(Houston Dash/Paul-Michael Ochoa)

Christine Nairn’s face was full of emotion in the 78th minute of the Houston Dash’s friendly against Tigres Feminil on Sunday. Teammates hugged her and fans gave her a standing ovation as she made her way across the field to where Maegan Rosa was waiting to sub in.

Nairn was stepping off the field as an NWSL player for the very last time. Her career as a firefighter would begin less than 12 hours after the final whistle.

Nairn, one of the NWSL’s original players, helped the Dash to a 5-1 win in her send-off at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. Having played soccer since the age of four, Nairn, now 30, is ready for a new chapter.

“It’s been an emotional week,” the Maryland native said. “I’ve cried more than I think I ever have in my life. I think it just goes to show that I still love this sport, you know, getting teary-eyed again. I love this sport so much, I love this team so much and it’s a hard decision, but I’m excited about the next step, selfishly for myself.

“It was the perfect night for me, to have my parents in the stands and to be able to see them and to walk away with such a ceremony and walking away with my head held high with a win and my teammates hugging me as I come off the field. So for me, it was a perfect ending to my career.”

The midfielder is one of just seven players in the league to record 20 goals and 20 assists, and she ranks fourth for most matches played with 168. In October 2019, she became the first NWSL player to reach 150 appearances. The following season, Nairn and the Dash won the Challenge Cup for their first league title.

Nairn’s teammates describe her as a legend.

“I came in and immediately kind of gravitated toward her because she is such a smart player,” Dash midfielder Makamae Gomera-Stevens said. “She knows a lot about the game. For me, I made sure to ask her a lot of questions during my little time that I have been here. She impacted me and I know she impacted the team a lot.”

Dash head coach James Clarkson remembers signing Nairn when he first took the job late in 2018.

“I couldn’t talk, I was crying,” Clarkson said after Sunday’s match. “That was pretty tough. I wanted to make sure she could come off and get the standing ovation that she deserves, and it’s been a very emotional week for her. I thought she played great and it was a lovely send-off for her.”

Following a short career with the U.S. women’s national team, in which she scored the winning goal against Canada in a 2009 friendly, Nairn entered the NWSL as the seventh overall pick of Seattle Reign FC in the inaugural 2013 draft. She has played for Seattle (now OL Reign), the Washington Spirit, Orlando Pride and Houston Dash over nine seasons.

Clarkson believes Nairn deserves more credit as a pioneer in the league.

“I think it’s very important, when we talk about the growth of this game, recognizing the players that were at the forefront of this,” he said. “The start of the league, sacrificing everything and for the players coming through [now]. She does it for the love of the game, not for money, and she has kept this league afloat.”

After the match against Tigres, Nairn said her teammates had placed a basket of flowers, cookies and cards for her in the locker room. In fact, since she announced her retirement on Instagram last Thursday, Nairn’s week was filled with supportive texts and conversations.

Nairn will still be around to watch the Dash from the stands; she plans to remain in Houston for her new career as a first responder.

“She’s going to be a fantastic firefighter,” Clarkson said. “That’s all I can say, because everything she puts her mind to she is successful at.”