Illinois native discusses defying injuries, doubters en route to NWSL starting gig
By Gunnar Berndt
Chicago, Ill. – When Michele Dalton says that “things really have never come easy for me,” she means it. After suffering a number of unfortunate injuries, nearly all of them in high school and college, the Red Stars goalkeeper experienced another setback when her dream of playing at the highest level seemed all but in shambles after the 2012 folding of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). Dalton recently took the time to discuss her relentless determination in overcoming injury and in moving to an unfamiliar continent just to give herself a fighting chance.
A natural-born athlete, the now 26-year-old tried out different sports while in her teens. It’s not a surprise then that one of her three broken noses came as a result of being hit in the face with a basketball and her first shoulder injury while playing indoor volleyball. Dalton no doubt has the toughness required to be a top-level goalkeeper, as she operated with a back injury for seven years until finally getting spine surgery before her final season in college. Similarly, the native of Mount Prospect, Illinois, has had a broken nose since her time starring for the University of Wisconsin.
“I was almost scared to tell my parents, ‘Hey, it happened again,’” remembered Dalton. “When my doctor heard about it, he just said, ‘Since it doesn’t affect your breathing, why don’t we leave it as is for now and you come in once you’re done playing sports? Then we can fix it. After all, this might not be the last time.’”
The six-time Big Ten Player of the Week has been injury-free for five years, with the exception of a 2014 shoulder injury that can be safely filed under “unfortunate,” as Dalton landed awkwardly while in action with Swedish outfit Kvarnsvedens IK. She was able to recover in time for the Red Stars’ open tryouts in January of this year, where she was as one of the top participants and earned a spot on the senior roster.
“Any offseason is challenging because you’re responsible for your own self-improvement,” offered the goalkeeper, who opted for the combine over a guaranteed contract with a different team in Sweden, taking a great risk to try and fulfill her long-held dream of joining Chicago. “When you have an injury, it only makes it harder – both physically and mentally. You start to question, ‘Am I going to be okay? Am I going to be healthy and strong enough to compete at the level where I need to be?’”
“That said, I used it as motivation. When I was injured, I knew that I had to really dedicate myself to getting stronger, which ended up making my entire body stronger.”
The fact Dalton joined her current club via the open tryouts is testament to her being a “dark horse” in American professional women’s soccer circles, although she had previously played under Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames at youth club Eclipse Select. Despite posting a 28-16-13 record in college and earning Big Ten Conference Goalkeeper of the Year honors as a senior, the former Wisconsin Badger wasn’t as highly recruited as other players. Nonetheless, she still had legitimate hopes of being selected in the 2012 WPS College Draft, only for those hopes to be put to a cruel end by the league’s collapse.
After subsequently suiting up for high-level amateur outfit Philadelphia Fever, Dalton made a bold decision in 2013 by choosing Icelandic topflight club UMF Selfoss as her first professional destination. She would go on to post five shutouts in 17 appearances, helping the team finish sixth in the country’s ten-team competition. The goalkeeper would move on to Sweden the following year.
“I feel like I’ve always had to fight and prove people wrong to get to where I am today,” she offered in reflecting on her journey. “I’m very much a wildcard and many still don’t know me. I’m used to people saying, ‘Who is this person?’ I’m pretty sure that was true before the WPS draft, but obviously the league folding was far worse than having to prove myself to doubters. It basically shattered my dream and meant that I had to work a job outside of soccer while playing unpaid for a bit. Things really have never come easy for me. That was no different in Iceland or Sweden, where I was again an unknown commodity.”
In addition to having to earn respect on the field, Dalton faced all the adversity that came with moving to another continent in her early twenties. However, she never once questioned the choice she had made.
“I knew I wanted to live my dream and play professionally,” she said, “and it didn’t really matter if that meant here in America or overseas – though I ultimately wanted to come back. Going to Europe brought a whole other realm of challenges, such as being away from home and adjusting culturally, but also getting used to the way they play soccer and the methodology, everything from training to game tactics. But as a competitor, I saw that as part of the game and as a necessary step in the process of reaching my goals.”
According to Dalton, it was living with a host family that allowed her to master the most difficult hurdles of her new life as quickly as she did.
“It was nice to have people who were looking out for my best interest and really cared,” she offered. “They showed me around the country, made me try authentic Icelandic food and showed me other aspects of the culture. That made everything so much easier. The soccer really wasn’t too much of a challenge after that. At the end of the day, it’s about keeping the ball out of the net, regardless of where you are.”
Dalton was particularly successful at carrying out that task after her switch to Kvarnsvedens in 2014, her seven shutouts and 1.19 goals-against average contributing to a strong fifth-place finish among 14 squads.
“The time with my host family in Iceland really helped me transition to Sweden,” recalled the netminder. “There are some language similarities, and I also knew what challenges to expect. It’s easy to sit in your house and be homesick. To get the most out of the experience, you have to get out and see and do things. Knowing that definitely allowed me to feel comfortable a little sooner than I otherwise would have.”
In many ways, Dalton’s story reads like that of an underdog playing above her own potential to earn the Chicago starting spot in 2015 over Canadian goalkeeping legend Karina LeBlanc. However, perhaps the more accurate way of framing it is that the Chicagoland native has always had the talent to star in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), one of the top competitions on the planet, but needed extraordinary resolve to overcome an accumulation of unfortunate events along the way.
Dalton herself drew a comparison between the challenges she has faced over the course of her career and her position on the soccer pitch.
“Nothing comes easy for a goalkeeper,” she offered. “You make a mistake and that’s what people remember. The good news is that I’m always in charge of where I go from there. Just as I never let early injuries or a league folding keep me from living my dream and continuing to reach higher levels, I also would never let one mistake, one bad game or one bad 45 minutes define me as a player. It will only make me fight harder and work my butt off to come back stronger. My goal is for people to remember the positives when I hang up the gloves one day.”
While a number of NWSL players have ended their professional careers this year, Dalton made it clear in concluding her remarks that she is far from done living her dream.
“In addition to continuing to improve my game, I still have a desire to travel and maybe play in a few more of the world’s top leagues,” said the shot-stopper. “For me, that would mean Germany, the top Swedish division, France, and maybe Australia during the American offseason. And if there were ever an opportunity to make a push for the U.S. national team, I obviously wouldn’t turn that down either.
“All that said, playing for the Red Stars has always been my biggest goal, and right now I want nothing more than to bring a championship to Chicago. All I’m really thinking about at this point is how we can accomplish that, and then we’ll see what the future holds.”
Michele Dalton and her Chicago Red Stars will be battling for glory all throughout the 2016 NWSL campaign. Season tickets may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-698-6001.