Imani Dorsey’s rookie season in the National Women’s Soccer League started differently than most. Selected fifth in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Dorsey was the first player selected to be in attendance in Philadelphia. But what few knew, until she revealed it in her speech at the podium after her name was called, was that Dorsey’s ride to the draft wasn’t as poised as her finishing in the final third.
Dorsey was supposed to fly from Durham, North Carolina, to Philadelphia the day before the draft, but due to bad weather she had multiple flights canceled.
“I remember being on the phone with my mom [after all the flights were canceled] and thinking I didn’t know if I wanted to go anymore, I didn’t know if I was going to get picked, and I just didn’t want to worry about that,” Dorsey told NWSL Media over the phone earlier this month, following her first professional season.
That was when her former assistant coach at Duke, Erwin van Bennekom, suggested they drive there together. Eight-plus hours later, the two arrived in Philadelphia at 2:30 a.m.
“The roads were really bad in North Carolina. They were very icy, so it was probably actually dangerous, but we knew it was going to get better in Virginia, so we just kept going. I guess that’s what kept me awake because it was kind of scary!”
Although surely sleepy-eyed by the time her name was called eight hours after she arrived in Philadelphia, Dorsey’s drive through the winter storm felt worth it. She would soon be joining a New Jersey team that was close enough to her family in Maryland and she would get to play again with her former Blue Devil teammate Christina Gibbons.
“I mean, I think the draft has kind of been the story of my whole season. That I would have initial apprehension, nerves and worries all before things would turn out better than I could have ever imagined.”
After Dorsey was drafted, she didn’t join Sky Blue right away because she had to complete her studies at Duke. Dorsey studied environmental science and policy at school and spent the beginning of the NWSL season completing her honors thesis along with balancing training. To stay fit and ready for when her time would come to join Sky Blue full-time, she practiced with her former team at Duke.
“Whenever they were training, I would play with them. I ran fitness on my own and lifted on my own,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey didn’t play for Sky Blue until June 8 and said that leading up to joining the team fully, getting signed to a contract, and then earning a starting position, reminded her of that long drive to the draft.
“It was crazy. I remember just seeing the results coming in at the beginning of the season,” Dorsey said of Sky Blue’s winless start. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, I need to show my worth and show that I belong on this team.'”
Dorsey did more than show she belonged — she ended up being voted 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year. After making her professional debut vs. the Washington Spirit, Dorsey went on to appear in 13 games for Sky Blue. She recorded 1,047 minutes, 12 starts, four goals and one assist.
“If you told me this at the beginning of the year, just knowing the quality and caliber of my class, I wouldn’t believe you,” Dorsey said of being named Rookie of the Year. “Everybody is so talented, competitive and smart in the NWSL. I remember it being a complete honor to play against some of these players.”
It’s natural as a rookie to feel at some point star-struck, and for Dorsey that moment came during her first road game against the Orlando Pride on June 16, where her team fell 3-2.
“Oh my gosh, Marta!” Dorsey said enthusiastically. “Marta came on the field and she was like in the corner and I had to pressure her on the corner. She looked like she was going to meg me and I was literally standing there defending her being like, ‘Okay, no matter what you do, do not get megged!’ I was just so in awe.”
While Dorsey may have been in awe of Marta that night, her performance wasn’t anything short of impressive either. In the 16th minute, Dorsey made an interception on a pass in the midfield. Dorsey’s steal sparked a fast break and sprung in fellow rookie Savannah McCaskill. Dorsey followed the play through and McCaskill played it back to Dorsey who ripped off a shot. Her shot was saved, but the rebound bounced to McCaskill, who finished the equalizing goal.
Dorsey finished that game with three shots, one key pass and five interceptions.
— NWSL (@NWSL) June 16, 2018
Five games into her rookie season, Dorsey scored her first professional goal against the Chicago Red Stars on July 7. In the 73rd minute, Sky Blue had an impressive team build up, starting from the backline and weaving all the way up to forward Carli Lloyd. Lloyd played in Savannah McCaskill, who slipped in a one-time flick pass to Dorsey, running into the box. Dorsey slid and finished with her right foot. Dorsey finished that game with three shots, all on target.
“Going to the cheesecake factory with Amandine Pierre-Louis and Shea [Groom] to get cheesecake is probably my favorite memory — that, and scoring my first professional goal … that was pretty exciting!”
Dorsey’s other favorite memory was when Sky Blue finally earned their first win of the season in their final game of the year, a 1-0 home win over the Orlando Pride.
“When we won that game, I think everybody was just at a loss for words,” Dorsey said. “It was a sigh of relief for the girls knowing how hard that was for everybody and it was just really great to celebrate with each other because we knew how much it meant.”
Sky Blue finished the season in last place with an overall record of 1-17-6 and nine points. Dorsey wasn’t shy to say that the season was rough, but one thing that helped her through it all was her host family. Dorsey lived with her former Duke teammate Schuyler DeBree’s family in New Jersey during the season.
“They are incredible. They kept my head above water and kept me focused. It was just a lot of the parental love I was needing at that point of my life.” Dorsey also added that their salmon, broccoli, brussels sprouts and rice dinner was one-of-a-kind.
On her team, Dorsey said everyone had a different person they would turn to during the season. “I definitely looked to Sarah Killion, Shea Groom, Rocky [Raquel Rodriguez] and Domi Richardson – those four girls I looked up to and admired. They felt like a good steady presence to me this season.”
From an icy overnight drive to Philadelphia in January, to months balancing school and training, to finally earning a professional contract and going on to win Rookie of the Year – it’s fair to say that it’s been quite the ride for Dorsey.