Abby Dahlkemper: Team USA's ever-evolving defensive dynamo

Samantha Mewis of the USA and teammate Abby Dahlkemper celebrate following their sides victory in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match against The Netherlands (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Samantha Mewis of the USA and teammate Abby Dahlkemper celebrate following their sides victory in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match against The Netherlands (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

You may not have heard the name Abby Dahlkemper as much as Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan or Carli Lloyd, but the central defender has become a key member of the Team USA women's football team. The world champion spoke to Tokyo 2020 about her constant desire to improve, her move to Manchester City in the middle of a pandemic and her high hopes to reach her first Olympic Games – and win some gold – this summer in Japan.

Abby Dahlkemper is always ready to pounce.

Watch her on the pitch, with the USA women’s national team or with her club side Manchester City, and you’ll see her at the beating heart of defence, ever-ready to take that step forward to snuff out the danger.

It’s been that way forever.

“When I was a kid and it was time to go to practice, I was always just so excited,” the 27-year-old told Tokyo2020 ahead of a pair of pre-Olympic friendlies with France and Sweden in the coming days. “While other kids were out there picking the grass or talking to each other, I was excited about practising. Soccer felt like home to me from the start.”

She started out as a self-described “tenacious” and “aggressive” striker during her youth in Menlo Park, California (near San Francisco). But Dahlkemper has developed – with more than a little gentle prodding from coaches in the Team USA youth set-up – into one of the best defenders in the women’s game.

“All I wanted was to play for the national team,” remembered Dahlkemper. “And here I am in [youth team] camp and if they see a future in me as a defender I’m ready to fully embrace that and give it all I have.”

Abby Dahlkemper of the USA (L) shares a joke with Megan Rapinoe of the USA (R) during the USA Training Session at Lyon Training Center in 2019 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Abby Dahlkemper of the USA (L) shares a joke with Megan Rapinoe of the USA (R) during the USA Training Session at Lyon Training Center in 2019 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

Now a veteran player, her ability on the back-line isn’t a matter of throwing herself, like a blanket, over opposition fires. Her reading of the game and her vision in planting the seeds of attack give her a rare dimension. And it’s all the result of hard work and courage and a willingness to put herself in difficult situations.

A willingness to seek out challenges has made Dahlkemper the player she is today.

Comfort zones breed complacency

Dahlkemper doesn’t like comfort zones. She’ll tell you. Complacency and self-congratulation live there. It’s just not what she’s about. She’s on an endless quest to improve and press her limits ever outward.

“It [the move to Manchester City in January 2021] was a new opportunity and a way to grow, maybe just learn some new things that I wasn’t accustomed to,” she said about the two-and-a-half year contract she signed, and the move to England after winning NWSL’s Defender of the Year honours in 2017 and scooping three NWSL titles (twice with North Carolina Courage and once with the Western New York Flash). “I stepped out of my comfort zone in every way – personally, socially. In every facet of my life.”

Dahlkemper had to leave her new husband, Aaron Schoenfeld – a fellow professional footballer about to start his MLS season whom she married in a private ceremony in that same January that saw her pull up stakes and head for England. She left her family and her beloved dog Bobby behind too – and all that in the middle of a global pandemic.

“During times of change and adversity, I think you grow a lot as a person,” insisted Dahlkemper, whose ability to deliver pinpoint crosses from corners and free-kicks has developed into another dangerous weapon in her arsenal. “And so I saw it as a chance to keep evolving my game and to grow and learn new things.”

There was one constant, though, when Dahlkemper arrived in the rainy north of England. Her fellow national teammate Sam Mewis, among her best friends since the two won a collegiate national championship together at UCLA in 2013, was already there at the club (along with Rose Lavelle – the midfield spark-plug who scored the winner for the USA against the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup final).

“She’s been so consistent in her desire to get better all the time and to always want to improve,” added Mewis about Dahlkemper’s arrival at Man City, among the most progressive clubs in the women’s game, where keeping control of the ball and building from the back are prerequisites.

Fresh start in a new City

It wasn’t a surprise that City came looking for Dahlkemper, who’s grown – through a never-ending search for new possibilities to improve her game – into perhaps the most modern defender in women’s football. “For me, it’s about organising my teammates and doing everything I can to get the ball back,” said Dahlkemper. “You have to be smart and communicate well and, you know, help keep the ball out of the net. As defenders, we celebrate tackles and clean sheets the way forwards celebrate goals. It means you did your job.”

Dahlkemper does that more mundane part of the game – the harrying and tackling and standing up to the world’s best attackers every weekend – with aplomb. But where she’s risen above many of her peers is in the sparking of attacks. She’s always leaning forward and ready to move into open space, to send her team off with a controlled ball whenever the possibility exists.

That’s the difference between good and great. It’s the difference between staying in your comfort zone and pushing out into the unknown.

Abby Dahlkemper of Manchester City WFC during Women's UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match against ACF Fiorentina (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
Abby Dahlkemper of Manchester City WFC during Women's UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match against ACF Fiorentina (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
2021 Getty Images

It's no surprise that Dahlkemper played the most minutes of any outfield player at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup – her first trip to the world’s biggest stage. She started every game in France, where the Americans picked up their fourth World Cup title and she was at the heart of a rearguard that conceded just three goals (one of those an own-goal) in the space of seven game – approximately 11 hours of football.

“She’s the complete package,” enthused former coach Paul Riley of the North Carolina Courage, where Dahlkemper rose to the pinnacle of the American club scene with national crowns in 2018 and 2019 and a runners-up finish in 2017. “She’s just growing and growing.”

It’s been a long road to world champion and elite defender from her first cap for Team USA back in October of 2016.

“It was in Utah, in fall, and all I remember is being really nervous and really thankful,” she said, not knowing that a career-threatening septic infection in her foot would delay her second appearance for the United States for almost a full year. “You have this super far-out goal in mind and then you finally reach it...and it’s really just a dream come true.”

Of the USA women’s World Cup victory in 2019, in which the team scored 26 goals and won all seven of their games, Dahlkemper – crucial to that success – predictably passed on the praise.

“It took 23 of us to win that World Cup,” said the centre-back, who pointed to the quarterfinal win over hosts France in Paris as the “turning point” when things really clicked. “We all looked at each other after that game and said: ‘this is our time – let’s do this’.”

Ticker tape and champagne on Broadway

The American team returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

A massive ticker-tape parade down Broadway in Lower Manhattan ushered them to the steps of City Hall in New York City where the entire squad received the keys to the city.

“We were really in a bubble in France in order to not let outside noise or distraction in,” Dahlkemper said. “But to see how many people were supporting us back home, and all who came out to celebrate, it was just such a special moment...again, a dream come true."

There’s another possible dream come true on the horizon too. The 2020 (in 2021) Tokyo Games would be Dahlkemper’s first Olympics. While the 18-women US team hasn’t been named yet, the defender is in the squad for two away April friendlies against Sweden and France. And it would be a shocker if she weren’t among the first names down on new coach Vlatko Andonovski’s squad-list for the Games in Japan this summer.

“The standards are high,” said Dahlkemper looking ahead to the Games, which the USA women will start as favourites to win their fifth gold medal and their first since 2012. “If I’m on that roster it will be all about trying to get right down to the task at hand and, with the US women’s national team, that’s always about winning a gold."

Dahlkemper, obsessed with getting better, has become a bellwether for the US national team. As she improves, the team improves. Her progress is the group’s progress.

And this humble player, poised always to take that crucial step forward, is ready to defend again the colours of the United States and the tradition of its trailblazing women's national team. “It’s important not to get too far ahead,” she concluded, careful always to be cautious. “But I’m embracing my role in the team and embracing being a defender. I take pride in it.”

Valerie Gauvin of France is challenged by Abby Dahlkemper of the USA during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France quarter-Final match against France (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Valerie Gauvin of France is challenged by Abby Dahlkemper of the USA during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France quarter-Final match against France (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images