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'I wasn’t willing to compromise my happiness': Former Utah Royals FC center back Sam Johnson opens up about why she decided to retire

Sam Johnson
Sam Johnson
Rich Gordon

SALT LAKE CITY — Shock, confusion and a number of other emotions began to spread among Utah Royals FC fans on the night of June 28 as rumor began to spread online that 28-year-old center back Sam Johnson would be retiring from professional soccer after the game.

Following the contest, URFC head coach Laura Harvey confirmed that Johnson, who had played in the National Women’s Soccer League since 2014, was in fact retiring.

While it came as a big surprise to many given the fact that Johnson is still a starter-quality center back in the NWSL, it’s been on her mind for a number of years.

Johnson has actually left the game once before, opting to not pursue professional opportunities after her collegiate career at USC ended in 2012 (the NWSL’s first season was in 2013).

“I didn’t really like soccer after college,” she told the Deseret News by phone last weekend. “It was hard, I was tired of doing it and I was like, ‘OK, let’s just move on with life.'”

She ended up trying out for the Chicago Red Stars in 2014, however, and made the team. There are no official stats available for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but over the course of the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, Johnson made 43 starts for the Red Stars.

Despite her success, Johnson said she remained unhappy giving so much of her life to soccer. She recognized, though, that it was her “vehicle to success” and kept at it, even going to Australia to play during the NWSL’s offseasons.

“I had my good days where I was like, ‘OK, this is not that bad,’ but then I had my bad days where I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “You kind of just go through your ups and downs and deal with it, but if it gets to the point as it did for me where I genuinely have other opportunities that I want to do, I don’t want to play soccer anymore, I no longer need the game as far as playing to open up doors and fulfill my happiness, that’s when you know it’s time to walk away.”

Johnson was traded to URFC last summer and finally before this NWSL season (she played in Australia last winter), she felt she was ready to make the move.

“Consistently I want to be happy with what I’m doing, especially because it takes so much effort and time and you have to sacrifice your life to do it,” she said. “I just got to the point where I didn’t want to use soccer as an excuse anymore to pass up opportunities, and I wasn’t willing to compromise my happiness.”

She had what she described in an email as an “emotional conversation” with Harvey about it, who was wholly supportive.

“Thankfully she is a person that values the well-being of her players and would never want me to be unhappy,” Johnson wrote. “She helped me through all of this and the process so the team could succeed and I could be happier.”

There was a bit of a catch, however. As Harvey detailed on June 28, URFC couldn’t find a suitable replacement for Johnson in a year when fellow center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Corsie were going to play in the World Cup. Not wanting to let the group down, Johnson said she’d stay with the team until it could go on without her.

“Laura and I agreed on how I could help the team succeed during the WC and how I could be happier knowing the end was near,” Johnson wrote. “I cannot thank her enough for that.”

Through her first few weeks of retirement, Johnson said, “I’ve never been so happy in my life,” and she’s relocated to Chicago, where she plans on settling to pursue various business opportunities.

Although Johnson will no longer play professionally, she says that soccer will always be a very real part of who she is.

“Because I played soccer, I’ve become who I am today, so I can’t discredit my entire 23 years of being involved with the game. It’s not just going to go away. I’m going to approach every day like an athlete mentality-wise. That’s just how I am. That’s how I’m engrained. ... Now I’m not playing the game. I’m playing the game of life.”