Katy Byrne was excited when she got the call a little more than a month ago saying she had been signed by the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns.
But the Katy native and former Seven Lakes star was nowhere near as thrilled as her mother, Karen.
“I think she screamed,” Byrne said, laughing. “She was super excited. She’s always been my biggest supporter. My dad was thrilled, too, but my mom, for sure, screamed.”
Byrne, a center midfielder, was signed as a National Team Replacement Player a few weeks after graduating from Pepperdine. Replacement players are signed when a national team player is away on World Cup duty; the Thorns have nine players participating in the 2019 FIFA World Cup.
But when Karen got the call of good news from her daughter, she could only think of all her youngest child had persevered through. Soccer has always been Byrne’s passion, but it did not come without trying times, particularly at Pepperdine, where Byrne played 66 games, with 17 starts, in four seasons, totaling 11 points (three goals, five assists).
Byrne, 22, could have pouted, complained, and/or transferred. Deep down, she wasn’t happy with the lack of playing time. It was a culture shock for a player who had always been one of the best, if not the best, players whenever she stepped onto the field.
Still, Byrne stuck through it. That wasn’t lost upon Karen, a former collegiate athlete herself as a track and field and cross country runner at Purdue.
“Anytime you’re in a sport, there’s ups and downs,” Karen said. “Nobody has played an activity where everything went their way. You find out how much you really want it by the way you handle ups and downs. College was hard, where, fit-wise, it wasn’t what we expected, but she got a lot of enjoyment and learned a lot from the team and her coach. She would’ve loved more minutes and time, but she really did love the girls, the college, her coach, her team.
“I was happy that Katy continued playing, whether things worked out for her or they didn’t, because she really enjoyed the sport. She made it to the highest level because of that.”
There was a point where Byrne did not know if she’d even get a shot at a pro career.
“I knew I wouldn’t get drafted out of college because I didn’t get that much playing time,” Byrne said. “But I’ve always wanted to play professional soccer. I basically thought my only option was to play professionally abroad. But I put my name into the draft, just in case, and every player whose name is in there gets an email from teams for open tryouts.”
Byrne did not get drafted, but afterward she went to five open tryouts over the span of a month, traveling from school to tryout sites on the weekends. She was at college when she got a call from Thorns coach Mark Parsons inviting her to a tryout. Byrne flew to Portland and back to California twice while finishing up school.
She eventually latched on with Portland. She liked its coaching staff, loved the area and was impressed with the fan base. More than 19,000 fans were in attendance for the home opener. Byrne signed her Portland contract on May 31. The contract ends when the World Cup ends in early July, and players return. Parsons will then decide if Byrne will remain with the team.
“I just want to get better,” Byrne said. “Being surrounded by all these girls, my main goal is improving and getting on to a senior contract. I just want to learn every day and ask as many questions as possible, because a lot of these girls have been in the league a long time and have tons of experience.
“Speed of play is a huge difference. The first time I trained with the team, I was in shock at how quick everyone played. I had to get used to the pace. Adapting to that was big. Also, the mentality … every girl shows up and just turns it on. In college, it would take a while for me to get into the rhythm of the game.
“I just want to grow as a player. That’s my main focus.”
Byrne has good vision and an attacking mentality. She is working on her decision-making as she acclimates to the pace of the pro game.
“I’m just watching others who are better than me and improve the things I already do well,” Byrne said. “I’ll see them do something and try and copy it. I’m trying to enhance the things I already do well.”
Byrne fell in love with the sport as a kid, because “there’s a huge sense of freedom about soccer. You can be creative and express yourself on the field.”
She started playing when she was four years old, beginning with the Katy Youth Soccer Association from 2001-2005. It was obvious then the talent Byrne had.
“She really took to soccer easily when she was younger, playing with her older brother (Robert),” Karen said. “When you start, kids follow each other around and chase the ball. But she was one of few who knew what was going on and who would do something with the ball when she got it. She wasn’t just messing around.”
Byrne played competitive soccer for Texas Premier Football Club from 2006-2008, and from 2009-2015 she played for Albion Hurricanes Football Club, a member of the Elite Clubs National League. Byrne was an AHFC ECNL team captain from 2012-2015, helping the Hurricanes place seventh in the nation in 2013 and tallying 20 goals and 11 assists in three ECNL seasons. She was also part of the Olympic Development Program Regional South Texas Pool from 2009-2012.
Byrne credits the Hurricanes for establishing the foundation and teachings of her game. She played varsity soccer all four years at Seven Lakes, helping the Spartans to a state finalist appearance in 2012 and regional finalist appearances in 2014 and 2015. Byrne contributed 39 goals and 29 assists for the Spartans.
“In the Katy area, there’s a lot of girls soccer talent,” Byrne said. “The Hurricanes were a huge part of me getting better, but both club and high school play a role. For me, being able to play club soccer before high school really developed my skill and foundation. Those coaches taught me how to play. But high school is important because you get to play with different types of players and players you don’t play with all the time. You learn to adapt to different girls and different styles of talent in high school.”
Byrne was an all-around athlete at Seven Lakes. She was the starting point guard for a regional finalist girls basketball team in 2012-2013. She was a member of the state-qualifying cross country team as a freshman in 2011.
“But no matter what sport she played,” Karen said, “she always gravitated back to soccer.”
Karen credits the friendships and relationships formed through Katy’s “great” soccer system. “That was the best thing about it,” Karen said.
For Byrne, she was never pushed or prodded by her parents. She found something she enjoyed doing, and they supported her. They provided as many opportunities as possible for her to find her passion.
“I wouldn’t say it was about the competitiveness,” Karen said. “As a family, we enjoy sports. It was about finding what you truly enjoyed and finding where you did well. We wanted our kids to find their passion. If it was music, she would’ve done music. If it was horseback riding, we would’ve pursued that. We had to find what they like to do, and then they’d excel at it. We never forced the competitiveness on them.”
The result is Byrne now competing at the pinnacle of her sport, one of a lucky few who get a chance to call soccer their job.
“We were so ecstatic. So proud,” Karen said. “It’s a dream come true. Every little girl wants to play professional soccer. She worked really hard for it. We’re really happy for her.”