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Utah Royals FC rookie Tziarra King making early impact off the field with her words, on it with her play

Utah Royals FC forward Tziarra King runs up field during the second half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match against the Houston Dash at Zions Bank Stadium Tuesday, June 30, 2020, Herriman, Utah.
Rick Bowmer, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Not even five minutes into her time as a member of Utah Royals FC had passed when a prediction was made about Tziarra King that is quickly proving to be prescient.

It was January and King had just been selected eighth overall in the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League draft out of North Carolina State, becoming the first first-round pick in URFC history. As is custom in the league for early picks, King was in attendance at the draft in Baltimore and gave a brief speech upon getting chosen, where she prioritized thanking the grounds crew and equipment staff at NC State.

Moments later as she was about to be interviewed on the broadcast, reporter Jordan Angeli said, “Tziarra King is bringing me a little bit of energy and I like it,” which King reacted to by pointing at the camera.

After the interview came the prediction from draft analyst Jen Cooper: “You can see she’s very comfortable with who she is, what she’s gonna do, and I think if you can put all those pieces together in Utah, she’s going to have a really great rookie season.”

King and URFC have played just one game in 2020 so far as the NWSL holds its Challenge Cup this month in Herriman in place of a traditional season, but already King has made a significant impact, and in more ways than one. In Tuesday’s opener against the Houston Dash, her off-balance header in the 89th minute drew the match level at 3, giving URFC a point when it appeared the squad would leave the day with none.

That alone would certainly be a memorable start, but it comes at a time when King has been an important figure in a conversation about something much bigger than soccer. On May 25, the day the NWSL began allowing teams to train in small groups, George Floyd was killed while in the custody of police in Minneapolis, which led to the nationwide protests against police brutality and increased talk about racial justice.

Almost immediately, the 21-year-old King, who is Black, became a prominent voice within URFC regarding racial justice, notwithstanding she’s the second-youngest player on the team. Privately, she reached out to teammates she had just started to get to know to say she was willing and ready to have conversations some might have seen as uncomfortable. Publicly, she’s been open in sharing her thoughts and feelings.

On May 27, for example, she tweeted, “I couldn’t stop myself from crying today. An accumulation of anger, sadness, and the feeling of hopelessness. Black people are not disposable. Our lives matter. I realized that hopeless is exactly how they want us to feel. But that can’t stop us from continuing to fight against racist systems and challenging the things we know are wrong.

“If you aren’t enraged and disgusted by what continually happens to black people in this country, you are a part of the problem. If you feel like this doesn’t affect you, you are a part of the problem. If you aren’t actively speaking up against this, you are a part of the problem.”

Over the next 10 days, she continued to share various messages on social media related to racial justice, and then on June 7, she posted on Instagram a video just over four minutes in length in which she expressed love and encouragement to Black women and girls specifically.

“Just remember that you’re loved, and I hear you and I’m with you and I feel with you and I support you,” she concluded.

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Why make these efforts? Sure, King might naturally be one who, to use her own words, “really enjoys communicating with others and getting a sense of how people think and how people feel,” and “I don’t think I’ve ever really had a problem with speaking my mind,” but regardless, she said she’s felt it important to be vocal during this time.

“For me, it’s been so much bigger than this past month,” she said earlier this week. “It’s been something that as a Black woman, I’ve experienced my whole life. I’ve always wanted to share that and bring those difficult conversations and bring these social injustices to the forefront, because it’s more than just a Black person issue. It’s a human issue, and I think that everybody should understand that and be compassionate and care about it.”

King’s actions have drawn unsolicited public praise from at least one teammate, as midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta shared the video King made on her Instagram story and wrote, “She may be a rookie but I look up to her!”

Although he wasn’t specific before Tuesday’s opener, URFC head coach Craig Harrington noted that King is settling in well as a player, and then said he’s proud of “what she’s brought to our locker room as a character and a person.”

King humbly recognizes more people are looking her way now that she is a professional. Although she hadn’t even played a pro game yet before Tuesday, she already had a loyal following of URFC fans, many of whom have bought jerseys with her name and No. 3 on the back, which has to be done by custom order.

“I’m thankful for this platform, and I’ll always use it to be vocal about the things that I care about because at the end of the day, I care so deeply about these things and I want to let it be known to other people, young kids, young Black kids, that I’m fighting in your favor and for us and for our culture,” she said.

As for the game Tuesday, King subbed on in the 70th minute with URFC having just gone down 3-1. Vero Boquete got URFC back to within one 12 minutes later, but it appeared to be too little too late. In the 88th minute, however, Elizabeth Ball drew a free kick, which Boquete took. King got loose and Boquete’s kick ended up near her, but bounced at her side.

“I actually had a lot of thoughts in that moment,” King said. “The way the ball kind of came off the ground, I was like, ‘Man, what body part am I about to use to get this goal?’”

She went with her head, tilting it down and to the side, and she put the ball right past Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell for the equalizer.

“I was really thinking, and somehow my head tilted and my body contorted and I was able to get on the end of it, but I just knew the ball wasn’t passing me,” she said. “It was going in the back of the net.”

After the game, King reflected on the entirety of that opening contest, which saw all of her teammates kneel during the national anthem beforehand.

“Honestly, this whole day was really special to me,” she said. “From kneeling and honoring the Black Lives Matter movement to getting my first game appearance and my first goal, definitely one that’s gonna go down in the record books. One of the best days ever.”