the call. I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
It just took one opportunity — and perhaps some persuasion courtesy of her former Nebraska and club coaches.
The national team journey finally started in November, when Hanson received a call to join the U-23 national team, after her senior season at Nebraska had already concluded. Hanson believes she had some help in getting on that radar, and she didn’t waste the chance. Two months later, she earned another call-up.
“She obviously turned a lot of heads at those camps,” said Huw Williams, Hanson’s former club coach who also served as the general manager for FC Kansas City. “She was the best player at the camp. She clearly caught people’s attention.”
Hanson shot up the NWSL draft boards after her time with the U-23 team, and the Houston Dash drafted her with the seventh overall pick this year. A few weeks later, she is approaching the biggest stage of her life, hoping for her first international cap Thursday.
Williams describes Hanson’s style of play as blue-collar, a midfielder who is willing to do the dirty work. She’s a player with talent who competes as though she relies more on her effort than that talent, Williams says.
It fits her underdog mentality.
“Even if you’re not seeing the (call-ups), you can still work hard because you love the game or because you want to get better and just be a better player,” Hanson said. “And when I did get the opportunity, I sought to make the most of it. I think that’s hopefully encouraging to a lot of younger players striving to continue their soccer career — if it doesn’t happen right away, it doesn’t mean it never will.”