More a player-coach these days, Christie Pearce having fun

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For Christie Pearce, retirement looks an awful lot like she’s still working.

Pearce, who was known for much of her playing career as Christie Rampone but recently went back to using her maiden name on her jersey, formally retired from the U.S. national team earlier this year.

The 41-year-old defender didn’t walk away from the game entirely. She’s still grinding it out for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Sky Blue.

“My game’s a lot more mental than it is physical. Obviously, I still have my speed and I can run down players,” she said. “But I’m having fun. That’s the best part of it. I had my international career, I’m so grateful for that. But now I get to play with some younger players that give me energy, and I give back.”

As the most veteran player in the women’s pro league, Pearce is eying an eventual transition from player to coach. Sky Blue is a good place to start. The team is full of young talent, including Raquel Rodriguez, last season’s NWSL Rookie of the Year, and dynamic 23-year-old Australian forward Sam Kerr.

But Pearce’s main role is guiding and anchoring a backline that includes Kayla Mills, the fourth overall pick in the league draft earlier this year, and Mandy Freeman, the 10th pick. Both played at USC, which won last year’s NCAA College Cup championship game.

Sky Blue also plays a rookie at goalkeeper: Kailen Sheridan out of Clemson.

Those youngsters are starting to have a real impact for New Jersey. The team is coming off a 3-1 road victory over the Portland Thorns, which popped Sky Blue into third place in the league standings behind the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars. Last year, Sky Blue finished seventh among the NWSL’s 10 teams.

“We have very, very gifted young players that have so much potential and that are so fun to work with. Especially myself, being in the back, with a lot of young players,” she said. “Mandy and Kayla are amazing and they get better each and every game. People are starting to figure them out. It’s hard to break down. We have a great unit from the forwards all the way to the back, but our young rookies are doing really well.”

Pearce’s international career spanned two decades, and during her time she played under six national team coaches.

She won three Olympic gold medals and two World Cups. She played on the 1999 World Cup team that won the title at the Rose Bowl then was on the roster for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, joining fellow veteran Abby Wambach in receiving the championship trophy after a 5-2 victory in the final against Japan.

Pearce earned 311 caps, second-most in international history behind former teammate Kristine Lilly.

A New Jersey native, Pearce also played for Sky Blue in the Women’s Professional Soccer League. Pearce was a player-coach in 2009, leading the Sky Blue to the inaugural WPS championship. That league folded following the 2011 season.

When she was honored by the national team at a SheBelieves Cup match against England in March, she was purposely vague about returning to Sky Blue following her international team retirement. She wanted to make sure she could still do it.

“I figured if I went through preseason, I’d make the decision after that, realizing, `OK, can I get through this?”‘ she said.

In the end, the young players were a big reason she came back. And the mother of two has been able to hold her own, despite being twice as old as half of the backline.

“I think the unity among this team is incredible. It’s really special,” she said. “You don’t really see as many people working for each other as a team so early in the season, especially when you have so many new players.”