As the Spirit was playing the preseason NWSL Challenge Cup in April, McKeown and the Trojans were navigating the Pac-12 slate. After going to class, completing practice and studying film of USC’s next opponent, McKeown often would return to her dorm, open the file-sharing service that housed clips from the Spirit’s preseason sessions and get an early glance at what Coach Richie Burke’s staff was cooking up.
“That really helped me be able to understand what the coaches wanted [in Washington], and what the players do on the field,” McKeown said. “All of it together was a lot, but I think it really helped me be able to come here and start playing.”
When USC’s season ended with an NCAA tournament loss to Mississippi on April 30, McKeown promptly packed up her dorm room, took home her belongings, flew across the country and began to train with the Spirit less than a week later. McKeown, who turns 22 on Friday, made her professional debut in Washington’s season-opening draw at Orlando on May 16 and has appeared in six matches — including three starts — for a young Spirit team that hosts the Chicago Red Stars on Friday at Segra Field.
“It’s always hard coming into a new environment and then especially her being the only rookie coming in late when everyone’s been building relationships through preseason,” said Spirit attacker Ashley Sanchez, McKeown’s childhood friend. “So it’s definitely been difficult, but I think she’s handled it really well.”
Raised in Newbury Park, Calif., an hour’s drive from the USC campus, McKeown decided to play for her hometown school out of a desire to stay close to her tightknit family. A prolific scorer who ended her college career with 33 goals and 28 assists in 76 games, McKeown was coming off an all-America junior season when the pandemic cast doubt on her senior year.
After graduating in December, McKeown figured she would play in the delayed spring season, then continue her postgrad studies and return for the fall campaign by using the NCAA waiver granting an extra year of eligibility to all athletes affected by the pandemic.
As the draft approached, however, she had promising conversations with Washington’s coaching staff that left her intrigued by the Spirit. In addition to Sanchez, she also had played with Spirit midfielder and former USC teammate Natalie Jacobs. McKeown’s sister Kaitlyn, who plays for Navy’s women’s soccer team, would be nearby as well. And after going to college in her backyard, she was itching for a change of pace on the East Coast.
“I really haven’t gone anywhere else to live or, I don’t know, just had a different life other than being an hour away from my family,” McKeown said. “So I wanted to move across the country and try and start my professional career kind of on my own.”
So McKeown told the Spirit that she would forgo the fall season at USC if it drafted her. But she emphasized that skipping the spring season — as the Spirit’s other four draft picks did — was off the table. Even though McKeown acknowledged that the pandemic-shortened version made for “kind of a sad senior season,” she didn’t want the question of “What if?” to linger over her college career in perpetuity.
“It’s a player’s choice, and you don’t mess around with players’ decisions to work with their school teams,” Burke said. “So when a player elects to fulfill that requirement, I didn’t want to force anybody to have mixed loyalties. That’s their choice. Professional football is not going to go away while they play an extra three months in college.”
After reporting for the end of Washington’s preseason and coming on as a substitute in the season opener, McKeown got permission to return to USC for graduation and miss the Spirit’s match against Louisville on May 21. After closing the book on her college career, McKeown finally found herself with a moment to collect her thoughts, reflect on her time at USC and process her swift college-to-pros jump.
“That’s when it hit me that I actually moved across the country for the first time ever,” McKeown said. “So I think, just mentally, it’s been a little harder than I would imagine.”
A month later, McKeown feels like she’s settling in. She rooms with defender Karina Rodriguez in the Northern Virginia apartments provided by the Spirit, in a setup not unlike a college dorm. She already has visited her sister in Annapolis a couple of times. The opportunity to reconnect with Sanchez — whom she first met when they were around 10, as Southern California club soccer rivals — also has helped her feel at home.
McKeown also is gradually coming along on the field, where she is still seeking her first NWSL goal. But Burke, who typically uses McKeown on the left side of a three-player front line, isn’t in a rush to hand out grades to a rookie fresh out of college.
“She’s still finding her way,” Burke said. “It’s not like she’s setting the world on fire now in the NWSL, but she’s certainly doing a great job. … Having a great work rate and working hard is a prerequisite of any professional footballer, but you don’t always get them as intelligent and switched on and cerebral as a player like Tara.”
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