When Meghan Klingenberg, the starting left-back for the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup triumph in 2015, introduced herself to Simone Charley, the forward could not help but be starstruck.
After the disappointment of not being selected in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Charley received a phonecall from Mark Parsons, the Portland Thorns head coach who guided the team to the NWSL Shield in 2016 and the Championship in 2017.
Suddenly, she was almost 3000 miles from her hometown of Alabama, surrounded by stars such as Christine Sinclair, the all-time leading international scorer, and Tobin Heath, another World Cup winner and USWNT icon.
Recounting the memory of her first day with the Thorns to Goal, Charley laughs. “Kling comes up to me and is like, 'Hi, I'm Meghan Klingenberg, what's your name?' and introduces herself,” she recalls. “I remember being like, 'Of course I know who you are. I know your whole life story. I know you won the last World Cup!' But trying to be cool.
“Same with Sinc, who's literally just an absolute legend. Those first few training sessions, I had to pinch myself. I'm doing this warm up lap and Sinc's right here, and I'm calling her Sinc! Or Tobin's here. Just different players that you grew up watching on TV and now they're out there on the field with you.
“I think for a little bit, I struggled with imposter syndrome. Just like, should I really be here? Do I deserve to be here? But you have to grow into that and figure out who you are and your identity on the team.”
Charley has certainly done that. After not making the team in 2018, she stayed in Portland as a training player before securing a contract the following season. Today, she is a regular starter for a team that remains littered with stars.
The ‘pinch yourself’ moments have not stopped either.
Charley won the Fall Series last year and the Challenge Cup in May. The former secured Portland’s entry into this summer’s International Champions Cup, where they will face the Houston Dash, seven-time European champions Lyon and Barcelona, who won this year’s Women’s Champions League final.Goal
“Lyon has a storied reputation and the same for Barcelona, especially after winning the Champions League. I'm really excited to play them. It'll be a great competition and a great test for us,” Charley says, with the tournament to kick-off in August in Portland.
“I am excited to see a couple of old team-mates, Ellie [Carpenter] is playing for Lyon and Ana [Maria Crnogorcevic] for Barcelona.”
As for players she would like to test herself against? “I would say Wendie Renard. She's a phenomenal player. Then I would say Lieke Martens. She had a phenomenal Champions League final especially.”
Talk of the tournament prompts Charley to emphasize how grateful she is to have these opportunities, just over three years on from the day when her name was never called.
“I was actually in class during the draft, so I was watching it on mute in the middle of class, with one of my friends,” the forward remembers.
“We were both entered in and just patiently waiting for our names to be called. Then the last name is called and it's not mine.
"I remember being just really disappointed after and then just kind of figuring out like, 'okay, well, what am I going to do? And what is that going to look like?'”Getty
Once that call came from Portland, Charley would cross paths with someone who would help her navigate the path.
Kelli Hubly was undrafted the previous year, but secured a deal with the Thorns and has been a valuable member of their squad since.
“Seeing her perseverance up close and personal is something that was inspiring to me,” Charley says. “She was someone that I definitely leaned on during my time here.
“There'd just be times where, if I was going through it mentally, I'd be like, 'hey, Kelly, can we talk for a little bit? This is what I'm thinking. This is what I'm going through'. She'd be like, 'Yeah, same thing'.
“I remember her always telling me that you think getting a contract and being on the team, once you achieve that, then all your problems are solved and everything just falls into place.
“She'd always remind me that, once that happens, then it's going to be, ‘okay, now I want to play’. Then once you play, ‘okay, I want to start and then I want to score'.
"It's always going to keep going, so you need to learn to just be content where you're at and find peace where you're at. I remember that stood out to me.”
Add in the support of her family back home, her host family in Portland and her own hard work, and Charley has overcome the many challenges of her journey to establish herself on one of the best rosters in the league.
Her efforts on and off the pitch, for a club with a huge presence in the community, has won her the adoration of the “amazing” fans, too.
Charley has already got involved with three local charities during her time in Portland - Mimi’s Fresh Tees, a local clothing brand that designs t-shirts with important social justice messages; the Three Little Kings Library, set-up by “the three sweetest little boys” who donate books featuring children of color to libraries; and the Maurice Lucas Foundation, who work with at-risk youth.
As for her future goals, the forward talks about being “focused on being the best NWSL player that I can be”, but has long-term ambitions of progressing onto the international stage too, be it with the USWNT or even England, with her currently working on dual citizenship through her English mother.
Starstruck moments and imposter syndrome might be the memories of her early days in the NWSL, but Charley no doubt belongs on this stage now – and she is ready for more.