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Women's soccer: Gilliland taking on world's best during unique summer opportunity

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Women's soccer junior Arin Gilliland is spending July training with Portland Thorns FC of the National Women's Soccer League. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Women's soccer junior Arin Gilliland is spending July training with Portland Thorns FC of the National Women's Soccer League. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In just a year, life has changed drastically for Arin Gilliland.

Last summer, the star defender/forward was in the middle of an intensive rehabilitation process. She suffered a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament and was hoping her surgically-repaired right knee would be healthy for the start of her sophomore season. Whether she would regain her All-SEC form, Gilliland had no idea.

This summer, those concerns have melted away. Gilliland is spending July with Portland Thorns FC, a professional team playing in the National Women's Soccer League's inaugural season. She won't take the field for any games, but she will participate in all other team activities.

Instead of doing strength and flexibility exercises by herself, she'll be practicing with the likes of Alex Morgan, Rachel Buehler and Tobin Heath - all three members of the United States National Team. A slight improvement.

"Oh my gosh, you have no idea," Gilliland said. "It's a million times better."

It all came about in a hurry.

UK head coach Jon Lipsitz was in Portland, Ore., visiting family when he caught up with John Galas, an assistant with the Thorns. Galas explained how the team had brought in top college players to train and be introduced to a professional environment, asking whether UK had any candidates. Without hesitation, Lipsitz told Galas all about Gilliland, the versatile rising junior who starred at both outside back and forward, scoring a team-best 21 points. Lipsitz knew what that kind of experience could mean for a player of Gilliland's caliber.

"In order to continue her to her highest potential, which I believe is a full national team player, she is going to have to continue to take these journeys and these challenges to find out the next level," Lipsitz said. "To train and be with some of the best players in the world is going to show her what being a professional is all about."

Gilliland - in San Diego for Under-23 National Team camp at the time - hesitated even less when Lipsitz called to ask whether she was interested.

"There really wasn't any thinking to do," Gilliland said. "I just said, 'Yeah, I'd love to.' "

So Gilliland, following a three-week family vacation in Hawaii and a brief return to Lexington to work UK's day camp, paid her own way to Portland due to NCAA rules on July 1. Within hours, she was at a bowling alley to celebrate Christine Sinclair's birthday with the Thorns.

"What was so weird is it wasn't even like they were famous," Gilliland said. "They were just normal girls and this is their everyday life. It was kind of cool to see the different aspect of them."

Her month in the Northwest is going to be about a lot more than just team outings though. From practice to film sessions to weight training, Gilliland will be there.

"I get to be a part of the team as much as I want to be a part of the team," Gilliland said. "If I wanted to not go to film, I wouldn't have to go to film. Or if, the next day, I didn't want to go to weights, that's how it goes. But obviously I'm going to go to everything because with an opportunity like this, you don't just pass it up."

That kind of attitude is exactly why Lipsitz knew Gilliland would thrive in Portland. Gilliland has been a standout from the moment she set foot on campus, but something about her was different in 2012.

"One of the things that people don't get to see because they aren't with Arin every day is how dramatically she has changed off the field in the last year," Lipsitz said. "She has changed with how she has taken care of herself, from nutrition and sleep to finding times to recover and her daily commitment to being a professional has totally changed in the last year."

As unpleasant as last summer may have been, coming back from that knee injury had a lot to do with that change in Gilliland's mind.

"Not being able to play and having to sit the sidelines and getting a glimpse of what it's like to be the player on the bench and to be in that supporting role kind of opened my eyes," Gilliland said. "It really helped me mature as a soccer player. I'm more organized, I'm more punctual and all of the aspects I was missing I feel like it's really contributed to making me an all-around better player now."

Now, Gilliland is in the middle of an experience that Lipsitz hopes will show her what's next.

"I want her to see what being a professional truly means so that she can see the steps that she next needs to take and has models in order to do that," Lipsitz said. "I think having players that she can model herself after is very important in our country no matter what field you want to be in."

Somewhat ironically, the first step in that process has been Gilliland coming to understand just how similar she is to her role models. By getting to know players she's long idolized on a personal level, Gilliland's goals of playing professionally and eventually making the national team seem much more accessible.

"It kind of makes it almost real for me, to know that it is possible," Gilliland said. "These girls are just like me and every other girl with aspirations and dreams to do this with their life."

In the short term, Gilliland is looking to prove to herself and everyone else that she's capable of competing at the highest level. Portland has just three healthy backs on its roster, creating an opportunity for Gilliland to do just that.

"During training I'm going to get a lot of looks," Gilliland said. "I want to get my name out there and show them what I can do for this team and maybe in the future possibly coming here. My main goal is just to show I'm capable of playing at this level right now, so two years from now they can only expect more."

On a more personal note, Gilliland wouldn't mind taking on the most famous women's soccer player in the world either.

"Other than that, I definitely want to go 1-v.-1 with Alex Morgan," Gilliland said. "I mean, who doesn't?"

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