Michele Dalton
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars.

Nine Squads, Nine Stories: Embracing the Opportunity

Nine Squads, Nine Stories is a series that focuses on one story per club, highlighting a player or theme. The second installment focuses on Michele Dalton, a goalkeeper who made the Chicago Red Stars’ roster through the team’s open tryouts.

“I think anytime it’s a giant question mark going through that period [of open tryouts] and it can be stressful and nerve-racking. In January and February, I didn’t know where I was going to be in the upcoming months and year, and it was one of those things where, if I try out and ultimately fail, now I’m home and I have to find a job.” — Michele Dalton

Those were the words from Chicago Red Stars goalkeeper Michele Dalton, who is a likely candidate to stand in between the posts for the Red Stars for while Karina LeBlanc, the team’s number one in goal, is away for the Women’s World Cup. That’s quite a turnaround from the beginning of the year for the former University of Wisconsin goalkeeper, the Big Ten Conference’s 2011 Goalkeeper of the Year, who wasn’t even sure if she would be playing for a professional team in 2015.

After going through the Red Stars’ open-tryout process in early March and earning an invitation to preseason camp as a non-roster invitee, Dalton proved her worth to the organization and earned a contract, making her the second player on the team’s current roster to be signed after going through open tryouts. The other player is defender Samantha Johnson, who was signed before the 2014 season after going through the same process Dalton went through.

Chicago, like every team in the National Women’s Soccer League, will lose its allocated national team players for the Women’s World Cup. The Red Stars, however, will lose eight players on their roster for the tournament, including five who started in Chicago’s 1-0 win over Sky Blue this past weekend. Dalton explained that while national team players have been in and out of Chicago’s camp for the past month, each player on the team knows she’ll have to step up and play an important role for the team at some point.

“The girls are the best part because everyone has been so welcoming, friendly, and supportive,” said Dalton, who grew up in Mount Prospect, Illinois, not too far from where the Red Stars play home games in Lisle, Illinois.

“Whether that person is a starter, or someone who started right before the World Cup players came in, they are all super supportive of not only the people who may be ahead of them or those that are behind them. We realize that at the end of the day, we need to be supportive of each other because that is the only way we are going to be successful.”

New Challenges Abroad

After Dalton completed her senior season at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2011, she planned to leave try out for the Philadelphia Independence for the upcoming season of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). However, a few weeks prior to Dalton’s try out, the WPS ceased operations, leaving players to scramble and find teams elsewhere. Dalton, having decided to skip the spring semester in anticipation of trying out for the Independence, was forced to stay in Wisconsin and train while looking for playing opportunities elsewhere.

She eventually took the opportunity to play for the Philadelphia Fever in the one-and-done WPSL-Elite in 2012 before signing with Icelandic side UMF Selfoss for the 2013 season. Dalton completed the season with Selfoss before moving to Sweden to play with Kvarnsvedens IK in the second division in 2014. Dalton went on to have an impressive season with Kvarnsvedens, posting seven clean sheets and helping her side to a top-half finish in the table.

While the experience outside of playing first-team soccer was important, it allowed Dalton to mature as a goalkeeper as she came across new challenges along the way, some of which forced her to adapt quickly.

“For me to go to a different country and live in a totally different and foreign environment after being with my college team for four years was a challenge in itself,” said Dalton. “But the new component was being a leader with teammates that didn’t necessarily understand my language. [My teammates] all learn English and understand it but they were kind of timid and didn’t want to struggle and were afraid to communicate. So trying to find different, new ways to communicate in ways that I hadn’t thought I would use or ever consider using to communicate before. If one style didn’t work then I would have to change it up.”

Dalton recalled a defender on her team who didn’t understand her directions during games and thought the keeper was trying to put her down. But Dalton explained that she eventually sat down with her defender to explain.

“‘You realize that nothing I am saying is anything personal and I am just trying to make everyone better and I have to yell a little bit louder to make sure that you can hear me when I speak English,’” Dalton recalled saying to her teammate who better understood the message behind the words after their talk. Moments like these were valuable lessons for Dalton.

“So those were new challenges that I had never faced before nor that I ever had considered prior to my experiences going overseas. But I’m glad that I’ve had them looking back at it because now, moving forward, I can use those experiences and hopefully teach another goalkeeper one day or share in that experience that ‘Oh, yeah, I was overseas and I remember some of those challenges I had to face.’”

Battling through Tryouts

Michele Dalton
Michele Dalton. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars.

It was always on Dalton’s mind to return to the United States to play again. It was never a decision she put a precise date on but it felt right for her that 2015 was going to be the season she would come back to the United States.

“It was a decision at the time to either stay here [in the U.S.] and play and turn down an offer to play in the top Swedish league, which is where I would be now if I wasn’t playing here,” Dalton recalled. “I never really put a timeline on it, but this time felt right for me for a couple of reasons.”

“One being the World Cup, in that with KK [Karina LeBlanc] leaving, it opened the opportunity for me to get in a couple of games, whereas if I had decided that next year was the time to come back to the U.S., that I may not have gotten that opportunity necessarily. So I would have had to fight for a position right off the bat. But this year, with it being the World Cup year and from what I heard with [the NWSL] being pretty stable, I based my decision off of that.”

The issue for her was to find a team that would sign her or let her try out. But at the beginning of the year, she hadn’t heard from a Swedish club, even though former teammates and coaches said it was almost certain a first-division team there would sign her. With not many choices left, she decided to give an old coach a call, a coach she had played under before and who also happens to be at the helm of the Red Stars.

“I always wanted to come back home and when I am home in the offseason, I have the opportunity to train with Rory [Dames] and Eclipse [the soccer club Dames coaches]. So I called him up and asked would you mind if I came out and trained. I told him what my situation is and I didn’t have many options now and I’ve always wanted to play for him again. And if nothing comes about [with Sweden], I want to make a run at this and if I make [the Red Stars], that’s great and if I don’t, maybe taking a year off wouldn’t be the worst thing for my body.”

So, in early March, she was among the dozens who participated in the Red Stars’ open tryout hoping to earn a spot on the team’s preseason roster. Since tryouts may only last a session or two, players have a very short window in which to make a positive impression with a team’s coaching staff. But while Dalton believes that her  performance in the tryout was certainly one aspect to it, it was also about having good recommendations from prior coaches and a record of prior positive results that gave her the upper hand.

“I had a very good season in Sweden and a very good season prior to that in Iceland. I used the confidence I had from coming off of a good season going into the open tryout and I know that [the Red Stars’ staff] had seen my game film that I have online of what I can do,” she said.

“I know in the NFL some teams don’t base their decisions off of how an athlete performs just at the combine alone because there are so many different factors so it’s no different, especially as a goalkeeper where you have two days at an open tryout and realistically, you can’t really see what one individual can do in two days. So I was hopeful that I would get through the open tryout and be able to show what I could do during the next month of preseason since I felt that was more of a fair assessment of an individual within a less stressful environment.”

Dalton was one of two goalkeepers who made it through the open tryout and onto the preseason roster. She trained with the team in March and played the majority of the minutes during preseason friendlies in goal. She also notched 90-minute clean sheets against Notre Dame and her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, during that span. Days before the Red Stars first game of the 2015 season, the team announced it had signed Dalton for the 2015 season.

Enjoying the Ride

Dalton is experiencing a new role as a reserve behind Karina LeBlanc, who started each of Chicago’s three matches so far. It’s a role she has embraced for both the present and the future.

“For a long time [I was] a starter, I’ve been a number one and obviously that’s what every goalkeeper wants to be and strives to be,” she said of her time in college and overseas.

“But I think it is also important — for a number of reasons, one because I want to get into coaching after I’m done playing — and I think it is important to learn to how to be a good number two as well because I’m learning a lot from not just backing up anyone but I’m learning a lot from backing up Karina, who is a national team goalkeeper that is way more experienced than I am right now so I am just trying to learn from her. And that was another reason why I made the choice to stay [in Chicago] — to become an all-around better goalkeeper and ultimately a better coach. This is a new experience for me to be in this position.”

With LeBlanc leaving to join the Canadian National Team ahead of the World Cup, Dalton is looking forward to any opportunity she gets and wants to soak in all of the moments that come with it.

“For me moving forward, what’s important is to have fun with this. There is the stress of the importance of winning and the performance. You put pressure on yourself, every athlete does. You combine the pressure of wanting to win and to play well in one of the top leagues in the world. And one of the things that has calmed my nerves a bit is that I have played at a high level before. I know I’m going to have to make saves. I know that I have to perform and it is very easy to get caught up in that, but the fact of the matter is I am literally living my dream […] I feel so fortunate and so some times you forget that because you get wrapped up in the stress of it and the performance anxiety. But my focus is to try and enjoy it and have some fun with it.”