NWSL Player Spotlight: Darian Jenkins, Relaxing Before the Battle

By Grant Wiedenfeld

Photo by Michael Cox

 

Darian Jenkins is the kind of high-caliber forward who adores the West Coast vibe. “Washington is such a chill state,” she said. “I love being back on the West Coast. It’s outdoorsy and everyone is kind of lax.” Amid a season where her team, Reign FC, has dramatically lost eleven starters to injury and seen even more players miss time, including herself, the tranquil vistas of Puget Sound soothe her nerves. “Tacoma is beautiful,” she repeats. “It’s just beautiful here.”

That chill vibe seems to have drawn coach Vlatko Andonovski west as well. “He’s definitely a player’s coach,” Jenkins confirms. She describes her latest evolution as a player under Andonovski began with a simple focus on her abilities as a one-on-one attacker: “It’s great to have a coach give you that confidence and ability to trust what you’re good at,” she says. “I don’t know that I’ve had that before.” That boost in confidence must be a key reason that Andonovski is rumored to be the top candidate for the USWNT head coaching position, likely to be announced after the NWSL playoffs at the end of October.


Courage to Reign
When Reign FC head to North Carolina for the semifinal match this Sunday, they’ll encounter the frenetic East Coast style of the Courage, coached by Paul Riley, whom Jenkins also knows well. Drafted by the Courage in 2017, Jenkins spent her first two years under Riley’s tutelage. “Paul Riley was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” she said, unprompted. “He challenged me to work on a lot of aspects of my game.” After suffering a lower leg fracture during her senior year at UCLA, which limited her speed and athleticism, Jenkins devoted herself to developing her technique and becoming a more well-rounded player. Seeing time mostly as a late substitute, the young forward scored a game-winning goal in the 2018 International Champions Cup semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain. The Courage went on to win the inaugural tournament title, followed by both the NWSL Shield and championship. That trifecta has made them a favorite this year.

A December 2018 trade brought Jenkins to the Reign, where she looked for the opportunity to start games at forward in 2019. Her season highlight undoubtedly came in the September 7 match against Orlando. Jenkins scored a brace, her first as a professional. “To be able to score one goal was good, but two goals was really good,” she emphasized, with relaxed enthusiasm. “I like to do 1v1 and put texture on shots,” she said of the second goal. “It was fun to do that in a game where it matters, rather than in practice.” The feat earned her NWSL Player of the Week honors.

Her stylish finish is reminiscent of Dottie, the Geena Davis character in A League of Their Own, who makes acrobatic catches and clutch hits. “My parents always have that movie on rotation at home,” she says, referring to her hometown in the Salt Lake City area. “I love that it’s about women’s sports, which is such a rarity,” she said. But a baseball movie?


Hollywood Bruin
“I would cringe if someone said Bend it Like Beckham was their favorite movie,” admits Jenkins. That’s the voice of a UCLA alum who spent “a good chunk of money” attending premieres in Westwood. The English and American Politics major also interned at a company where she read scripts and suggested actors for roles in them, so she certainly has the authority to criticize a movie whose soccer scenes do not portray women athletes in the best light. What Hollywood needs to produce, she suggests, is a women’s soccer variant of Remember the Titans that brings people from all around the globe together through the sport — but please don’t put Keira Knightley in cleats ever again.

Hollywood is not as laid back as Tacoma. During her junior year at UCLA, Jenkins recalls being overwhelmed by taking five courses, doing an internship, plus coaching and training. What saved her from burnout was a personal coach who broke the spell. “Hey, relax!” she remembers hearing. “Footy is supposed to be your place for fun.” Her idea of relaxation was working on technique and studying the game all through the offseason and summer, which led to her senior year in 2016 beginning “with a bang.” She notched a hat trick in an eight-minute span in the first game of the season at San Diego State.

Jenkins was part of UCLA’s 2013 NCAA championship team with Abby Dahlkemper and Samantha Mewis, who are now US national team stars as well as fellow NWSL colleagues. This summer Jenkins eagerly awoke at 5 am to watch the USWNT at the World Cup games. But those two also play for North Carolina, the Reign’s opponent this weekend. There will be ninety minutes of “battle time,” as she calls it, before they can see each other in a friendly context.

New Zealander Rosie White was also on that UCLA squad, and joined Reign FC this season after the World Cup. “She’s a great human and a great friend,” Jenkins said of White. “I played with her for two years at UCLA so being able to see a familiar face in the locker room and to pick back up on that chemistry is really fun.”

UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell also left a lasting impression on Jenkins. “She’s wise. She was the first head female coach I’ve ever had,” the former Bruin realized. “It was inspiring to have a legend as our head coach, and to see someone who had paved the way for what we have now.” Cromwell was on the USWNT for the 1995 World Cup and 1996 Olympics. “She’s wise,” described her former player.


Tranquil Tacoma
If there’s an equivalent sage on the Reign for Jenkins, her name is Michelle Betos. The veteran goalkeeper was drafted by Seattle in 2013 and played for the Portland Thorns and Valerenga (among other clubs) in Norway before rejoining the Reign in 2018. “She’s very in tune with the team. If someone’s having an off day Michelle is always the first to reach out.” On occasion, Tacomans might come across Betos sipping coffee while listening to a Reign teammate. “She’s an experienced player who’s been through it all, and can give you perspective on things.”

Jenkins learned a professional approach to relaxing off the field. Skiing at Snowbird or snowboarding at Brighton are out of the question, so her tools to decompress include yoga and meditation in the Tacoma setting. “I love how green it is here,” said the Utah native. But does the rain exacerbate difficult moments that have come during the season? “It’s not bad at all. It’s just beautiful here,” she asserted.

Jenkins clearly feels at home in Cheney Stadium, where the Reign moved for the 2019 season from the older Memorial Stadium in downtown Seattle. When asked about her most memorable moment so far this season, Jenkins replied, “Our last home game at Cheney Stadium.” A large crowd came out to see the Reign take on their Cascadia rival, the Portland Thorns. The home team prevailed 2–0 and sealed a berth in the playoffs. She said of that moment: “We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season so to be able to end on a high like that in our home stadium was great.”


Season’s End and Endless Summer
Jenkins and Reign FC will have to leave Tacoma to face North Carolina in the semifinal, but she hopes to find good vibes on that familiar turf. “The match should be intense because [Carolina] runs the entire game,” she anticipated. “We know their style, we know how they’re going to come out. So it’s another game where you have to bring your best game to match them.” The winner of Sunday’s battle will move on to the NWSL championship game, also to be held in Cary, North Carolina, against the winner of the Chicago versus Portland semifinal.

Like a surfer chasing endless summer, Jenkins will head to Melbourne, Australia to play with the Victory in the W-League for the 2019-20 off-season. “Who wouldn’t want another summer?” she chuckled. Jenkins hopes that Reign teammate Lydia Williams, who also plays goalkeeper for Melbourne City, will introduce her to the Aussie way of life. Putting a few goals past the City keeper will surely be the best way to chill down under.​

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