After a Week 8 match-up against the Chicago Red Stars and earning her first start, Katie Johnson spoke with Backline Soccer about NWSL draft day, rookie life, and making an impact in the league as a Mexican International and Mexican-American player.
During the second round of the annual NWSL draft, after a draft day trade with the Chicago Red Stars, the Seattle Reign held the sixth pick, 16th overall. Katlyn Alicia Johnson Carreon had yet to be drafted, and three of her former USC teammates had gone in the first round. It’s not an easy day, waiting and hoping to hear your name called, but when Seattle drafted Johnson, she immediately made an impact on draft day.
“Ay Dios Mio”
Three simple words translate to “Oh My God.” It was small, but something that connects to some Latino/Latino-American fans who grew up hearing the phrase in our households or from our families. I mostly heard it from my mom or grandma when I was being mischievous and doing ridiculous kid things. Which, was often. But on draft day, for Katie, it seemed to represent a sense of excitement in achieving one’s goals. In that sense, no matter your background, “Ay dios mio” is entirely and immediately relatable.
Johnson declared for the draft and had been hoping to stay on the west coast and be selected by the Reign. After finding success at USC, she bet on herself and took a chance and made it known that she was looking for a future in the NWSL.
“I think I came off a pretty good season in college, and I think I made a good name for myself especially throughout the college finals, and scoring three goals. So, I was just confident going in, and thought that I could get drafted and picked in the NWSL draft. So, I took my chances, and Laura [Harvey] believed that I could be a good fit for this [Seattle] team. And I think I’ve done a good job of fitting into the team.”
Making the decision to go pro isn’t an easy one. An athlete’s options might open up with a successful collegiate career. Their options may expand even further if they’ve had international experience. For Johnson, her resume contains both of those very important bullet points. Having spent time with the senior women’s Mexican national team during Olympic qualifying and having a break-out senior season at USC that ended in a national title, Johnson could’ve played soccer overseas. She admits that could always be an option, but is fully committed to Seattle.
“Out of all the teams, the Reign were my number one pick. I’m really happy because my style of play fits in with the was that she [Harvey] likes to play. So, I was pretty happy with that. I was looking overseas before, just with how the [college] season went, just to see if it was an option, it is an option in the future. Right now, I’m just really happy playing in Seattle and I like how it’s going so far.”
A recent injury to Beverly Yanez saw Johnson get her first start against Chicago during Week 8. In earlier weeks, Seattle head coach Laura Harvey had done well to get Johnson quality minutes within games even before giving Johnson her first start. It’s difficult for some rookies to get time on the pitch in their first season, but Johnson is holding her own and has already scored two goals. She admits there is some adjustments from playing on the college level to going pro.
“The speed is a lot faster in the game [than in college]. There’s really not much room for mistakes. There’s less chances for goal but I have to be more on top of just finishing and holding the ball. I don’t think I did nearly as well today [against Chicago], but in past games I think I’ve done pretty well at that.”
Representing More than Soccer
While adjusting to playing in the NWSL, Johnson shared with me that fighting for a spot in Seattle’s starting XI has always been the goal since she got drafted. Her perspective of the NWSL is refreshing, as she emphasizes and expresses her want to be successful in this league. Her desire to have an active role in Seattle took front and center even in the face of the current FIFA break in the NWSL schedule.
This June, several NWSL players reported for national team duty and participated in international team friendlies. That included a match between Mexico and Venezuela. I mention some disappointment in not seeing her name on the roster, but Johnson tells me that Mexico’s head coach Robert Medina approached her for a call up to national team camps. Along with not trying to put extra strain on her body, she is actively choosing to improve her game through the NWSL.
“I was actually asked to be on the team, but I just decided that I wanted to stay here [in Seattle] and try to start. Obviously, I got my first one today [against Chicago]. And I’m trying to keep starting and stay with the team and just be focused on that. I also didn’t want to risk injury, it was kind of a late game [June Friendly] so I’m just trying to play it smart and get this season done.”
She emphasizes that she wants to improve on her game in order to be a better player in general as well as internationally with Mexico.
“When it comes to Mexico I’ll be ready to go for qualifiers or for wherever they need me to be. Just trying to play it smart, this time. I didn’t want to go too hard or too much on that, because I know we do double days when we’re out there [training camps] so it’d be a lot of soccer and I’m just trying to pick and choose for right now to be smarter about those things.”
Johnson says that there is open communication between the Mexican players and current head coach Medina, that sometimes scheduling comes into play when players make decisions regarding camps and friendlies. It’s part of how she was able to compete in Olympic qualifying for Mexico back when Leo Cuellar was coaching. She elaborates saying:
“It was a little last minute the [training] camp, which is another reason why I made the decision to stay with this team [Reign]. You have to think about that, ‘well do I want to go out of my way right now? How will this affect me physically?’ There are some who do have the opportunity to play right now, like with our players who play in Spain [La Liga] right now, their season just ended. So, they’re able to come over here and it’s a bit more convenient for them. Or how back in February [Olympic Qualifiers] when I wasn’t playing [in college] to be able to compete. So sometimes it’s also a clash of schedules as well.”
Johnson and I spoke about the decline in Mexican subsidized players in the NWSL over the years, the few Mexican-American players currently in the league, and how there is sometimes a perception of constantly “having to choose a side.” I ask her if she ever sees herself embracing the role of being a role model. She openly embraces the possibility saying:
“Absolutely. That’s definitely a segway I’d like to go into. I really hope I can be that for people. And hopefully encourage other girls who are Mexican-American, who are young, to say hey I can maybe go a different route. I know Monica Flores has gone through something similar with her sister, so it is having to choose sometimes, but I’m just really happy I made the decision.”
Recently, Seattle Reign were one of the NWSL teams featured on Lifetime’s game of the week against the Houston Dash. Johnson came on as a sub for an injured Bev Yanez, the rookie’s play had earned praise under the Houston heat and even raised questions during the broadcast. Coach Harvey was quoted through commentary that the U.S. would come to “rue Johnson’s decision” on playing for Mexico. When I mention some additional TV commentary suggesting if Johnson had any “regrets” in committing to representing Mexico now that she was getting recognition, I ask Johnson if she wants to set the record straight.
She doesn’t hesitate.
“No. I am so happy I made that decision.”
She elaborates on the good experiences she has with her teammates saying:
“When I go to camps, I don’t really speak Spanish very well, so it’s kind of hard sometimes, but my teammates have always been really nice to me. When I do try, they obviously joke with me about it. It’s always fun though because they’re all so nice to me.”
Johnson expresses that if there is any regret, it’s that she didn’t make the decision sooner to commit to playing for Mexico. After an ACL injury and some guidance from her parents, she began her journey to representing La Selección Tri Femenil.
“I was really happy with it [playing for Mexico]. I feel like I didn’t make it sooner than most players who make those decisions. But I made the choice over these last two years, it was after I tore my ACL. I sat down with my parents, and I talked to my mom about it, and she asked me ‘do you want to do this? We can do this, we can help you with all your paperwork if you want to [play for Mexico]’ So I just kind of made the decision from there and said, ‘Let’s do it!’ so I just kind of went for it, and I am really happy. I’m so proud of being Mexican too.”
The NWSL is five years young, and yet it’s come a long way from having 16 Mexican international subsidized players to zero. Although not currently listed as an allocated player, time will tell the kind of impact a player like Katie Johnson will have on the NWSL. For now, she is doing a good job growing her game within two countries she is proud to claim.