'I'll always miss Donegal, but I know I'm in the right place': Kate Keaney
It is a year since Kate Keaney swapped Donegal and a role with the Republic of Ireland women's team for a new post with US Soccer. She talks to Neil Loughran about family, missing Gaelic football and finding happiness far from home…
THE years between lifting a World Cup and having the opportunity to defend it can be tricky to navigate. A guaranteed place at the next one is reward for hunting down soccer’s biggest game, but the trap has already been set.
Inertia becomes the enemy once the lustre of past glories wears off, the balance not easily struck between sharpening steel and Harlem Globetrotters tour attraction as the absence of qualification requirement lulls you in then spits you out.
History is littered with examples of winners with full bellies falling short; it is terrain the US Women’s National Team (US WNT) know all too well.
In just under four months they kick-off against Vietnam in Auckland’s Eden Park, determined to keep hold of a World Cup won in France four years ago, gunning for a third in-a-row after the class of 2015 brought them back to the top.
Complacency has long been a dirty word in these circles.
The profile of the women’s game, particularly in the US, has gone through the roof since 2019. And while poster girls Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe may be edging towards the end of their careers, the production line keeps on rolling, that sprinkling of stardust following wherever they go.
Kate Keaney has witnessed the wheels in motion at first hand.
Last month marked a year since she traded Ireland for Chicago and a new job as sports scientist for US Soccer’s female youth teams, covering U15s to U23, making the former Donegal GAA star a key figure in ensuring America remains the game’s dominant force.
Invaluable experience with Irish rugby and the Republic of Ireland women’s set-up through work at STATSports - the Newry-based company that provides GPS systems and analysis to teams across the globe - helped land her dream gig Stateside.
And in a fortnight’s time, on April 8, new and old worlds collide when Vera Pauw’s side take on the US in Austin - the first leg of a pre-World Cup double-header before meeting again in Missouri three days later.
Plans are already afoot to head south as a fan, an opportunity to see some familiar faces as their own countdown to this summer’s showpiece in Australia and New Zealand cranks up a notch.
When the action gets under way at the Q2 Stadium, there will be no divided loyalties.
“I’ll be there in the crowd with my Irish jersey,” she smiles.
And while Keaney is also contemplating heading Down Under to cheer on the girls in green once the World Cup comes around, there is a growing sense that, right now, after a hectic first 12 months, America is where she belongs.
“I don’t know if I’ve fully settled yet, but I’m living with a girl from Kerry, I’m really good friends with another girl from Mayo, a fella from Mayo, a girl I played minor alongside with Donegal is out here - there’s a huge Irish community.
“That’s the thing that makes it a lot easier, and then I’m really lucky in work, I’ve met such nice people, made such good friends.
“The first year we were away so often, I probably didn’t really let myself settle – it was just go, go, go, go. But when I came home to Donegal after a camp in England there in February, it was definitely like something just… I don’t know.
“Something just clicked.”
IT is little wonder Kate Keaney’s professional career took her on a path that aligned so perfectly with her passion. Sport, and Gaelic football in particular, has been an ever-present since the earliest days of going out to the back yard with brothers Luke, Jack and David.
Luke, the eldest of the clan, played for Donegal and appeared set for a big future with the Tir Chonaill until a series of hip operations brought his playing days to a premature end. When that dream died, he took up rowing, since going on to represent Ireland at world and European level.
Jack is enjoying a thriving soccer career, currently captaining UCD in the League of Ireland, while youngest sibling David played a bit of football with Four Masters and is now working in Áras an Uachtaráin.
They didn’t lick it off the stones either. Grandfather Tom ‘Pook’ Dillon was corner-back on the 1956 All-Ireland-winning Galway side while his daughters, including Keaney’s mum Deirdre, all played camogie with Ahascaragh.
Indeed, Deirdre remains a force of nature still. Within nine months of a breast cancer diagnosis in January 2019, she raised over €10,000 when running the Dublin marathon. Cancer free, her offspring receive regular updates of how many miles have been clocked.
“Growing up we were always just immersed in sport - we played football outside morning, noon and night.
“It’s good because they keep you on your toes… you’d nearly feel bad if you weren’t going to the gym or out for a run because they’re always doing so much.
“Even my mum like, if she’s not running, she’s cycling. You’d be getting a WhatsApp there saying ‘120k done’, where I’d be rolling over in bed! She has five sisters, they were brought up on a farm, lost their mother young so my granda raised them. Her side of the family were hugely sporty, and they just have this huge drive.
“That obviously fed down to us in some way. There were years I didn’t know exactly what it was I wanted to do, but I always knew I wanted to work in sport at the elite level. I just love the buzz of it, the people, the adrenaline in that environment.”
It’s that buzz Keaney missed most after moving to America.
Since making her Donegal senior debut at 15, everything revolved around football as she played her part in the Tir Chonaill’s 2009 All-Ireland minor success, an intermediate crown the following year and three Ulster senior titles during the past decade.
A busy schedule prevented any kind of meaningful commitment to Aisling Gaels in Chicago last year, though that is something she hopes can change in the months ahead. But accepting that - at 30 - her playing days with Donegal are most likely a thing of the past, it’s taking time to process.
“The buzz you get from being involved with the girls over here, being involved in a competitive sporting environment with the US youth teams, might have made the transition from not playing a little bit easier, but you still miss being a part of that.
“The last year I didn’t go back for pre-season with Donegal because I knew I was coming out here. I found it hard to say to Maxi [Curran] that I was going… the girls I’m closest to, they knew it was going to be difficult, so they weren’t flat out chatting about it.
“The hard parts were when I was here in Chicago, when I wasn’t away on a training camp, and Donegal were playing… you just miss it.
“Niamh McLaughlin is one of my best friends, I speak to her a huge amount, and it was probably good in a way that I was so busy and I didn’t really have time to dwell on it. But I was their biggest supporter. Niamh’s mum would keep me updated on games that might not have been on TV.
“You probably think about what it means to you more when you’re away, about the friends you made, the days you had together. Like, I was at Ciara Hegarty’s wedding when I was back last October - there’s girls you might not see or chat to for six months, then you go home and it’s as if you were never away.
“I wake up sometimes wishing I could still play, but I know I made the right decision for me.”
And that experience between the white lines adds a different dimension to what Keaney has to offer the next generations of US soccer hopefuls. She gets the struggles, gets the occasional down sides, because she has been through them herself.
Despite the success enjoyed and the treasure trove of memories taken away, there were still dark days along the road. A seemingly innocuous incident in a challenge game with Dublin in 2015 resulted in such a serious concussion that she deferred the final exams of her degree at the University of Limerick.
Keaney made her county comeback in that year’s Division Two final before helping Donegal secure a first-ever senior Ulster title against Monaghan, but disaster struck again a couple of years later when she tore her cruciate ligament in the Division One final against Cork.
Typical of the resilience displayed by mum Deirdre and brother Luke when adversity raised its head, Keaney just wanted the talking to stop and the football to flow.
“I really struggled with people always referring to the injuries, because I was like ‘right, well, I’m back now’ - it’s part and parcel, isn’t it? It maybe just seemed like I was injured a fair bit for a few years because they were back-to-back.
“The concussion I had was the first year we won Ulster and I think that’s why it was so special - because it happened, then I came back and played in them games.
“I never fell out of love with football or anything. It was hard to come back from both of them, they’re both horrendous, but I was always determined to get there.”
By then, though, the next chapter was already under way.
For three years Keaney balanced playing commitments with professional aspirations that brought her into the inner sanctum of Ireland’s international teams, before an opportunity to broaden horizons came along out of the blue.
Following a rigorous interview process that stretched out over several months, she made a shortlist of four before a final presentation to US Soccer’s high performance staff over Zoom sealed the deal.
And, as reality began to bite heading towards departures in Dublin airport, a chance encounter with former Mayo forward Andy Moran and his wife helped settle any pre-flight nerves.
“He nearly got on the wrong flight,” she smiles, “he was lining up beside me on the Chicago flight and he was going to New York.”
Keaney’s first job was helping out the US WNT, “learning the ropes from the head of high performance” at last year’s SheBelieves Cup before settling into Chicago’s ‘Soccer House’ and work with the country’s youth programme.
So much of what she sees on a day-to-day basis strikes a chord with home and her own experiences, even if other aspects took some getting used to.
“Firstly, ‘pinnies’ are bibs and ‘cleats’ are football boots. The first few camps when I was delivering warm-ups you could just see the faces like… what?
“But there’s actually a lot of similarities from my own playing days with Donegal. The culture is hugely important. You have girls at U16 for instance, from California, LA, San Diego, Florida, Texas… like, we have a camp in LA and girls from Florida are flying six hours by themselves, at 15, to get here.
“You think the players are older than they are because they’re just so mature on the field. They’re so talented, so competitive - every little thing they want to win – but all of them are such good people as well. If you’re not a good person, you’re not going to be there long.
“U15 is the first age group they come in at international level, and those standards and the culture set is the exact same as the WNT. Everything we do from a high performance end is exactly the same, only condensed down.”
And, while not hung up on what has gone before, their remarkable run of senior success permeates the entire system as a consequence.
“In every camp, that’s what they talk about – the past, the present, the future,” says Keaney, “it’s all tied in, and it’s not just the 2019 team, but the ‘99ers’, 2015… it’s completely embedded the whole way through.”
As the days tick down towards the big one this summer, World Cup fervour is slowly starting to build. And they aren’t the only ones.
BLEARY eyes barely open as Kate Keaney fumbles for her alarm and sits up in bed. It is approaching 3am on October 12, 2022 and here she is in the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar.
Hours earlier the USA strolled to an 8-0 win over the host nation in the group stages of the U17 Women’s World Cup but, for now, her attention is fully focused on the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Scotland at Hampden Park.
A tight, tense affair hangs in the balance until, in the 72nd minute, super-sub Amber Barrett bounds onto a ball from Denise O’Sullivan before sliding beyond Scottish ’keeper Lee Gibson. Ireland are going to the World Cup.
The Milford woman, who played alongside Keaney with Donegal, immediately points to the black armband on her left arm, later dedicating her goal to the “10 beautiful souls” who had died in the explosion at a Creeslough petrol station days earlier.
“I was watching it over the dodgiest WiFi but, honest to God, I cried with happiness for them.
“It was a tough week for Ireland, for Donegal in particular… just horrendous. So it was really special that Amber scored, and then Amber is just an unbelievable speaker - everything’s from the heart.
“She hadn’t got a huge amount of playing time leading up to that but, playing with Amber, she just wants to get on. She’s confident, just like ‘come on, I’ll get you a goal’, and she did.
“It’s a huge achievement.”
And one that, Keaney hopes, can inspire future generations in the same way it has done Stateside.
“It’s history. I wasn’t born when Italia ’90 happened, but the way people still talk about it over 30 years on, you can see the generational impact it had – Ireland at a World Cup for the first time.
“If you look at this Ireland squad, it’s talented - it always has been talented. Denise O’Sullivan and Katie McCabe are unbelievable, they’re world class. Now they’re getting the backing, and the momentum is coming with it.
“The crowd in Sydney that first night [against co-hosts Australia], it will be so special. A lot of those girls were involved in the last Euros campaign too when they just missed out on qualification.
“They’ve worked so hard to get here.”
Keaney has worked hard to get where she is too, and still it only feels like the beginning of her journey; the challenges already overcome making her better placed to handle those that lie ahead.
“I always said I’d never let myself get homesick - if I needed to go back for a week, I would.
“The last few months have really showed me how much I love what I do, and I’m excited to see what the future brings.
“I love going home to Donegal, and I’ll always miss Donegal, but I know I’m in the right place.”