Florida's Taylor Burke is double trouble
With height and athleticism to spare, University of Florida sophomore Taylor Burke looks like the poster child for the future of goalkeeping in women's soccer.
The only catch is that it isn't yet clear if her future is in pushing shots over a bar or propelling herself over one.
A goalkeeper with a chance to be a world-class high jumper, or a high jumper with a chance to be a world-class goalkeeper, Burke is in no hurry to provide an answer.
"I just know that I've always wanted to play two sports," Burke said, "and I'm just going to get the best results I can out of doing both."
Burke is in her second season as the starting keeper for the Gators, a program that has long been the class of the SEC. As a freshman, she ranked fourth in the league in goals-against average and tied for the third-most clean sheets in Florida history. She isn't the best keeper in a college landscape blessed with more proven hands, such as Wake Forest's Aubrey Bledsoe and Florida State's Kelsey Wys, but she is an agile, aggressive, 6-foot-1 presence. She is good with room to grow into great, something of a trend among college keepers.
"Taylor's a very good goalkeeper," said Duke coach Robbie Church, whose team is one of the few to find the back of the net more than once against her. "I'm seeing a lot of taller, really good athletes that maybe have played basketball or volleyball in the past really going into that position and becoming outstanding players."
Hope Solo -- tall, athletic and a goal scorer in her youth -- is the model of the modern keeper. She transformed a position long considered a weak link in the women's game into one of strength, demonstrating that the best athlete on the field could be the one in goal.
It's no surprise that Burke is a devotee of Solo. As the tall kid who stumbled into goalkeeping when nobody else on her youth team wanted to put on the gloves and the coach, who happened to be her father, asked her to help out, Burke grew up under the perception that good athletes weren't to be wasted in goal.
"A lot of people were surprised at my level of athleticism and me being in goal instead of playing in the field," Burke said. "People asked me why I was playing goalie if I could be running around using my athletic ability somewhere else on the field. But I just always loved keeper; it's where I've always been."
What level of athleticism are we talking about? The sort that allows her to contemplate the 2016 Olympics, not as Solo's understudy on the soccer field but as a member of the track and field team.
Come the end of the soccer season, Burke will trade her goalkeeper gloves for a new uniform, rejoining her other team at Florida. As good as she was on the soccer field as a freshman, she was arguably better in the high jump. A second-team All-American in the indoor track season, Burke won the SEC high-jump title in the outdoor season. While much of the world's attention was on the track and field events in London over the summer, Burke qualified for the IAAF World Junior Championships, held in Barcelona in July. Competing against the best high jumpers 19 years old or younger from across the globe, she turned in the best finish by an American woman.
"I think anyone competing at a high level wants to go to the Olympics," Burke said. "So I think that's something that I've set as a goal for myself."
She is nonetheless adamant that any such goal not force her to choose between sports. She made one concession to the realities of college athletics when she gave up basketball coming out of high school in Ohio, but soccer and the high jump remain a package deal. A high school All-American in soccer -- but recruited first, and in her opinion foremost, as a high jumper -- she found willing partners in two longtime Florida coaches: men's and women's track coach Mike Holloway and women's soccer coach Becky Burleigh.
The only criteria for consideration, said Holloway -- an assistant coach with the U.S. track team in London -- was whether Burke could help both teams in Gainesville. Neither program, each annually expected to contend for titles, could afford to indulge a hobby to help the other's recruiting effort. Burke's obvious physical gifts help on that count, her long limbs and explosiveness over short distances valuable both on the approach to the bar in the high jump and while navigating space around the goal in soccer. Her mental toughness helps in sports that share such public failure, whether it's the high-jump bar tumbling to the ground or the soccer ball settling into the back of the net. What makes her good in one serves her well in the other.
"There's a particular mindset to be a great athlete, period," Holloway said. "You have to have a certain drive, a certain determination. And for a high jumper, you kind of have to have the ability to forget. The field events are different than other events. When you're a high jumper, you might have a miss at 6-1, and you've got to forget that last miss and go on to the next attempt. If you still worry about the first-attempt miss, then the second attempt's not going to go very well. You've got to put those things out of your mind and move on to the next bar right away."
Burleigh, too, is comfortable sharing Burke, readily allowing her time over the summer that might otherwise have been allotted to soccer to compete in the junior world championships. Burleigh said the mental refresher that comes in shifting focus between sports is a plus for Burke. But when asked what kind of ceiling the sophomore has as a goalkeeper, the coach is blunt.
"If she was playing soccer year-round, then I would say a lot higher," Burleigh said. "To balance the two sports and to not have that real, true offseason, that's a challenge."
It isn't a challenge that Burke is ready to avoid by committing to one sport. Her personal best in the high jump is 6 feet, 1 inch. To get to Rio 2016, Holloway said, she needs to add at least three inches, and even more to think about winning a medal.
"With the changes she's made in her training model, the [improvements] she's made as far as her strength levels and speed levels, I think she's got a chance to be a 6-4, 6-5 high jumper," Holloway said. "But honestly, by Rio 2016, she may also be in line to be one of the goalies for the Olympic soccer team."
A self-professed soccer novice, Holloway offered the last prediction with a hint of mirth. But it says something about Burke's potential that both paths are within the realm of imagination.
Even if her future isn't on the pitch, perhaps it says something about the state of goalkeeping that one of its own might face the choice at all.