Notre Dame’s 1-0 NCAA tournament win over Oregon State in 2009 was a mostly forgettable match for Randy Waldrum, but one thing stuck in his mind: the performance of Oregon State midfielder Rachael Axon.
“Notre Dame ended up winning, we didn’t deserve to on the night. But she was one that I just thought, ‘she’s a really, really good player,'” Waldrum, then coach of the Fighting Irish, recalled to HoustonDashSoccer.com.
“When you’re in the college ranks, you’re going, ‘how did I miss this kid?’ Even though she’s from England. Every time you see a good player you wonder how you just didn’t know about that player.”
Five years on from that Sweet 16 encounter, Waldrum made amends by signing Axon for the Dash — and she’s expected to be an important component of the team’s 2015 National Women’s Soccer League campaign, which begins at BBVA Compass Stadium on April 10 against the Washington Spirit (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
The well-traveled 29-year-old will add experience to a strong-looking Dash midfield that also features U.S. stars Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian and fellow new signing Ashley Nick, giving Waldrum plenty of selection options as he looks to find his optimal line-up and formation before the internationals head off on World Cup duty.
“Clearly she’s going to be vital to the success that we have this year,” the Dash head coach said. “I’ve been extremely pleased with her. I think she’s going to be one of those players that people round the league will wonder, where did she come from? She’s not well known internationally, but she’s done well. She’s got a wealth of experience, her passing qualities are very good and she’s very mobile, she covers a lot of ground, she’s got an engine.”
Mobile is a good way to describe Axon’s career, too — she’s played in England, the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Norway. After playing with a University of Alabama graduate in England and learning about U.S. college opportunities, she moved across the Atlantic to Birmingham in 2006. She transferred to Oregon State the following year and was a regular starter as well as featuring for Canadian side the Ottawa Fury and for her country at junior levels.
When Waldrum rediscovered her she was playing in Norway for Kolbotn IL, a club based in an Oslo suburb. “We watched video on her and she looked every bit as good as she did when I saw her collegiately. So luckily it paid off that I remembered her,” he said.
From 2011 to 2013, Axon was on the books of Avaldsnes, a team from a remote town of only around 3,000 people on the west coast of Norway. “Most people would say to you, ‘how on earth did you end up here?’ A very random spot to end up but probably one of the most beautiful places you could be. Oslo, you have the city, but if you head down to the south west you have the fjords, the mountains, it’s beautiful,” she told HoustonDashSoccer.com.
“Over the years I’ve stepped away from being a city girl - I was born and raised in London - and I’m kind of really getting into the whole outdoorsy thing. I love hiking, nature and Norway’s probably the best place you could be; Oregon as well, they’re similar. You have the mountains, the trails, the fjords which are just breathtaking … I’ve been very fortunate and I feel very privileged that soccer allows me to travel and experience new cultures, and not just be there temporarily but become a local.”
Now she’s discovering Texas and preparing for the NWSL after Waldrum offered her what she described as a “dream” opportunity to return to the States and play in one of the world’s top leagues. “I’ve really enjoyed the team, everyone’s been very welcoming. Slowly adjusting to the climate, but all the sessions are very high intensity, very competitive,” she said.
“You come to the U.S. and you become an athlete. The first time I ventured over it was a big shock to me, the speed of play and how fit, how strong the girls are. Coming back this time around I’m a bit older, I know what there is to expect but it also makes me a little bit nervous, just because it is a step up from college, so it’s going to be on a larger scale, a higher intensity. But I think I’m in the best place that’s going to put me in the best shape for that.”
Axon may have flown under the radar for much of her time in college, but Waldrum has been impressed by her tenacity in training and is confident that very soon she’ll be a familiar name in the NWSL. Axon is looking forward to helping the Dash’s playoff push in any way she can.
“I do think I offer experience and maybe a different style of play — I’m somebody who looks to keep the ball and slow the game down whereas in the U.S. it’s typically go, go, go,” she said. “A lot of the girls here offer experience whether it be college or playing abroad. Whatever I can do to help the team, whether it’s to be a leader or sit back, I’ll do.”
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.