A W-League debutant for Adelaide United at age 16, Lara Kirkby appeared to hit the ground running with an assist in her first appearance for Oregon. However, after 1.5 years in Eugene, the South Australian has swapped northwest for northeast and headed to the University of Maine to continue her career. College Matildas caught up with Lara to gain some insight into her experiences at Oregon and also her hopes and plans for the future at Maine and beyond.
Players transfer for a number of reasons, but for Kirkby, her transfer came about more from footballing necessity. After playing 9 minutes in her freshman year and 176 minutes across 10 appearances in her sophomore campaign in 2022, a desire for more consistent playing time and a different style of play made transferring the best option for the former Reds midfielder.
“Honestly, I enjoyed Oregon as my first stop in the US,” Kirkby explained. “Moving across the world is a challenge for anyone, especially for me because I committed during COVID, so I never got to visit the universities. I was kind of going in blind, to be honest. What did help though was Rachael Doyle, a former Matilda, was part of the coaching team with Graeme Abel and she did help introduce me into Oregon”.
“I would say Oregon’s got a good system and set up. It’s very regulated and structured. It was definitely challenging; getting game time, especially when I went from playing NPL consistently into a Ducks team that retained a lot of players through the COVID period.”
“So that was honestly a big adjustment. The press is extremely different to what you see in Australia. Technically, Oregon definitely plays a certain style of soccer, which was great to learn and develop aspects of my game. But, for me, I wanted to play a more technical style through the midfield. And I feel like Maine is a better place for me to do that than maybe Oregon was. But Oregon taught me a huge amount, and I definitely improved.”
“But obviously, I wanted to develop more as a soccer player. And I felt like Maine was a better place for me to do that. And I have a completely different experience on the east coast.”
However, a player doesn’t simply skip from one side of the country to the other without some sort of process. In the transfer portal era, every coach knows a player is transferring, meaning the contact from coaches came thick and fast for Kirkby, with the sophomore left to whittle down the list based on her own criteria. A Pac-12 Honour Roll and College Sports Communicators Academic All-District selection during her time at Oregon, there were certainly both academic and athletic factors at play.
“I mean, the portal is overwhelming; the number of emails you get and the conversations you have with coaches. For me, it was very much about weighing up; I was quite interested in the east coast. So, I was speaking to a few Ivies, like UPenn, because I’m academically quite strong. So that was definitely something I had in mind. And the East Coast has a lot of great schools in that sense. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, something different, you know, done the west coast, let’s go east coast!’ But when I really spoke to all the different coaches at different schools; I mean, I had a few California schools reached out, but I wasn’t that keen on going to California. I really wanted to go east coast. I knew it was the best decision for me, especially after speaking to a few of my other teammates, because Oregon had quite a few transfers who were also leaving.”
“Then once the Maine coaches were talking to me, I was very interested. And then I had an official visit just before I left for Australia for winter break. And I loved Maine straight away, the girls were just so inclusive and the culture in the team and the training, I just loved it all.”
“For me, the biggest two things were definitely, one, style of play. I wanted a team that really looked to play through their midfield. Which Maine definitely does; I think this team has a lot of potential. We have a lot of internationals, which is really nice. And we play a very creative attacking style of football, which I really enjoy. But I think then in defence, we still have that American style press and ruthlessness, which I think creates a very interesting blend, which has been really fun to play in.”
“And then my other big criterion was just having a place that felt like a family, especially with the coaching staff. My coaches here, Scott (head coach Scott Atherley) and Liis (assistant coach Liis Abbott) are extremely supportive, very open communication. And I just feel like it’s got a real family feel and that they definitely have a keen interest in my development.”
“That was definitely something, when I was talking to different schools, that Maine grabbed me straight away with their language and how they spoke and how they communicated, and then just their philosophy of play and the treatment of all the players and the scheduling, it worked really well.”
“The other thing that I really loved about Maine is they’re a huge research school. So academically, they have a really good biochemistry degree, which is what my major is. So, I really liked how they had such a research focus and that there were so many opportunities to work in different labs and to go into different programs.”
“I think going into the US college system really instilled a good work ethic in me. I’ve always said I’m a hard-working player, but I think the organisation needed, you have to balance so much. I mean, school, soccer, social life’s important, all of that. So, I really worked hard to keep a good level on all fronts. So, I think learning how to navigate that, especially being away from home and not having Mum to wash my clothes and cook me food was something that was difficult to begin with, but it’s definitely helped me grow as a person.”
At Maine, Kirkby will play in the America East conference and face off against a UMBC side featuring fellow Australians Annie Grove and Isy Davy as she looks to help bring success to a Black Bears side that lost in the conference semi-finals in 2022 after finishing third in the regular season.
“I want us to win our conference. I know Maine lost last year to UNH in the playoffs. So, I definitely want to win the conference. And I definitely want to make the tournament. At Oregon that was the big goal as they’d never made it, and it something I still want to do. I would love to make the tournament.”
With two years of invaluable experience in the bank and a promising beginning to her time in Maine, things are certainly looking up for Lara Kirkby. What the future holds remains to be seen, but the former Adelaide United midfielder definitely appears to have used the experiences she has gained to put herself in the best position to succeed going forward.