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How versatility and work ethic have made Malia Berkely an elite player in the NWSL

By Tyler Trent

Photo credit NC Courage

Malia Berkely has made her mark for the North Carolina Courage after a stellar college career at Florida State University. Her crowning glory in college came in 2019 when she led her team to victory in the National Championship game. Berkely was named all-ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-American in 2019 and 2020.

Berkely’s journey is a testament to her unwavering determination and adaptability. After beginning her professional career in France with Bordeaux in 2021, she was brought back to the United States by the North Carolina Courage, who recognized her potential. However, her journey to becoming one of the league's top central defenders began long before her time at Florida State or as a professional.

The first stop of Berkely's soccer journey came at four years old when she first stepped onto the field at the YMCA. Despite being the youngest and having the ball taken away from her often, she was undeterred. Her father and former coach, Todd Berkely, recalls how this early setback fueled her determination to practice at home with her siblings every single day, a routine that laid the foundation for her future success.

The dedication to continue to improve had nothing to stop it. When it was raining, she was inside practicing on the carpet. When it was sunny, she was on the driveway, zigzagging, practicing various touches. 

“The kid is the most driven kid you could possibly imagine because everybody overlooked her for so very long, but she used that to motivate herself. She was always the smallest, but she was the fastest with her feet, and it shows even today for somebody who is now five feet eight inches tall.”

Todd Berkely

Malia (center on the ball) and Todd (far left) Berkely pose for a photo with their team.

Malia continued to improve even at a young age and had coaches singing her praises after matches early on. Her father recalls one specific interaction when she was still very young, and one of the coaches came up to her at the end of a game she had played very well in. The other coach put his arm around her and said to both of us, ‘You’re like the Michael Jordan of soccer.’ Malia had a smile on her face. She looked up at the Coach and said who is Michael Jordan?”

Todd and the opposition coach immediately saw their jaws drop. “I realized she’s so young that she’s never seen the greatest basketball player in the history of the game play before. The other coach started laughing and said, ‘As coaches, we are officially old.’ The whole way home, Malia asked who Michael Jordan was, and I showed her some videos.”

After educating Malia about Michael Jordan, the two soon bonded over music. “I started playing all kinds of 80s rock ‘n’ roll for her and nostalgic classical rock music to make sure she didn’t miss out on who Van Halen was, who Def Leppard who Michael Jackson was, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and KIX.”

With the mention of KIX, Todd recalled another humorous memory. “The night of the national championship game for Florida State in 2018, we were in North Carolina, and KIX was in town. Instead of hanging out and having dinner, I took her younger brother to the concert that night, so she missed the concert because she had the game the next day. She couldn’t believe we went the night before the big game,” laughed her father.

While Malia Berkely continued to improve her game and gain experience, many began to notice, including the United States Youth System. Her father recalls her first call-up to the youth national team coming with a “problem” for the coaching staff – she was almost too versatile.

“They had no idea where to put her because she played so many different positions when she played for me. I wouldn’t let her just play in one spot. She played every position on the field and had to learn each position and how it connects with others,” shared Todd Berkely. He continued to share more about Malia’s versatility when he was her high school coach at Badin High School in Hamilton, Ohio, saying, “When I was coaching her in high school, I would start her at the center-mid position, sometimes move her up to the 10, sometimes I would put her at the nine, and as the game moved on, I would move her back eventually to central defense.”

Todd Berkely preached the value of versatility and work ethic to Malia and his players, knowing that it would pay off in the long run and in the college game. However, that versatility and work ethic hasn't only been a trait for Malia on the pitch. The Courage defender earned her black belt last year in addition to the rigorous schedule of NWSL, the chaos of getting married, and much more.

Photo credit NC Courage

Berkely played multiple positions with the youth national team, including central midfield, outside back, and eventually center-back. In college, Berkely continued to play multiple positions but settled into the center-back position and has since become one of the best defenders in the NWSL.

Berkely has made a name for herself in the league. Since signing, the Courage won back-to-back NWSL Challenge Cups with Malia at the heart of the defense and continued its rise back to glory. Her time at the Courage didn’t start with that success, though; it required hard work, determination, and patience to improve and earn her spot.

In Berkely’s first season with the Courage, she often served as a backup to either Kurtz or former club captain Abby Erceg. While her talents were clear in her first NWSL season, it gave her time to adapt and grow as a player. After Erceg's departure, Berkely claimed the left center-back spot and hasn’t looked back since, and it’s easy to see why. Berkely possesses a flurry of talents typically required for a center-back. She has good awareness and anticipation and is capable of being physical with the strong forwards she has to face regularly.

Despite the massive defensive influence, Berkely sticks out with her passing and dribbling from the center-back position. She’s not afraid to make a difficult forward pass or move the ball up the pitch alone. Berkely can judge those moments that she can take advantage of and create chances in the attack.

Photo credit NC Courage

The Courage defender is currently recovering from a leg injury suffered in the match against Gotham FC on May 4. Berkely was selected to NWSL's Best XI team for March-April earlier this month. The talented defender also signed a contract extension through 2026 with the North Carolina Courage last year to keep her in Cary for the next three seasons.