Paige Nielsen became the first-ever Nebraska native to be drafted into the NWSL back in 2016 by Seattle Reign FC. The Cornhusker State would be hard-pressed to find a better representative of what makes their state special.
While she’s been battled the age-old stereotypical questions about driving a tractor to school or if all Nebraskans live on farms, Paige loves her home state. “What’s cool about Nebraska is that we have really good schools and state pride,” she told BGN. In addition to the love that the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team gets and the amazing celebrations on the Fourth of July, Paige can pinpoint the most special thing about Nebraska. “I would say the people are the best thing about Nebraska. We love people,” she emphasized. “And everyone goes out of their way to make another person’s day. It’s an easy life in NE and now I am feeling nostalgic about how we all just seem like one big family.”
That state pride extends to famous natives of the state like actress and author, Gabrielle Union. Paige said, “I had the opportunity to meet Gabrielle Union actually at my Budweiser fellowship program provided to some NWSL players. It was a very proud Nebraskan moment. I doubt she remembers, but I will cherish that forever.” While she had to look up Omaha’s own world champion boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford, she added that Nebraskans are also proud of the University of Nebraska products in the NFL or from their illustrious volleyball program. “I am working to change the narrative and make women’s soccer players hold the same weight,” she added.
Before becoming a professional herself, the Lincoln native played for the University of North Carolina, an NCAA powerhouse in women’s soccer. “I have played with some amazing players. I would look up sometimes and see Crystal Dunn to my left and Kealia Ohai to my right and think, ‘I do not belong here.’ I was pretty average coming into college. But Anson Dorrance’s program with the competitive cauldron can make average players great especially when you have top players around you.”
“I think if anyone uses his system to the best of their abilities he can make anyone great. He focuses mainly on character development with (an) emphasis on 12 core values. We rank each other every semester 1-5 for each character element (tough, classy, galvanizing, resilient, focused, etc.) and you can really see the growth in every young athlete not just as a player but as a person. By many players’ senior year, we all get close to 5 in every category and believe it or not, it directly translates onto the field.”
Overall, Nielsen isn’t sure she would be in the position she is if she didn’t become a Tar Heel. “I think college soccer has a long way to go to get players ready for the NWSL. However, the most important thing I learned was self-belief, and the ability to grow and learn and become a much better player than I am at the time,” she said. “Now, as a starter for the Washington Spirit, I believe that had I played at any other program, I would not be here today. Carolina’s program is something special and indescribable really. Anson, the staff, the community, the family will forever have a major impact on my soccer career but more importantly life.”
While she had great success at UNC on the pitch, she also experienced an unthinkable loss before her senior season when her mother, Kathy, passed away after battling cancer for the second time. A proud daughter, Paige makes sure to keep her mother’s memory alive. “I plant a flower every year on Mother’s day. Growing up that was always our Mother’s day gift: yard work,” she recalled. “I would plant and pull weeds for hours, but we had a lot of fun doing it. She was very proud of our house’s landscape. She always told me that beautiful things in life always takes a bit of hard work (I really think that’s how she would manipulate me to poop scoop and pull weeds).”
“Every year on the day she passed, our family either gets together and talks about funny stories growing up or like this year during the pandemic we all got on zoom. But my brothers both have kids running around everywhere so they mostly take the limelight. I also live my life day by day modeling after her.”
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Jovial, Gentle, Good-Natured, Considerate, Generous, Caring of others, Helpful, Genuine, Selfless, Beautiful (inside and out), Infectious, Brave, Compassionate, Exuberant, Warrior. And 100 other things I could use to describe your impeccable character. Someone I strive to be every day. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the light that ignites my drive, MAMA. #iloveyouforever #TeamKathy
Kathy Nielsen was absolutely a deserving role model. “She was an incredible woman with impeccable character. I meditate on things I can do better and if things seem hard, I would think about her fighting for her life for us kids,” Paige said. “She grew up very poor, moved away from her family, put herself through college, started two grass-roots organizations in Nebraska helping single moms, and raised 4 wonderful kids, all while battling cancer twice. Nothing seems hard when my mind is filled with gratitude for all that she went through. Every opportunity I have or take makes me think of her. I also write her initials on a piece of tape on my wrist for every game day. She is always with me and is the reason why I have gotten so far as a professional athlete today.
She honored her mother by captaining the Tar Heels as a senior and was a third-round selection of the Seattle Reign FC, now known as OL Reign. Paige was waived by Seattle during the summer of her first season. Rather than take her release as a slight, she had a different perspective on everything. “I wasn’t really motivated by being released with Reign FC. My motivation was actually getting my first contract with them. They didn’t sign me at first, but I went in early before practice and did technical work and did extra fitness in the afternoon with our sports science guy,” she explained. “I had 3 other jobs to stay financially afloat and I was working my tail off. I will always remember the call with (former Reign head coach) Laura Harvey after two months of grinding my little heart out. I was in the car and she said ‘We want to offer you your first professional contract with Seattle Reign.’ I put the phone on mute for a second and I starting bawling, tears uncontrollably running down my cheeks.
“I realized I had made it to the top as I was playing with incredible players like Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, Kim Little, and Hope Solo. They weren’t just incredible, I think Jess Fishlock and Kim Little are the top players in the world and I was just some young, ignorant rookie trying to keep up. After I was released, I knew I had work to do, but I was so close to being the player I wanted to be. I learned a lot from the first six months of my playing career and I knew I was just getting started. I put my head down, worked day by day, and became one of the best soccer players in the world after 4 years.”
She went on to play in Australia, Cyprus, and South Korea. Paige credits her time in South Korea with Suwon UDC as her most valuable development step yet as a player. “South Korea is what made me the player I am today. The soccer IQ of many Asian countries is far beyond some of the soccer IQ we have here in the States. We played 5v2 every single morning before breakfast and the tempo and movement of these players were incredible,” Paige explained. “We could get to 30 passes easily. Players knew when to chip, how to fake out defenders without even dribbling. The passing and movement of my team were better than any other team I had ever played with.”
“They didn’t need to dribble to beat defenders. Every player knew when and where to be on the field at all times. My biggest weakness before going over there was actually my passing and tempo of my game. Their style definitely made me a well-rounded player, fitting for a center back specifically.”
Nielsen used the lessons she’s learned from her time with UNC, the Reign, and overseas in her first season with the Spirit in 2019. She started 22 matches and finished with a league-leading 111 clearances, 48 interceptions, and completed 84.6% of her passes.
The proud Cornhusker will be a key cog in the Washington Spirit defense as they get set to begin the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. They will play the night match on the tournament’s opening day this Saturday against the Chicago Red Stars.