A HARVARD WOMEN’S soccer coach approached Rob Ukrop recently during a camp at the San Diego Surf Club. The Harvard coach wanted to talk about Katie Cousins, a young player on Ukrop’s Richmond (Va.) Kickers Under-17 Elite team.
“Katie reminds me of the metronome, when you play the piano,” Ukrop recalled the Harvard coach saying. “The game never goes faster or slower than she wants it to go.”
Cousins is considered one of the top youth soccer players in the United States. She recently was named to the United States Under-20 team that began play last week in the 12 Nations Tournament in La Manga, Spain. She is the lone 16-year-old on a team comprised mostly of 18- and 19-year-olds.
“To me,” Ukrop says, “she’s just a soccer prodigy here in the United States.”
There is every reason to believe Cousins, who was born and lived in Columbia for the first 11 years of her life, is on course to be the next Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly or Brandi Chastain of U.S. women’s soccer.
Cousins wanted no part of this story. She politely declined to be interviewed, Ukrop and Cousins’ mother, Molly, both saying the young player believes individual attention takes away from team gains.
Humble is a word used by just about everyone who knows Cousins. Ukrop recalls a tournament a couple of years ago in Orlando, Fla. The Richmond Kickers borrowed a sleeper bus from the professional soccer team in town, and the team barely heard a peep from Cousins the entire ride to Florida.
Even during their visit to Disney World, Cousins did not participate in any of the rides and generally stood off by herself, preferring — she said — to keep her focus on the tournament games. Finally, with the tournament championship clinched, Cousins unleashed a smile.
“I was, like, where was this?” Ukrop recalls saying to Cousins.
“I didn’t want to disappoint anybody,” Cousins replied, “and just wanted to help the team be successful.”
It is an approach to the game Cousins apparently developed at an early age. She began playing at age 4 and eventually joined the Columbia Soccer Club (now South Carolina United) travel team. By age 6, Ballentine area coaches and parents recognized that Cousins had a flare, a gift for the game.
Then Cousins, who attended H.E. Corley Elementary School in Irmo through the fifth grade, moved with her parents to Lynchburg, Va., where Luther and Molly Cousins are employed by J. Crew.
Seeking a higher level of competition for their daughter, the Cousins found a spot on the Richmond Kickers Elite team, some two hours from Lynchburg. That means transporting Katie to practice twice a week, and sometimes twice on weekends for games. The financial commitment over the past three years “probably could have paid for her college by now,” Molly Cousins says.
Ukrop’s first meeting with his new player, when she was 14, was less than overwhelming. As a midfielder, Ukrop says he was expecting a tall, speedy player. Instead, he found a player who looks anything but dominating at 5-foot-1, maybe 5-2.
“I was a slow, non-athletic forward when I played soccer,” says Ukrop, who played collegiately at Davidson and for several years professionally. “So, I knew not to judge the book by the cover because what’s inside is much more important.”
What was inside Cousins stunned Ukrop.
“From the first touch, she was always two to three steps ahead of everybody else on the field,” he says. “Her mind works like a professional soccer player. She does the little things. She can speed the game up, she can slow the game down.
“She’s really good with the ball at her feet, but she also has the vision to, once people over-commit and you get them unbalanced, she has the ability to break them down very quickly with the pass.”
She also is strong. Ukrop says Cousins does not like the comparison, but her lower-body strength is much the same as former NFL great running back Earl Campbell. One of Ukrop’s assistant coaches recently went head-to-head against Cousins in a scrimmage and got knocked off her feet.
“She doesn’t look that way when you see her, but she is so hard to move off the ball,” Ukrop says. “She’s also very talented in the air. It doesn’t matter if she’s going up against a 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8, six-foot defender, she usually rises above and has this impeccable timing. She is super dangerous in the air.”
Then there is Cousins’ inner fire. Ukrop recalls a Richmond Kickers game two years ago in which his team fell behind 1-0. On the ensuing play, Cousins took possession of the ball, dribbled through four opponents and ripped a kick from 25 yards out into the upper part of the net. Yet, she did not celebrate.
“What were you thinking?” Ukrop recalls asking her.
“I don’t like to lose,” Cousins replied. “I don’t like to be down.”
Cousins has committed to play at Tennessee. She has two years remaining at Jefferson Forest High in Lynchburg, and at least that much time to continue playing for the Richmond Kickers as well as national teams.
Ukrop says Cousins is beginning to emerge as one of the best women’s players in the nation.