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Thorns' Rachel Buehler shines on the back line

by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Rachel Buehler of the Portland Thorns wins a header over Boston Breakers midfielder Mariah Nogueira during last week's game at Jeld-Wen Field.It’s a warm day, and Portland Thorns FC defender Rachel Buehler is sweating after a practice. Asked about the level of her play this season, she scrunches her freckled face tightly, then smiles.

“It’s hard for me to talk about myself as a player,” she says.

She warms up to the idea, though, and her eyes light up a bit as she talks about the matchup with superstar striker Abby Wambach that will take place in a 2 p.m. Sunday game at Jeld-Wen Field between the Thorns and the Western New York Flash.

“I do get excited for that,” Buehler says. “Abby and I are a good matchup because we’re both physical players. I don’t back down to her physicality.

“Those are the games I enjoy the most. It will be a good battle for her, for sure.”

What the 5-5, 27-year-old Buehler forgets to mention is that she will be giving away at least six inches. But, being the smaller woman in the fight is nothing new for her.

Growing up in Del Mar, Calif., Buehler lived in a neighborhood with six boys, all about her age.

“I was the little girl tagging along with all the boys,” she says. “I didn’t have any brothers, but those boys were like brothers to me. I was right there with them, playing football and tackling, doing everything.”

American football, she means, although she and the boys also spent a lot of time playing soccer. And she never had a problem keeping up.

“I held my own,” she says. “They’re the ones who helped mold me into who I am. They helped create that fearlessness and aggressiveness. That was a big shaping moment in my childhood in terms of the player I am and the person I am.”

As a youth, Buehler was an attacking player. But the seeds of being a defender were already in her.

“I always had those instincts,” she says. “I was fast and good at anticipating. A lot of being a defender is having good anticipation and reaction time — predicting where the ball is going and reacting quickly.

“What I would do is, as the other team was trying to play around the back, I would track down the ball, tackle somebody and then go to the goal. I was the hardest-working defending forward you’d ever want to see.”

At Stanford, she converted to a defender position.

“I learned a lot of defensive principals and what it means to be connected as a back line,” she says.

Buehler grew up as women’s soccer was gaining in popularity.

In 1999, she attended a Women’s World Cup match in California. She remembers watching the U.S. women win the championship on PKs.

“It was an incredible, inspiring moment that put women’s soccer on the map,” she says.

A sustainable women’s professional soccer league was still a long way off, though, and Buehler was certain that after she finished her career for the Cardinal she would hang up her boots. Her father, Donald, is a heart surgeon and Buehler wanted to follow in his footsteps and go into medicine. She began studying hard.

“I was ready to go to medical school,” Buehler says.

Then Pia Sundhage took over the U.S. women’s national team. She liked Buehler’s game and invited her to join the team that eventually captured gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Since then, Buehler has earned more than 100 caps with the national team and helped the U.S. win another Olympic gold medal in 2012 in London.

“It’s been an incredible experience. A whirlwind. A gift,” she says.

Buehler still plans to attend medical school. She currently is on a long deferment from the University of California at San Diego.

Sometime this season, she plans to job shadow Thorns team doctor Jamie Schlueter, who works in an emergency room when not with the team. Buehler says she might want to go into sports medicine.

“I’ve got a lot of experience in that from my own injuries and being on a team,” she says, “and it would be cool to be in a team environment.”