“A Diamond in the Rough.” “A Hidden Gem.”

Those two phrases are commonly used when referring to a player who is selected in a later round of an American professional sports draft, but has the potential to have a big impact on their new team.

In the National Women’s Soccer League, a league that only has four rounds in its annual college draft, this phrase gets thrown out the door. You look at the amount of schools in the US that field women’s soccer programs (333 to be exact, and that’s at the Division I level only) and almost every one of those teams believes they have at least a player or two who could compete at the next level. For teams that play in the so-called power conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12 and SEC, it’s more like four or five players per team that could play professional soccer.

With only 40 players being selected every year in the NWSL Draft, there are a number of talented players that don’t even get drafted, let alone get selected in the later rounds. Which is why teams don’t take their picks lightly in the third and fourth round, because there is a very good chance they will land a player with a whole lot of upside.

So you can be sure that there was a lot of excitement around the Portland Thorns table when they were able to land Tyler Lussi of Princeton University with the first pick of the third round in the 2017 NWSL Draft.

Lussi just wrapped up her decorated collegiate career this past November by establishing new school records in career goals scored (53) and career points (122) along with garnering All-American status in the previous two years by the NSCAA as well as being a three-time Ivy League first team performer.

The Lutherville, MD native will be joining a Thorns team that boasts strikers like Canadian international Christine Sinclair, Danish international Nadia Nadim and Australian forward Hayley Raso. Lussi’s work will be cut out for her once camp starts in a few weeks if she wants to try to get herself major minutes right from the get-go. But for someone who loves getting out onto the field and competing for every inch, she will be up for the challenge.

“She is going to be pushed,” said Sean Driscoll, her coach at Princeton. “She is going to be asked to give her very best to get on the field and I think it is going to be good for her. I think that Portland is going to be a great environment for her to be in. She’s led this team for the last couple of years and now it is an opportunity for her to kind of in a way, start over [with Portland].”

Tyler Lussi in action for Princeton (Picture courtesy of Beverly Schaefer/Princeton University)

 

Having That Necessary Hardworking Forward

“I’m very intense, all the time, in almost everything that I do.“

Lussi’s description of her playing characteristics will no doubt endear her to the Portland fans right from the start. In her playing days for the Tigers, she was someone who would always be active right from the opening whistle. She would scrap for loose balls in the front line while terrorizing defenses with blazing pace, all while possessing a deft scoring touch inside the box.

That work rate up front was a big reason why Portland Thorns Head Coach Mark Parsons selected her with the 21st overall pick. Within the Portland team that already has many talented forwards, her persistent hustle is something that the Thorns will key on in the lead up to the season.

“There was a lot of forwards in this draft and a lot of different types of forwards in this draft,” said Parsons. “In this league, you have to have players that are going to have the mentality and the physical ability to work hard and press and while Tyler scores goals, she can create and do other things. When I think of her, her biggest strengths are going to be able to press in the front, cause mistakes and attract attention so other players can get more space and time. I think Tyler can give us that work rate, that tenacity and the defensive pressure that we need.”

And as someone who has had the privilege to broadcast a few of her games during her collegiate career, that business-like approach on the field is always evident. But there is a driving passion in her expression as well, which was something that Driscoll saw immediately when he took over the Princeton program prior to the 2015 season.

“Tyler is a kid who just thrives on pressure. She is just supremely focused, determined, passionate and really has a professional mentality as far as I’m concerned. She already has all the intangibles to be successful.”

A Seven-Game War

While people surrounding the professional game can spot these characteristics from a distance, there is always the question that surrounds every first year player before coming into the NWSL: can they handle the pace and the physicality of the American Women’s professional game?

We’ve seen seasoned European professional players come to this league and have had real issues translating their prior success over into this league. Some have compared run-of-the-mill regular season games to having the same amount of physicality and intensity of a World Cup or a Champions League Final. In every NWSL contest, there’s hardly time for someone to take more than one or two touches before a defender comes in with a hard challenge.

For those who haven’t watched Ivy League women’s soccer before, the play in that league is described as a seven-game war. In conference play, you play the other seven Ivies once and the team with the most points at the end of the season wins the title. That’s it. There’s no postseason tournament to give teams a second chance. You either win the title or you don’t.

With having to adapt a battle-like mentality the moment you step foot into an Ivy program, every game sees the physicality and pace of play elevate because one mistake can cost you the title. Lussi believes that playing in the Ivy League has prepared her well for what lies next in her career with the Thorns.

“Each game is basically a championship,” she said. “You have to win each game in order to improve in the rankings. Going into each game as the captain this past year, I knew how to prepare my team and make sure that they were focused and ready. Especially for the younger girls who may not fully understand the importance of each game as the first game of the Ivy season is as important as the last one. I think that prepared me throughout my four years and now going into the professional league, I know that winning mentality is needed.”

And sure, while the physicality is there, the league also displays a very high level of talent on the field as well. Lussi said the Ivy League is sometimes ‘underrated’ as a soccer conference because there aren’t as many opportunities to schedule some of the top teams in the NCAA. But the truth of the matter is the conference draws some of the best talent in the game. You look at Princeton on their own and Lussi will be the fourth player to play in the NWSL, joining Canadian international Diana Matheson, who has been a standout for four years with the Washington Spirit, along with Jen Hoy of the Chicago Red Stars on current active rosters, while Lauren Lazo had a stint with the Boston Breakers a couple of seasons ago. Elsewhere in NWSL, “Ancient Eight” alumnus, Yale’s Meredith Speck won a title with the Western New York Flash last year and Harvard’s Midge Purce was drafted ninth overall this year by the Breakers.

Driscoll even noted that since he is in the recruiting process for future seasons, no longer do prospective candidates turn down opportunities, especially due to the fact that Ivy schools do not give out athletic scholarships, but they want to come to these schools for the experience of playing for these institutions.

“[Princeton] and all the IVY League schools are all in the mix for some of the best players in the country. You make a phone call to the any player in the process and for the most part, you’re getting a phone call back. That is all you need to know. The name is going to get you some interest. When I look across the IVY League, everybody has really good players.”

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A Strong Mental Game Heading to Camp

The other part of the game that Lussi has in her favor prior to embarking on her journey to the Northwest corridor is a strong mental game. Not only does she excel on the field, but wrapping up a degree from Princeton, or from any Ivy League school for that matter, as well is something remarkable. That was something that Parsons acknowledged about her and the other Ivy Leaguers in the NWSL as not only are they gifted athletes but gifted all-around people.

“Every game [in the Ivy League] on the pitch is a battle but what they have to do off the pitch, just to balance life and school is amazing. To be an elite athlete is one thing but to be an elite student and doing both at the same time…they are all made of some special stuff. They have developed the ability to do special things through real perseverance.”

With all the intangibles that Lussi brings to the table, whether it’s her tenacity and persistent work rate up top, her passion for her craft or her strong mental game, she stands as good of a chance to not only make the Thorns team, but to be a key figure up in the Rose City.

And with the Thorns recently announcing that they will host Chicago, Houston and the United States U-23 Women’s National Team in a preseason tournament in late March, that will be as good of an opportunity for her to experience everything that professional soccer in Portland has to offer. Including the chance to play in front of the heralded Rose City Riveters and the team’s massive fan base.

Princeton’s Roberts Stadium has a capacity of 2,500 and the Thorns drew nearly seven times more that number on average at Providence Park during the 2016 season. When asked about how Lussi felt playing in front of big crowds, instead of being fazed, she is looking forward to the prospect of playing on that grand stage.

“I’m looking forward to playing in front of huge crowds. It’s always good to have a 12th man and usually the crowd is that 12th man. I’m just excited and ready to play in front of them.”