Phillips finds place on Polish team

Courtesy of FC Kansas City

Defender Nikki Phillips, right, has started 17 games this season for FC Kansas City, which is in second place of the NWSL.

Nikki Phillips didn't disguise the pride in her voice as she recalled the words of praise offered by her grandmother after a recent game between FC Kansas City and Sky Blue FC in New Jersey. It wasn't a compliment about the clean sheet that Phillips and Kansas City kept that pleased the defender. Such stinginess had become almost commonplace, after all, for a team that allowed just one goal in a recent seven-game stretch.

What carried weight that day was that her grandmother, visiting from Poland, noted how much her granddaughter's Polish had improved. Keep at it, she told Phillips, and call any time for tutoring.

It wasn't merely the content of the message that swelled pride. It was the words themselves.

"She said it all in Polish," Phillips explained. "And I understood it all."

Which was in its own way confirmation that Phillips -- still more familiar in the soccer world by her maiden name of Krzysik -- understood a little more about herself. Born in New Jersey, a star at the University of Virginia who now plays in Kansas City and lives in San Diego, she stood on a field a year ago and listened to the Polish national anthem play before her first game with the Polish national team.

Playing for the United States youth national teams -- which took her abroad from Thailand to Russia and from Brazil to Finland - provided Phillips a chance to learn something about the world others inhabited before she returned home to the one she knew across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

Now an adult, she isn't just a visitor when she travels overseas to play for Poland.

Courtesy Evelyn Nicinski

Nikki Phillips, left, and Poland are looking ahead to taking part in the 2017 European Championship.

"I am Polish," Phillips said. "I am Polish, and I am American. I'm both.

"Having my family be proud of me, taking my family roots and experiencing this and going forward with this and really, really taking that step has been something very meaningful to me."

The World Cup that just concluded in Brazil offered a refresher on the flexible nature of nationality on a soccer field. Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa drew boos from crowds in the host country almost every time he touched the ball for Spain. The United States benefitted from German-Americans like John Brooks, Julian Green, Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson who held dual citizenship by dint of an American parent. And the phenomenon is no less a part of the women's game, where, to name just a few, Sydney Leroux famously chose the United States over Canada and players like Rachel Quon and Teresa Noyola played for American youth national teams but now represent Canada and Mexico, respectively, at the senior level.

Such moves are on some level soccer transactions more than cultural statements. Coaches want to expand supposedly finite talent pools. Players want opportunities to compete on the biggest stages. Some would label their means of connecting a loophole. It would be naive to think a uniform in every instance conveys an appreciation of a culture and the love people have for it.

It would be equally naive, and painfully cynical, to believe those bonds are never forged or that patriotism and passion are privileges limited by birthplace.

Although Phillips, for all her travels, had never been to Poland prior to her first national team camp last summer, it was nonetheless a long familiar, if abstract, presence in her life. Her father was born there, and her grandparents still reside there. The great-grandmother who used to babysit in New Jersey spoke only Polish to her, and the language was heard regularly in the house. She understood more than she spoke, but having Polish roots was always a source of pride.

In Kansas City, Phillips has been reunited in the middle of the back line with Becky Sauerbrunn, her former teammate at the University of Virginia.

"If you knew Krzysiek in college, you definitely knew that she was Polish," Sauerbrunn said.

Yet as a soccer player, she was not just an All-American but all American. The youngest member of a United States team that also included Sauerbrunn when it competed in the 2004 FIFA U-19 World Cup, she played alongside current FC Kansas City teammate Lauren Cheney two years later in the same event (after FIFA reclassified it as an Under-20 competition). Sauerbrunn and Cheney are now mainstays on the U.S. senior national team, but despite additional American caps with the Under-23 national team and professional success as one of the better defenders in Women's Professional Soccer before that league folded, Phillips never made a senior appearance for the United States.

Continuing her international career seemed ever more remote when she chose not to participate in the NWSL's first season as she prepared for her summer wedding to John Phillips, who plays for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. To stay sharp, she played for a San Diego team in WPSL, one rung down from NWSL, and enjoyed the experience. But it wasn't quite the same as playing at what she knew to be the highest level of competition available. It was at that point in the arc of her career that she got a phone call from Dariusz Nicinski, whose daughter Evelyn had played for the same club team in the New York-New Jersey area and moved on to the Polish national program as a dual citizen.

Courtesy of Evelyn Nicinski

Nikki Phillips (No. 18) and Evelyn Nicinski (No. 10) both earned their first caps with the Polish senior national team in a friendly last August.

Would she be interested, he wondered, in playing for Poland as it tried to qualify for the 2015 World Cup?

Still just 26 years old at the time, Phillips understood that playing in a World Cup qualifier for Poland would forever close the door on playing for the United States, a door that at least theoretically remained open at that time -- a few months later, FC Kansas City defender Leigh Ann Robinson earned her first cap for the United States shortly after her 27th birthday. But Phillips had already pursued Polish citizenship as a result of family real estate holdings and to gain European Union eligibility to play for a professional team in Cyprus that fall. It felt like the right opportunity at the right time.

"I have always been somebody that has just loved playing," Phillips said. "I just want to play. Wherever the pickup game was happening, training session or anything, I just wanted to play. And to be able to have that opportunity now and at a high level was something that was really attractive to me."

Now a rising senior at Bucknell University who was born and raised in New York to two Polish immigrants, Evelyn Nicinski played for Poland's U-19 national team before getting a call-up from the senior team last summer. Fluent in Polish (she even spent the most recent spring semester studying abroad in Warsaw), she became Phillips' interpreter, guide and friend. The two flew together to Krakow, Poland, a few days in advance of August friendlies last summer and spent the extra time exploring a city that is more than a millennium old with one of Phillips' cousins, a clergyman there.

"I think it was definitely one of the coolest things I've ever seen," Nicinski said of watching Phillips soak in her surroundings. "She was so excited about everything and getting to know her Polish roots and her culture and all about her family."

Phillips and Nicinski earned their first senior caps in the same August friendly against the Czech Republic. Phillips went on to play in World Cup qualifiers in Sweden and Northern Ireland and at home against Scotland. Handed a difficult qualifying draw alongside perennial power Sweden and suddenly ascendant Scotland, Poland cannot qualify for next summer's World Cup. But Phillips will return for qualifiers after the current NWSL season. And with the momentum of a title in last year's UEFA Under-17 Championship and some of the biggest World Cup qualifying crowds beyond the continent's traditional women's powers, it is a national program with aspirations toward taking part in the 2017 European Championship and 2019 World Cup.

More and more comfortable in her surrounding with each visit, Phillips said she wants to be there for those efforts.

"I know she says the biggest part of her game is being able to communicate, so sometimes she doesn't think that she can do that," Nicinski said. "But she has learned so much, and I think that she's really grown. She knows all the words she needs to say, and she's been talking so much more on the field. It's shown, her having confidence back there. People trust her back there, so that's been relieving for the team, knowing she's always going to get the ball."

People feel better knowing she is back there on this side of the Atlantic, too. Although not as high profile an addition for FC Kansas City as someone like striker Amy Rodriguez, Phillips has been indispensable for a team that has pulled away from the pack to all but lock up the second seed in the playoffs behind league leader Seattle. Coming off a painful missed opportunity in last season's semifinals, coach Vlatko Andonovski had to replace two of his four starting defenders, in addition to losses in the defensive midfield. Yet in part because he knew Phillips would be part of the mix, he said the back line wasn't among his concerns when the new season began. He knew what kind of player she was. He also knew where she came from.

Andonovski came to the United States from Macedonia 14 years ago. His three children, like Phillips, have grown up in this country. He would be proud if they represented either place.

"I do try to keep them in touch to my origins and my culture and where I'm coming from because I think it just gives a little different look and a little different perspective and a little different flavor to their youth," Andonovski said. "I'm sure that that has made an impact on Nikki's, not just personal life but also soccer life. She understands the way she was brought up and she maintains the mentality on the field -- she's a hard worker, tenacious defender, and I think that that has a lot do with the culture where she comes from."

That is the opportunity afforded by international competition, the chance to play for something that you believe is part of you. That's true whether it's where you live or a full day of air travel away.

Perhaps the national anthem is a shibboleth. Not the volume at which one belts out the words as the camera inevitably finds the faces of players before a game but what the music means to them.

"When you're out there with your national anthem, you're representing your country -- your entire country and your heritage," Sauerbrunn said. "It's just a mass of people. It's so much larger than when you play professionally and you're kind of representing your city. So it's just kind of the level and the amount of people that you're representing and have a stake in the game and have emotions in the game."

Or as Nicinski said of hearing the Polish anthem before a game: "It sends chills down your spine."

As a certain grandmother would attest, in Polish, Phillips is increasingly better able to understand the anthem's words. But more than that, she understands more by the day what the music means.

"It's a sense of pride and passion," Phillips said. "My grandma is so happy that I am playing for Poland and just seeing her smile and talking to her about it has been so awesome for me."

She is Polish. She is American. She is both.

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