It’s 2019, and Young Matildas goalkeeper Teresa Morrissey is contemplating her choice of college at which to continue her football career. Down to three schools, on the face of it, a pair of SEC powerhouses in Tennessee and Florida stand out above Atlantic 10 side Rhode Island. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth, as Morrissey explains.
“Well, if I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t too stressed about the conferences because I didn’t really know too much about that, so that wasn’t too big of a factor for me,” Morrissey said. “So, I just went based off my major and how I felt I connected with the coaches.
“The coach at UF was awesome. She was very focused on the psychological aspect of the soccer but I was very much more technical and tactical, so that’s what drew me to URI more so than UF.
“And then Tennessee was awesome, but they were also very up in the air. They just didn’t seem as keen to have me as URI did, so I was definitely more drawn to the school that wanted me more.”
Many players would be sucked in by the idea of playing for a Power 5 school, but Morrissey’s decision to head to an elite mid-major league proved to be a masterstroke. The young Victorian earned the starting spot from day one, but not before a monumental battle in preseason as the two goalkeepers on the roster fought for a single position.
“The coaches were insinuating that my style of play was what they were looking for, but the second I stepped onto the ground it was definitely a battle. The goalkeeper I was up against at the time, who is now medically retired unfortunately, she’s an absolute beast. So, I was definitely fighting every second, every save, every step I was trying to do my absolute best to try to compete with her.
“But, now we have a new pool of goalkeepers and it’s the same exact thing, they’re incredible players so I’m still fighting just to keep my spot. So, basically, they did say they wanted me and I was going to be a good competitor, and that I would most likely get game time, but it was definitely a battle.
Of course, every position has its preseason battles, but goalkeeper is a unique position, which changes the stakes of that fight for playing time.
“There is definitely a lot more pressure (as a goalkeeper) based on game time, because generally coaches like to stick a goalkeeper in for 90 minutes rather than split the time. So, if you do want to play a full game you definitely have to perform.
“If you’re an outfielder, if you were a top-level player but you had some flaws in your play or style, you would still get time. But as a goalkeeper, you’re basically fighting for 90 minutes, so that is a challenge.”
However, coming from overseas meant Morrissey had additional adjustments to make. Standing at 5’10 (178cm), the Young Matildas shot-stopper had often had the physical advantage over her opponents at NPLW level, but in the US, physicality is key for all players. Suddenly, one of her major advantages had been significantly reduced. One may not think that physical play matters much for a goalkeeper, but as Morrissey explains, it certainly does have an effect.
“I knew that the American style of play was a lot more physical rather than tactical or technical, but I didn’t really know what I was expecting. Preseason was definitely an eye-opener to what the Americans go through, and then it became very apparent to me as to why the US national team is so good.
“I was one of the taller goalkeepers in the NPLW at the time. It was definitely a shock coming in, and not knowing anything about how they play and having to adapt to that. But at the same time, it was also helpful having played a different style of play, because once I learnt the new style I had both under my belt. That would go for almost every Aussie who goes to the States.
“It’s a little bit different, for an outfield player it would be more like running to get every single ball. But for a goalkeeper’s perspective of physical, it would be more about having power than having smarts on the ball. One of the biggest adaptations I had to make was being able to kick it further up field and being really good with my punting, and being able to go through a whole crowd of girls who are really big and strong.
“Back home, there’s not as much pressure to be as big and strong. But here, there definitely is because everyone’s competitive and they want the ball badly. They will knock you down and not worry about fouls, because they’re more lenient with that here. So, there was more pressure to be bigger and stronger and tougher on the ball.”
Of course, winning the starting job not only saw Morrissey earn playing time from day one, it also helped keep her in the eyeline of the Young Matildas coaching staff despite playing on the other side of the world. That made for an interesting season from that perspective, where coaches were watching but not in the traditional sense that Morrissey had experienced in Australia.
“When I was part of the team, the coach, Gary van Egmond, he was very adamant that he was going to keep an eye on me. Things changed a little bit when there was a change in staff, but at the same time, Leah Blayney, she communicated to me, ‘We’re still keeping an eye on you, can we see some game footage?’
“So, I was still feeling pressure to perform very well knowing there was a possibility that someone from back home could be watching, which would give me the opportunity to go back to the national team. But it was less prevalent. I remember training for W-League or playing in the NPLW, I knew there were always going to be coaches watching and there could be a national coach or W-League coach literally in the crowd, and there isn’t that here.
“In the back of my mind it was still there. But at the same time, it doesn’t really change your game because if you’re giving 100% every time, that shouldn’t matter.”
However, Morrissey’s decision to play at Rhode Island did give her the opportunity to play in her freshman season, something that may not have occurred at Tennessee or Florida. That in turn helped keep her in the frame at national level, as it became clear that she was performing at a high level for the Rams, and eventually Morrissey earned selection to the Young Matildas squad for the AFC Under 19 Women’s Championship, where the team finished fourth.
“I know there’s always a chance I could be first ‘keeper or a bench ‘keeper, but honestly that doesn’t matter to me because my first ultimate goal was to strive for the first spot. So, if I were the backup goalkeeper, I wouldn’t even be thinking about the national team, I would just be trying to become the first ‘keeper before that even became a thing.
“But at the same time, if I did go to a school like Tennessee or Florida, maybe (the national coaches) wouldn’t even ask for footage as much, but that would be naïve to say that they wouldn’t require it. So, I think going to a school where I could play and perform on camera, that definitely really helps. Because then, I wouldn’t rely on training footage as much.”
Also in Morrissey’s favour was the increasing legitimacy of the college pathway for Australian players, particularly in the wake of Teagan Micah’s astronomic rise with UCLA and the appointment of former college player Leah Blayney as Young Matildas coach.
“I feel like there’s a little bit of dispute when players are tossing up about their futures, when they’re 15, 16, 17, they don’t know what to do. Back home, it’s very different, there’s a lot of opportunities to play professional soccer when you’re younger. When you’re 14, you’re already looking to play professional back home, so people aren’t looking to go to college as much. It’s hard; unless you’re getting a full scholarship, it’s very, very expensive, and it’s tough, you’re away from home.
“But knowing that Leah did play for a college made me feel better that I made the right decision. I guess it gives it credibility in a sense, some people don’t agree with it, they don’t think the US style of play is very good and they disagree with it, but knowing that Leah did, who’s the national team coach, that was comforting.”
Morrissey may have performed admirably in her freshman season as Rhode Island improved from 0-17-1 in 2018 to 4-9-5 in 2019, but that is just the tip of the iceberg both on a personal level and for the team in the eyes of the sophomore goalkeeper. Defence has been the backbone of the Rhode Island team, with Morrissey obviously playing a massive part in that.
“We have some new recruits who were very impressive and it’s becoming more and more competitive where girls are wanting to play and compete and do well. We did a lot better last season than we did the previous season, so we’re looking to build on that even further.
“So, honestly I do have really high hopes for this team. I think every single player on this team is very talented, so we just need to find a way to come together and absolutely kill it on the field, especially offensively. But I don’t want to make predictions, we’re just thinking let’s play to our strengths and see how we go.”
“But I think we can and will do very well this year and I think we can get into the A-10 Tournament and I think we can win it, honestly.
“It was very hard last year, I think we did very well last year despite our season statistics where we had more losses than wins, but I will use this reasoning every single time: we had eight starting freshmen on the field, and we have done nothing but get better since then, so I think we can and will make A-10s and that is the goal.”
However, one thing stands in the way not only of Rhode Island’s success, but the season itself for each and every team: the effect of a COVID pandemic that continues to rage on in the United States almost unabated, something Morrissey is more aware of than most, with the Northeastern United States a noted hotspot.
“It’s also hard to make predictions when we haven’t been able to see other teams play or scrimmage against other teams, so we’re definitely waiting for the first game to see how we’re going to go as a team and then work from that. But unfortunately, our first game against Villanova actually got cancelled (due to COVID protocols), so that’s going to be put on hold a bit.
“But there is a lot of pressure to win every single game off the bat, because we have to win four out of the eight games to make the A-10s. If games get cancelled because of COVID then there’s a lesser chance we would make that tournament, so there is a little more pressure. I don’t know if that’s going to affect our game, like if girls are going to get nervous, but honestly, I think we can do it.
“It’s pretty difficult because everyone wants to play, and when we get told we can’t, and our resources get stripped away, it’s hard for everyone to keep their head up. COVID is very prevalent here (in Rhode Island), at one point it was the hotspot of the entire world. So when things get cancelled, part of us is like ‘Keep our heads up’, but part of us is like ‘Damn, Week 1 and things are already going badly.’
“So, there is a bit of negativity, but that’s not really toxic at all, it’s more of a ‘Come on guys, we just need to keep our heads up.’ But that’s inevitable with COVID, I think. It’s hard, because in my conference specifically they’re being super-strict – because a lot of us are in the Northeast where COVID is even more prevalent – than other schools, especially in the South or Midwest where they were basically going ahead as normal at one point when we were completely shut down. So that’s hard, but it is what it is so we just need to work through that.”
Getting through this season with all its trials and tribulations will take a ‘one day at a time’ strategy, but fortunately for Morrissey, that is how she takes things on anyway. With a history of knee problems, the Melburnian is well aware that a football career can be stripped away at any time, and it is not always wise to look too far into the future, whether that be in football or otherwise.
“I’m very healthy right now, I’ve done a lot of rehab. But I would be naïve to think that there wasn’t a chance that I could get injured again because I’ve struggled with knee injuries. So that’s always there, so I can never plan too far ahead in the future and be very adamant and work towards goals that would become unrealistic if something were to happen.
“So, I kind of take things day-by-day by now when it comes to soccer. I just try to better myself every day, and I don’t think about what could happen in the future for soccer, I just take every day as it comes. Honestly, because of my knee injuries, (the future) hasn’t been on my mind as much, so I’m just trying to get better for myself and perform as much as I can. But if the opportunities arise in the future, then I would probably just take them as they come.
“Even when I was going through the college soccer opportunity, I started it very, very late, so there was a lot of pressure to get things going once I did make the decision. But if that were to happen again, like if I were to complete my degree and I was tossing up whether to go into work fulltime or play soccer, I would basically just be weighing up the physical, financial benefits, just wherever I would be happy.
“If I’m a senior and I’m thinking ‘Ok, I absolutely love soccer, I love playing it, but it’s time for me to move on to my job,’ then I would do that. Or if there was an opportunity to go to Europe or back home and play professionally, then I would consider that. But it’s not something I think about all the time because I know that my mind is definitely going to change constantly.”
Given her current standing in the Young Matildas setup and her performances for Rhode Island to date, there is likely to be no shortage of coaches hoping that football is in Teresa Morrissey’s future.
There are also probably a lot of strikers in the Atlantic 10 Conference wishing that it wasn’t.