Sandy, Utah — McCall Zerboni didn’t want to get ahead of herself, even when U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis was on the other end of the phone.
“Saw 310 area code, which is obviously Los Angeles, pop up on my phone and just answered it like, ‘Hello, this is McCall,’ like normal day stuff. ‘McCall, it’s Jill Ellis.’ And I just felt like a flutter in my heart,” Zerboni said on Tuesday. “I didn’t get ahead of myself. I knew it could’ve been maybe about something else or you know she had a question, but lo and behold she was inviting me into camp.”
And so the Courage midfielder is in Utah this week, her second-ever call-up to the U.S. women’s national team. Her first came last October, just days after the end of the NWSL season, and ahead of a United States friendly in Cary, North Carolina, at the Courage home field. A few players originally named to the roster, like Mallory Pugh and Tobin Heath, were out because of injuries, and Andi Sullivan returned to college after the United States’ first friendly in New Orleans.
Zerboni was called in just two days before the match, and ended up playing the entire second half in her international debut vs. Korea Republic.
“The first time I got called in it was just kinda because of injuries and things just kinda fell my way and it happened to be in my backyard, so as much as it was a great honor being called up, I didn’t really have like a full camp. The fact that I did get to get into a game and get a cap was just really cool,” Zerboni said.
“Now that I get a full camp, it’s been really enlightening and such a growing and learning experience to see like how they do it in this program and in this environment. I’ve always admired these players from afar and a lot of them I haven’t played with, some of them I have.”
Unlike last time, when the team met her in North Carolina, this time Zerboni, along with four of her Courage teammates, traveled to Utah last Thursday, the day after their 4-1 win over the Thorns. They began training for Thursday night’s game at Rio Tinto Stadium vs. China PR.
thank you everyone.
— McCall Zerboni (@McCaLL2) May 30, 2018
“She picked up a little bit of a knock coming in, but has trained very well, showed very well. I’ve known McCall probably since she was about 16, 17,” Ellis said on Wednesday of Zerboni, who she coached in college at UCLA. “She’s an incredible professional. Fantastic feet. Great vision. Good teammate. And I’ve seen all of those things at this point in camp with her.”
One of those Courage teammates in Utah with her, Sam Mewis, is perhaps Zerboni’s biggest fan.
“Well, [Courage head coach] Paul [Riley] had maybe mentioned to me that it was like on the table,” Mewis said on Wednesday of the possibility that Zerboni would get the call for this camp.
“So I like didn’t want to think too much about it yet until I knew. And then one day in the training room she was like, ‘Sam, do you know?’ and I was like, ‘Know what?’,” Mewis said, barely hiding her excitement, “and she was like ‘I’m coming into camp.’ And I just had just found out about myself too, so it was like double good news.”
Zerboni was named to the 2017 NWSL Best XI and has been perhaps even stronger in the NWSL this year. She earned the first Player of the Week award of her NWSL career in Week 3. She then won her second in Week 5, one of the few times a non-goalkeeper has won the honor without recording a goal or an an assist. She finished second for Player of the Month in both April and May.
A deep dive into stats from Opta shows Zerboni near the top of a number of categories: tackles won (34, 1st in the NWSL), duels won (124, 2nd), interceptions (42, 2nd) and total touches (798, 4th). Even in aerial duels won, Zerboni – listed at 5’3” – is tied for seventh with 34 (winning 64%). She’s also been more disciplined. After earning four yellow cards in nine games to start last season, she has just two in her last 27 games. And she’s chipped in offense with three goals and an assist for the still unbeaten Courage.
“She’s had such a good start to the season,” said Mewis, who missed the first three games of the year with a right knee injury. Instead of playing right next to Zerboni on the field, she got to watch her in action.
“She’s just been running the show for us. I think that getting to watch from more of afar, I only grew in respect for her. She’s been such a great leader. She’s so tenacious. She seems to come away from every tackle with the ball. And she just has this level of this cleverness and smartness with her passing and her decision-making.”
Zerboni’s first cap last year came at the age of 30 years and 10 months, making her the oldest player to earn her first U.S. cap. It came after a long professional career that began in 2009 and has spanned WPS, WPSL Elite and the NWSL, as well as a number of teams: the Los Angeles Sol, Atlanta Beat, Western New York Flash, Portland Thorns FC, Boston Breakers, the Western New York Flash again and now North Carolina Courage.
“It’s been a long journey for me as a pro. This isn’t something that I’ve been thinking about because I feel that maybe my time had come and gone with that or if I [was] going to break my way into this program then it would’ve happened already,” Zerboni said.
“But I’m a person who never gives up and I’m a person who will always believe – believe in my abilities, believe in my teammates, and believe in possibilities.”
Some may suggest that Zerboni is playing her best soccer now, but she disagrees – especially now that she’s in camp with the USWNT.
“I feel like there’s more levels,” she said. “I’m learning about the ins and the outs and the way they do things. They play a different system and they play a different style and they play a different formation. And that’s just adding a new caliber to my game. And the more and more dynamics I can add to my game, I’m only going to improve. It’s cool to know that I’m not capped out and I still have more to go and give.”