Wilf Thorne/Houston Dash

"Hectic" few days sees Kelly McFarlane graduate from college, sign professional contract and make her debut for Houston Dash

As the Dash prepared to face the Chicago Red Stars on May 11, their newest signing was in uniform and lining up amid a 30,000-strong crowd for one of the most important 90-minute performances of her life.

Just a couple of hours after Kelly McFarlane took part in the main University of North Carolina Commencement ceremony in Kenan Stadium, she was on a plane to Texas to begin life as a professional in the NWSL, swapping cap and gown for kit and cleats.

The 21-year-old majored in Health Policy and Management. “Saturday we had graduations for our individual departments, our individual majors, that’s where you walk across the stage and they call your name. Sunday, we had the all-school graduation in the football stadium,” she told HoustonDashSoccer.com ahead of Friday’s home match at BBVA Compass Stadium against Chicago (7 p.m. CT; TICKETS).

Three days later, McFarlane made her Dash debut in the home game with Portland Thorns FC, coming on as a 74th-minute substitute for Nina Burger. Her dad, Craig, was in time to see the milestone moment in person after making the 1,200 mile journey by road.

“My dad was awesome. The Dash needed me to fly in Sunday night so we could do paperwork and everything on Monday. My dad of course was in North Carolina for my graduation so he drove my car here and was here for the game Wednesday night, so I got to see him,” she said.

The midfielder was an unused substitute as Houston battled to a valuable 2-2 road draw with FC Kansas City last Sunday and will hope to be involved in Friday’s swift rematch with Chicago. She described the past few days as “pretty hectic”, which sounds like an understatement—“but everyone was really welcoming, all the girls were really nice and helped me figure out the ropes right away”.

And the Californian has been here before. She impressed as a preseason trialist with the Dash so head coach Randy Waldrum decided to sign her as a discovery player once she had completed her degree.

“I was able to go focus on school, finish that while trying to keep up with how the team was doing, then jump in here right away,” she said. “Being here for trials, I knew a lot of the girls, knew the area a little bit and I’m staying with a great host family. I’m figuring my way around the city, haven’t been here much before, but I really like it.”

It helps to play alongside a very familiar face in forward Kealia Ohai, who was a Tar Heels teammate. “Kealia and I played together for four years, we were roommates for three years, so I’m good friends with her. I really enjoy playing with her so it’s fun to get back out on the field together. She’s been great about everything, letting me know what’s going on,” said McFarlane, who made 92 appearances for North Carolina and was team captain in her senior year.

She also knows USWNT and future Dash defenders Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, who was a senior at UNC during McFarlane’s freshman year. Waldrum is excited about what she can bring to the midfield.

“We played against her when I was at Notre Dame and she was at Carolina, I thought she was a really good holding player for them and so we invited her into preseason. I thought she did really well. I would have signed her then except she had to go back and graduate,” he told HoustonDashSoccer.com.

“We stayed in touch with Kelly and said ‘we’ll get you signed’. What fans will find with her, she’s a really good holding defensive center midfield player … she can really break up the attacks, she’s a ball-winner, she’s got some toughness to her.

“Once she gets some time I think it could be a good tandem with Becky Edwards and allow us maybe to move up Kaylyn Kyle in more of an attacking spot and give Becky a little bit more freedom to attack a little bit more … What it at least does is it gives us some options. It gives us some great depth centrally, with five or six good midfield players that can play in three spots.”

After a whirlwind couple of weeks in which she closed one important chapter of her life and immediately opened another, McFarlane is looking forward to contributing for the Dash in any way she can. “I think I’m a hard worker, so some energy, good defensive presence. The team’s great, so anything I can do to help out,” she said. “I’m excited just to try my best.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.