'Rays make Bryan No. 1 American
By Dean Caparaz, Soccer America
Thori Bryan has resurrected what had been a promising career in the early 1990s. Back then, as Thori Staples, she was on the fast track to women's soccer stardom.
After an All-America college career at North Carolina State, where she annually battled NCAA championship teams from North Carolina, Staples reached the pinnacle of the game -- starting twice for the U.S. national team at the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden.
But then-coach Tony DiCicco was not impressed with the defender's ball distribution, and Staples, who had started 10 games in '95 and played in 14 that year, fell out of favor. She played in 17 games and started just six over the next two years.
Staples, an alternate for the United States' 1996 Olympic team, played sporadically for the national team until 1998, when she married Kip Bryan. She played her 53rd game for the United States but didn't get called in again for another year.
The national coaching staff took notice as Bryan helped the Raleigh Wings win the 1998 and 1999 W-League championships. The national team called her in for the 2000 Australia Cup when Lauren Gregg and Jay Hoffman needed replacements for the striking veterans. But Bryan cut her trip Down Under short when her father passed away back home.
BACK ON TRACK. Almost a year later, Thori Bryan's career is back on track.
The Bay Area CyberRays stunned the 26-year-old Wolfpack alumna, if no one else, by drafting her with the last pick in the first round -- No. 8 overall -- in the WUSA's Global Draft. She was the first American player chosen. Teams took five Chinese, a Norwegian and a Finn before her.
San Jose is a world away from Bryan's home in Raleigh, N.C. -- playing for the Carolina Tempest would have been ideal -- but she's just glad her name was called.
"I was caught off guard," Bryan said, "and I was excited and happy and honored. There were all different kinds of emotions going on."
"We anticipated the Chinese players would go first and thought that Carolina might've taken her," said Ian Sawyers, who coordinated the CyberRays' scouting and draft. "We thought we would get a Chinese player, so we're so excited."
Said Atlanta coach Tom Stone: "If you're going to take a defender with your first pick in the first round, you want a player with national team experience, which she has, speed and strength, which she has, and a very tough mentality, which she has. It was a great first pick. It was great Thori was the first American to be chosen, and I told her that."
Sawyers, who might coach Bryan this spring, said Bryan was the best defender at the Florida combine held before the draft.
"I've seen Thori play a lot of years now," said the former Stanford coach, who watched Bryan play for the Wings. "At the combine, in terms of defense, she was a woman among girls. She was head and shoulders above anyone else. Her athleticism was phenomenal. She dominated the [fitness] tests.
"I'm so excited for her to be the first American taken. Now we can compete with all these fantastic forwards in the world that we'll be playing against -- Mia Hamm, Sun Wen, Dagny Mellgren. Now we have pace at the back."
REALITY SETS IN. Part of Bryan's surprise at being drafted stemmed from her doubts about the viability of a women's professional league. She was discouraged at the failure of the National Soccer Alliance, the last attempt at a women's pro league before the WUSA launched.
"I didn't really think it was going to happen [again]," she said. "It was kind of a shock too to be there on draft day; reality was setting in."
Now that it has happened, Bryan is looking forward to discovering life on the West Coast. She and her husband won't make a permanent move out West, because they own a home. Kip also owns a commercial cleaning business in Raleigh.
She has never been to the San Francisco Bay Area.
"I know that it's beautiful and it's expensive to live there," she said.
LESS PRESSURE. Bryan is a better player than she was in the mid-'90s thanks in large part to the Wings. That club has since folded, due to the onset of the WUSA and the Tempest.
"In the W-League, she was playing with a little less pressure than with the national team," Sawyers said. "I noticed her distribution was a lot better. In the past, she always had speed, but she seemed less confident technically. Now, she's much more confident and much more mature than I had ever seen her."
"Playing on the Wings was great," Bryan said. "You kept in shape, had good training. Dino [Wings head coach and UNC assistant coach Bill Palladino] is a great coach. It's important to get a new coach to help improvement. The W-League was definitely a great thing to lead up for this league."
She also played for a Danish club, which paid her room and board, for part of 2000.
Now that she's advanced from the amateur level to the pro ranks, Bryan can finally give up her day jobs. She quit her position with Wolfpack Sports Marketing on Dec. 1 so she could attend the combine. Through the years, she also worked at an insurance company, as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech and as a coach for various clubs.
For the foreseeable future, she'll make her living as a right back alongside some familiar faces on the CyberRays. The club also drafted her former N.C. State teammate Linda Kurtyka and has former UNC foe Tisha Venturini and former U.S. teammate Brandi Chastain on its roster.
Any talk of her past national team experience is bittersweet for Bryan.
"I thought I wouldn't be able to play again," she said. "This really made me happy. It gives me an opportunity to really play again at a higher level."
Dean Caparaz is an associate editor at Soccer America magazine.