It probably started with that draft day speech. Tziarra King had just gone #8 overall in the 2020 NWSL College Draft and she was on stage, giving a thank-you speech. She didn’t just thank the Utah Royals for drafting her - she thanked everyone, from her family and teammates down to the NC State grounds crew and equipment managers. Later, in the press scrum behind the stage, she paused questions to enjoy the music playing between pick announcements. It was a display of personality that had fans on her side right away (and her ability to add a little more firepower to the Royals’ attack didn’t hurt either).
Fast forward to the Challenge Cup, a tournament resulting from a series of events no one could have foreseen. King made her rookie debut for the Royals in their first game of the competition, subbing on in the second half in an attempt to shift momentum back in Utah’s favor. They had taken an early lead, only to give up three (four, if you’re a Houston fan) goals in a row. Utah had clawed back a second, and King twisted and turned her way through the box to get the equalizer, contorting herself midair to get her head to a ball bouncing off a serve by Veró Boquete.
“I’ve never really been one to be on the end of a free kick,” King admitted on a phone call. “I’m usually the one that wants to wait for the second ball to pop out. I’m also really annoying being marked on the wall; I kind of run the player all around, which clearly worked in my advantage yesterday. But I saw the ball coming in, I got to that back post, and the way that ball bounced off the ground and came back up, in my mind I was like, how am I about to get this in the net? I don’t know what body part I’m about to put on it but I can’t let this go past me. So I turned my head in a weird kind of way so I could redirect, because Jane Campbell had that post covered, and it worked out.”
It was as good a debut as you could ask for from a rookie, the final blow in a back-and-forth 3-3 game. But that wasn’t the only thing that made it a special day for King. She also took a knee with her teammates during the playing of the national anthem, part of their group protest against police brutality and racist injustices faced by Black people. It was something King has been wanting to do since Colin Kaepernick initially knelt. “I’m really thankful that I got the chance to do it finally and all my teammates and the coaching staff were 100% behind it,” she said.
Between kneeling and being told by head coach Craig Harrington that she would be needed for the game, you might imagine there were some nerves. King laughed and agreed that subbing on, particularly in her first game ever as a pro, was like merging onto a freeway at 100 mph, but she was also pumped. “I kind of like that I had 100% of my energy to use for those 20 minutes,” she said. “So I was like look, leave it all out here. And that kind of helped me as well to bring a little bit more fire to what was going on.”
Maybe it’s hard to be nervous when you’ve been waiting for this moment for so many months. “From the second that the tournament was announced I was hype,” King said. After the draft, she only got about two weeks of regular preseason with the Royals before isolation rules slammed into place, forcing her to head back home to New Jersey, a state that King very pointedly noted has no altitude She tried to stay sharp, describing how she would kick a bunch of mismatched balls at kickbacks in her backyard and lifting weights in her basement. She got her daily team regimens through an app that assigned her workout for the day. But there was really no substitute for getting back into it with her team, which King did around mid-May, even if it did mean a return to altitude. “When I got back here, I was like whoo. It definitely kicked me in the face,” she said.
“I was a little nervous because I was home training by myself,” she said, “And I was like man, I gotta bet back into passing to other people and reading the field. But I was definitely excited for the chance to play again. Obviously everybody had questions about what the [health and safety] protocol was gonna be and stuff like that but to me I was excited to get back into it.”
The other benefit to being back is King has access to her teammates, including plenty of veterans. She said that Boquete has been a good resource for her. “She analyzes every play, she’s like okay you could have done this better or you could have played this foot and I’m really thankful for that,” King said. If that connection is already paying dividends in game one, there’s plenty of reason to be excited for the rest of the tournament. King is levelheaded about the spotlight already landing on her, though.
“I don’t want to let my head get big or anything like that,” she said when asked about already being a fan favorite. “When people start talking about me, I’m like oof can we not do this? I have been tagged in a lot of things, got a lot of message requests, so I definitely am feeling the support and I’m really thankful. Truly, it’s honestly so crazy to me still seeing people tagging me in pictures of them wearing my last name on their jersey. I’m like wow, you haven’t even seen me play yet and you are confident in wearing my name on your jersey with my number. I just think that’s so cool. And obviously that fuels me too, knowing there’s so many people behind me in that way.”
It’s part of the sports psychology of being an athlete, trying to balance believing in yourself with staying humble and always improving. King is a work in progress in that regard. “I watch film back of what I’m doing, if I have a good play or whatever, I’m like wow, I did that? That’s kind of crazy.... I’m always like, I had a bad game, I replay in my head over and over again you should’ve finished that, you should’ve made that run. I think that’s my biggest struggle.” It’s very human, King suggests, being hard on ourselves in bad moments than supportive of ourselves in good ones. You can do a thousand things right and obsess over the one thing that went wrong.
Not quite a thousand things went right for King on her debut, but plenty of them did. She’s looking forward to building on this game, getting more minutes and building her mental match fitness along with her physical endurance. “Even at the end of that 20, I was like whoof,” King said. There’s just no substitute for actually playing games. “I’m excited about seeing where this team goes and how they do against the rest of the competition. I’m excited all around. Hopefully we can pull some dubs. We’re gonna have to top that [3-3 game against Houston] I guess.”