It had only been a week into preseason when I had a chance to talk to Kendall Johnson in late February. She had been in Utah a little bit more than a week before the start of preseason to get acclimated to the altitude and get settled in.
After being released by the Portland Thorns in October, right after the Thorns captured their second NWSL Championship, Johnson was thinking about playing overseas, but she received an offer to try out for the Utah Royals, and it was an opportunity that excited her, so she decided to move to Salt Lake City and continue playing the sport she’s been playing since her youth.
Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Johnson began playing when she was six years old, but she almost gave up after her first practice. “I came home crying because I thought the shin guards were really uncomfortable,” she said. Her mom encouraged her to try one more time. “And I ended up falling in love with it.” From then, she continued playing club soccer all the way up to playing at one of her dreams schools at the University of Portland and then onto the ranks of professional soccer.
Entering the NWSL
A standout WCC Defender of the Year at Portland, Johnson decided to forgo her senior season to play in the new professional women’s soccer league, the NWSL. She was selected in the second round by Sky Blue FC with the fourth pick, number 12 overall, at the 2013 NWSL College Draft.
Johnson made 37 appearances with the New Jersey-based club over two seasons and then signed on a loan with the Western Sydney Wanderers for the 2014-15 W-League season in Australia. In January 2015, the Portland Thorns acquired Johnson’s rights from Sky Blue in exchange for draft picks in that year’s college draft. She played in 17 games for her hometown club that year, starting in 12 overall. After the conclusion of the 2015 season, Johnson returned to Australia’s W-League on loan.
It was that stint in Australia that changed everything.
Living with a Concussion
It’s a footballer’s worst nightmare, being sidelined for an extended period of time due to an injury, but that’s exactly what happened to Johnson, and it was one that couldn’t be fixed with surgery or rehab.
“First game [of the season in Australia], I took a hard tackle and my head kind of whipped up off the ground, and I felt kind of out of it, but then I kept playing, and then a couple games later, I just felt really off.”
Concussions can be tricky. A major head impact is a serious jolt to the brain that can bring a variety of symptoms including confusion, a dazed feeling, nausea, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and noise, behavior and personality changes, trouble concentrating, and even memory loss. Signs can appear immediately or days/weeks after the initial injury. The symptoms can last for seconds or may linger.
For Johnson, her symptoms lingered, and she returned to the United States to get medical and emotional support, thinking she would be back on the field in no time. However, she continued to deal with that concussion. Ultimately, she decided to focus on her full recovery.
“I had this realization that me as Kendall was way more important than Kendall as a soccer player.”
Johnson missed the 2016 NWSL season due to her concussion injury. In 2017, fully recovered, she made her first appearance with the Portland Thorns since the 2015 season, entering the match as a late second-half substitute against the Chicago Red Stars on April 29.
A New Appreciation
Johnson’s return in 2017 was not glamorous by any means, at least in terms of game heroics. She played the least amount of minutes ever in her career, but to her, returning was all about appreciation.
“I was super grateful. I had this deep appreciation every time I showed up to training or to play. I just really felt a level of gratitude that I hadn’t felt in my entire career.”
The Portland Thorns won the NWSL Championship that season after a gritty 1-0 victory over the North Carolina Courage. As part of that squad, Johnson got to experience the joys of a championship-winning season. But a week after that championship-high, the Thorns released Johnson.
“When I got released, I was sad. I love Portland. I’m from there. My family came to all my games. The fans are unreal, but I kinda just had this, similar to when I was going through my concussion when I was thinking about stopping, I just felt at peace with it. Everything is so temporary. It didn’t mean I couldn't go and play on another team. I really believe that everything happens for a reason.”
The Journey to Utah
There was never an intention to come to Utah. Johnson was set and ready to play overseas. She loves traveling after all, and when she received the invitation to come to Utah, she was in Peru working with a nonprofit organization, Crooked Trails, to build a soccer field in a remote village.
“Something inside of me just really felt called to it, and I just still, while am able, still feel something in me to play and compete at the highest level.”
And coming to Utah, Johnson has been impressed with the Utah Royals organization.
“Honestly, the moment I got here, I felt so valued and respected and treated like I am an actual professional athlete. You can tell everyone is so excited and truly wants us here.”
Johnson is no stranger to that type of treatment coming from Portland where Merritt Paulson, the Portland Timbers owner, who also owns the Thorns, was the first to embrace his women’s club, setting the same level of treatment for the Thorns as with the Timbers.
For her to be amazed by the treatment she has received in Utah speaks volumes of what the Utah Royals has already established.
Life in Utah
Johnson did not make the final roster when it was released on March 19. She’s not letting that bring her down. She knows she gave it her best and will continue to giver her whole heart every day.
I followed up with her on her future plans:
“I plan on staying here in Utah to train with the team and hope an opportunity will come from it. I really enjoy the environment here - the players and the set-up - and believe that regardless of what happens, it’s a great opportunity to keep improving.”
And just this week, Johnson signed a temporary contract to be on the roster, inching closer to where she wants to be.
To hear more on Johnson, stay tuned for the next Royals FC Show where we feature this interview in full length. You can also check out Arrow Living where she maintains a blog, interviews some of the coolest athletes, and sends a weekly Friday Feelz email.
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