Tina Ellertson is the first to admit she didn't take the usual path to soccer stardom, but somehow it has all worked out. She's been one of the best American defenders for the past decade, playing for magicJack last season, and has learned to balance a growing family at the same time.
Ellertson, 29, has made many sacrifices to try to have it all. In the unstable world of Women's Professional Soccer, Ellertson and her young family have had to move around. Her first team, St. Louis Athletica, folded in midseason in 2010. She joined the Atlanta Beat for the rest of the season, then moved to South Florida with magicJack.
Her husband, Brad, and daughters MacKenzie (10) and Mya (3) have split time between Washington and Florida, with Ellertson using the travels as a teaching moment.
"You show them: Mom switched teams, but she's not sad," Ellertson said. "I hope it's helped them see that to pursue your dream to be what you want to be, it's going to take challenges."
Ellertson has overcome some big challenges to have her soccer career. In high school and club soccer in Vancouver, Wash., she was a scoring phenom. Then known as Tina Frimpong, she was set to play collegiately at Santa Clara. When she learned she was pregnant right after graduation, those plans changed. She took a year off, giving birth to MacKenzie and caring for a newborn, and decided to stay closer to home at the University of Washington. Brad, then her boyfriend, also transferred to Washington from Washington State.
"Going into college having a child isn't the norm, but it grounded me and made me focus," Ellertson said. "I couldn't imagine college without her."
When she returned from her year off, she had a hat trick in one her first games. Her senior year of 2004 was exceptional. She was named Pac-10 player of the year after scoring 16 goals. The Huskies went 17-5-1 and reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
Another benefit of being at Washington: Ellertson spent a couple of years as a teammate of current U.S. national team star goalie Hope Solo, who became a good friend and a teammate on several more clubs down the road. Ellertson first learned about Solo when her high school coach told her she was a couple of goals behind Solo for the Washington state scoring lead. Then Ellertson went to college and met her erstwhile rival, now her teammate. Back then, Solo was making a name scoring goals, not stopping them.
Solo switched to goalkeeping in college. And like Solo, Ellertson would give up her spot on the front line. By graduation, she had attracted the attention of U.S. national team coach Greg Ryan, who envisioned the high-scoring forward as a shutdown defender.
Solo, reached by Twitter, teased her onetime goal-scoring rival but said Ellertson found her best position. "I'm the best goal scorer!" Solo said. "She's the best athlete and defender! She was born to be a defender!"
Solo then turned serious about Ellertson.
"She's one of the best mothers I've ever seen and is one of the best friends I've ever had," Solo said. "She has a very open mind, which I love and respect."
One of the constants in Ellertson's hectic life has been Solo, who was there at Washington, with the national team, with St. Louis, with Atlanta and with magicJack. This year, Ellertson added a postseason trip to her travel itinerary to cheer on Solo when she competed on "Dancing with the Stars."
"We grew on the field and off the field," Ellertson said. "She's helped make me the player I am today. She knows she can push me, and she believes in me."
Ellertson says her experience up front helps her at the back.
"It's all about getting in the head of the forward, trying to predict what they're doing and stopping them from doing it," she said. "I'm grateful to have had that experience."
Ellertson's career and family grew after college. She and Brad married in 2006, with MacKenzie serving as flower girl. Then she made it to the 2007 Women's World Cup and played in three games while carrying a bit of a surprise. She was pregnant again with her second daughter, Mya, who was born in 2008.
She wasn't able to get back onto the national team for the Olympics a few weeks later, though she got into a couple of games on the USA's post-Games tour and scored her first international goal. But she hasn't been back on the team since then, even with a WPS résumé that includes three straight nominations for defender of the year.
"She is one of the best, pure one-on-one defenders in the country and creates chaos going forward," said Kate Markgraf, who also has balanced the roles of mother and elite-level defender. "I bet she is on every forward's top two players they don't want to go against."
Ellertson is also part of an group of elite players who have come back to excel as "soccer moms," along with Markgraf, Christie Rampone, Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck. One trend: They're all defenders.
"Maybe it's that tough mentality," Ellertson said. "Maybe we just know that we have it in us to do it all."
That's not an easy path to take. But Ellertson is glad she's taking it.
"I can't imagine soccer without my kids," Ellertson said. "You value soccer even more. I want to keep going with this. I want to take my kids along for the ride."