The mutual admiration between Paul Riley and McCall Zerboni dates back to at least 2012. There was no fully professional league that summer so WPSL Elite was the best women’s soccer on offer. Riley was coaching the New York Fury and Zerboni was playing for the Western New York Flash. During that season, many of Riley’s famously long and winding answers would drift toward Zerboni. Admiring her from afar, he frequently spoke of her as the best player in that league, and one who ought to get a chance on the U.S. national team.
Five years later North Carolina Courage midfielder Zerboni is in her second tenure playing for Riley and the admiration is as strong as ever. It is also mutual.
“What a player,” Riley said. “She’s just a class player. And she’s got better the last two years. I swear to God she’s gotten better. They have to look at her for the national team because she’s still improving. When you’re still developing it doesn’t matter what age you are, if you’re good enough you’re good enough. And I think she’s good enough.”
Unfortunately for Zerboni, it does not appear that her marvelous 2017 season in North Carolina caught the attention of national team coach Jill Ellis. In fact Wednesday’s roster announcement did not include any new faces, let alone the 30-year old Zerboni. So for the time being she will have to focus on appearing in what will be her sixth league final in the last nine years—five in professional leagues plus WPSL Elite (both equal to Jen Buczkowski for the most in women’s soccer in the U.S.)
“I like to consider myself a winner,” Zerboni said on Tuesday before the release of Ellis’s latest roster. “By that I mean not necessarily the achievement of winning a trophy. I consider a winner somebody who is a winning person. Somebody who does the right thing all the time, every day at every opportunity. I think creating that winning culture is inspiring those around you to be a winner.”
Zerboni played for Riley with the Thorns in 2015, a rare season in that it is the only one since WPS kicked off in 2009 that neither of them were in the playoffs. The Thorns fired Riley at the end of that year and traded Zerboni to the Breakers. Their paths crossed again soon when a mid-season trade sent Zerboni to the Flash who had hired Riley just ahead of training camp. The Flash were already rolling when Zerboni arrived but still Riley credits her with helping guide the club’s abundance of younger players.
“She’s unbelievably good in the locker room,” Riley said. “I think she’s had a good influence on people like Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams, and Abby Dahlkemper, and Taylor Smith. It’s just about being professionals. They were young when they met McCall and she’s really been great with them.
“She’s a professional. It’s not just a two hour a day for McCall. It’s a seven, eight hour day at least in terms of preparation. She’s committed to what she does.”
Saturday will be the second straight year that Riley will run out Zerboni in his starting XI for a final. In 2016, as the Flash, they prevailed on penalty kicks over the Washington Spirit. They were on opposite ends in 2011 when Zerboni hit one of the penalties for the WPS Flash to knock off Riley’s Philadelphia Independence. (Riley also coached the Independence in the 2010 WPS final and Zerboni played the LA Sol in 2009 WPS and the Flash in the 2013 NWSL Championship—all three were losses. Zerboni’s Flash won the WPSL Elite crown in 2012.)
“I much prefer to be on this side of it,” Riley said about having been part of finals both with and against Zerboni.
As for that mutual admiration society between the two, Zerboni was asked about the Courage playing a slightly different style in 2017 with a few tweaks thrown in along the way.
“It’s easy to trust the best coach in the world, right? We’re in such good hands. We have so much that we can learn from him. The game plan is always properly put out for us. That provides a great environment for us to succeed every weekend, every game.
“It’s been a journey with Paul the last three years. I’ve always greatly respected him. Now that I have a chance to be with him every day, he’s a major part of my growth and why I have improved so much and had a great season. As long as I’m with him and under his wing I hope to continue to get better. I would do anything for him. I would run through a wall for him if that’s what he said. That’s true for anyone on this team because we believe in what we’re doing and what he has to say.”