British accent suits St. John's
Her passport will tell you that Rachel Daly is from the United Kingdom, specifically that she comes from the small town of Harrogate, a short distance from the major city of Leeds in the north of England.
That alone doesn't explain who she is or what motivates her to do what she does.
The geography of her upbringing isn't the reason she leads Division I players with 23 goals as she and her St. John's teammates travel to Durham, N.C., this week for an NCAA tournament second-round game against Arkansas. It doesn't explain why she's piling up goals and accolades at a rate not seen from an English player in the American college game since Kelly Smith arrived at Seton Hall a decade and a half ago en route to becoming one of the all-time greats in international soccer.
Growing up, Daly went with her dad to watch Leeds United, the team that was once a powerhouse at the top of the English game but has more recently been cast adrift in the second and third tiers of the professional game. They had season tickets at venerable Elland Road, but she often had games of her own elsewhere, creating a scheduling dilemma for father and daughter alike.
"It would be a nightmare deciding whether or not to go sometimes, if I had a game," Daly said. "I was a huge fan. All my family are Leeds fans. Even now, when they suck, I'll always be a passionate fan."
St. John's coach Ian Stone well knows the passion for soccer that runs through towns and cities across England, that spawns generations of fans of Leeds United, Preston North End, Sheffield Wednesday and dozens of other teams, loyalty passed down through generations even without the lure of trophies or the glory of Liverpool or Manchester United. A Leeds fan himself, he grew up immersed in it in England. But when he and his university teammates came across the Atlantic and worked soccer camps on Long Island in the late 1980s, he found he most enjoyed coaching the female players.
Trying to import that back home, where the sport itself was so fervently embraced but female participation was largely ignored and even shunned, proved difficult. In time, he returned to the United States to live and coach and eventually took over at St. John's in 1994.
"To me, it was such a shame, in that there were so many enthusiastic young girls with a lot of talent," Stone said of England at the time he left. "It was just there were no [soccer] opportunities for them. Even when I was teaching over there and teaching phys ed and trying to get women's football teams going, unfortunately, and it's still the same way, it's a little bit of a chauvinistic mentality towards it, which really holds women back over there."
Stone moved to the United States a few years before Daly was born, and the women's game did gain purchase in the intervening years. The national team is much more of a fixture these days (so much so that the team's embarrassing exit from this past summer's European Championship provoked some good English grousing in the media). There is a functioning professional environment with the new Women's Super League. Sian Massey, a female referee, even regularly works as an assistant in Premier League games. There are far more opportunities in soccer for girls and women than ever before. But change isn't immediate.
The only girl among a collection of brothers and stepbrothers, Daly lived for the game from an early age. She would go watch her dad play in a local semipro league and lace up her own cleats, the Puma King pair with the red stripe, and get out and play with her siblings. Still, she was an outlier.
"People would try to tell me to stop, and I'd get picked on at school because I'd be the only girl that played," Daly said. "But it would never stop me, ever. Besides from that, there was a lot of support as well."
Daly may be a singular talent, but hers is not a singular story. She isn't even the only English standout playing for the Red Storm. St. John's will play for a place in its first Sweet 16 in part because of what Daly does in front of the other team's goal, but also because of what a back line led by junior Georgia Kearney-Perry does in front of its own goal.
Like Daly, Kearney-Perry grew up going to soccer games with her dad. In her case, coming from the small town of Tring, located north of London, the colors were those of Premier League giant Arsenal.
For years, she heard about girls going to the United States to play soccer in college, at Smith most famously, but hundreds more at schools big and small (in a 2009 count, there were 63 players from the United Kingdom on the rosters of Division I programs). To stay at home would have meant, if not choosing between soccer and school, at least maintaining a more difficult juggling act playing for a club team that might train a couple of times a week and going to college. When she made a connection with St. John's after an American tour by her club team, she didn't hesitate.
"New York was a massive selling point," Kearney-Perry said. "And picturing myself living in New York City, for someone like me from a small little town in England, was basically a dream."
It didn't go particularly well at first, not when she tore her ACL in the second game of her freshman season and found herself adjusting to school in a new country without the one thing -- her sport -- that gave her the most comfort. Nonetheless, she persevered. Instead of thinking about going home, she helped bring in a reinforcement when she mentioned to Stone that she knew of another player who might be interested.
Daly was then two years out of the equivalent of high school and playing for Lincoln Ladies in WSL, the semiprofessional top flight of the women's game in England. To meet NCAA compliance regulations, she had to sit out her freshman season; she could train with the Red Storm but couldn't travel or play in games. "I would have just stayed playing, earned whatever I could from that and got a job coaching, maybe," Daly said of life had she not come to the U.S. "But I definitely wouldn't have gone the school route at home.
"I've never been, honestly, the most academic. But for me, I've always wanted to be the best possible in anything I do, so obviously to study and get granted with a good scholarship to study was something that I didn't want to turn down. I wouldn't get that opportunity to get that at home."
Sports are Daly's passion, not school, but it's difficult to label her a mercenary when she earns all-conference academic honors with a sport management major that will help her with her coaching aspirations.
In the meantime, Daly is making up for lost time after sitting out last season. A left back until the beginning of this season, she found herself playing forward. She had two assists in her first college game, then scored a hat trick in her second. She was just getting started. Even before recording a goal and an assist in last week's NCAA tournament upset win at UCF, she became just the second player to be honored as the Big East's top newcomer and top offensive player in the same season.
The only other name on that list definitely rang a bell for Daly: Kelly Smith.
"Genius, honestly," Daly said of Smith. "She was my idol growing up. You have a role model as a woman's football player at home, and she was always my favorite. I think she's phenomenal. I got the chance to play against her a couple of years ago for my team at home, and that was just playing against a dream, you know?"
That she is scoring goals at a Smith-like pace was not something that even her coach envisioned when he moved her to forward. But as someone who coached against Smith for her entire college career, Stone didn't shrink from the comparison at the same point in their development.
"There's a lot of similarities from my point of view," Stone said. "It's much better having a Rachel Daly on our team, as opposed to having to coach against a Kelly Smith. That wasn't very easy.
"It wasn't easy to stop Kelly, and I think some opposing coaches would probably say the same thing about Rachel."
Both she and Kearney-Perry, the cornerstone of the defense and a calm voice, already have St. John's in uncharted postseason waters.
"I think, really, our team has benefited from having these two around because it means so much to them every day in practice," Stone said. "It's not like they're going to take a day off. It's kind of in their blood."
As generation after generation of disappointed schoolchildren learn in England, it doesn't matter how passionate you are about the sport if you don't also have talent to match. Nor does a player need to spend mornings in front of the television or evenings shivering in the stands of EPL, MLS or NWSL games to beat a defender or bend in a free kick herself. Players don't need to be fans to succeed at the game.
Perhaps, though, it's also true that one can inform the other, that those afternoons in the stands with Dad watching Leeds or Arsenal are how it gets in the blood. And why a sports culture will change.
An ocean removed, Kearney-Perry talks about Arsenal with the odd mix of skeptical hopefulness that permeates a fan base that sees the team at the top of the table this season but watched it fail to win any trophies in the past eight seasons. It matters to her. When she first arrived in the United States, she noticed how little attention most teammates paid to any soccer beyond that which they themselves played.
"I'm used to it now, but it's kind of peculiar to me still that you can play a game and not follow things," Kearney-Perry said. "But each to their own."
It's all about where you come from. Daly and Kearney-Perry come from soccer.