Taylor Kornieck knows what her opponents see when she runs on the field. The San Diego Wave forward is the tallest field player in U.S. women’s national team history, an asset she uses to her advantage in aerial challenges in the midfield and towering headers in the attack.
“I do think that it’s something that no other team has, just a huge 6-1 girl running straight down the middle, and it’s a very dangerous thing to have,” she said with a smile before San Diego’s season opener, a 3-2 win over the Chicago Red Stars last weekend.
But her obvious physical attributes sometimes make it easy to overlook other skills she brings to the game, not least of which is a voracious desire to learn and improve.
At halftime of their season opener, the Wave found themselves knotted in a 2-2 draw in front of over 30,000 home fans. Head coach Casey Stoney had drawn her midfield up into a box formation for the game, with Kornieck at the top of the box. Teams have extensive scouting reports for a player like Kornieck, especially for late in a game when set pieces can make the difference. Against Chicago, the Wave’s midfield approach began to stretch the Red Stars’ defense late in the match, helping Alex Morgan draw a penalty and score the game-winning penalty kick in the 89th minute.
“I think when Kornieck’s in the game, you’re almost stupid to not play to her strengths, because what she does is so special in our game,” Chicago Red Stars head coach Christ Petrucelli said after the opener.
But what those strengths are have been put under a microscope as the midfielder continues to make her case for the USWNT roster. An attacking midfielder for her club, Kornieck has been slotted in as a forward attacking midfielder, a defensive midfielder and, she says, sometimes even at center back when training with the U.S. The juggling act makes it harder to get a clear picture of a talented player who has yet to reach her ceiling.
Kornieck’s ascension to the USWNT began with a fresh start in 2022, just two years into her professional career. A standout at the University of Colorado, Kornieck was selected third in the 2020 draft by the Orlando Pride, highly touted not only for her physicality but her ability to progress play with the ball at her feet. The season that followed was not what Kornieck — or anyone else — expected. Weeks into preseason, the NWSL canceled their regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and held the first-ever Challenge Cup as a stopgap tournament.
But the Pride didn’t get a chance to participate. Players tested positive for COVID right before the tournament was set to begin, making travel to Utah impossible for the group.
Without a real rookie year, Kornieck played her first regular season with the Pride in 2021 and grew more unsure Orlando provided the trajectory she wanted for her career. She registered two goals and three assists as the Pride lost head coach Marc Skinner to the WSL’s Manchester United midseason and finished eighth out of 10 teams.
“I didn’t really have the greatest year,” she says. “I just knew deep down I could strive to be so much better than how I was playing there.
“I think I don’t even look back at Orlando anymore, because I just know that that truly wasn’t me. Now I’m starting to sprout here and really blossom in who I want to become.”
As San Diego began roster-building for the first time, Kornieck immediately saw the expansion club as a good fit for her, and worked with her agent to make a trade out West a reality. The new club presented not only a chance for her to move closer to home in Las Vegas, but also to grow into the player she knew she could be with the right guidance.
“I felt like in Orlando, I mean, even in college, I really didn’t get the opportunity to learn truly and, and learn properly from — I had great coaches, don’t get me wrong — but I just felt like in a professional career, you just need a little bit more,” she says.
The 24-year-old found that guidance under Stoney, who led the Wave to third place in the 2022 regular-season standings and the semifinals of the playoffs, marking the best finish by a first-year expansion side in NWSL history.
The process begins in training.
“She gives us the space to feel free to make mistakes, and I think that’s something that’s not really taken that seriously at other clubs,” Kornieck says. “Mistakes are what make you grow.”
Providing the space to make mistakes is an intentional approach by Stoney, who says she did a lot of listening in her first year as an NWSL coach to understand what players coming in from other clubs needed in a training environment.
“I listened about their experiences and what they had previously undergone with other coaches, and mistakes were not allowed,” Stoney says. “The consequences were huge, the way that they would get almost screamed at and disciplined if they did make mistakes.”
Stoney’s approach has given her players the freedom to make the occasional risky pass, a skill Kornieck showcases with the ability of a veteran. She plays an attacking role in the midfield for the Wave, sitting right underneath Alex Morgan, who was also a teammate in Orlando.
“I think she has more of a clearer idea of what is expected of her from Casey,” Morgan says. “Which I think really helps her a lot in inner confidence, and knowing exactly what she needs to do on and off the field.”
Kornieck credits her first season in San Diego for helping her tighten up her positioning in space, which then allows her to focus on receiving and progressing the ball. When asked about her underrated strengths, she says she trusts her own vision in tight spaces, sometimes making the pass that no one else sees.
“I think it gives me more space in my brain to focus on other things,” she says.
The ability to adjust her positioning has proven to be her greatest asset to the national team, where head coach Vlatko Andonovski has used the midfielder in many different roles primarily off the bench.
“Of course everyone sees her as one of the tallest players, if not the tallest field player, in the league, but what people didn’t maybe see until last year was just how good she is at her feet, and getting out of situations that most people wouldn’t be able to get out otherwise,” says Morgan.
As a No. 6 option at the international level, Kornieck solves problems through short passes, minimizing risk in dangerous areas and not playing the tricky ball she’s known for in the NWSL. Once again, she’s had to learn to adapt to wildly different roles based on the game she’s entering, but Kornieck approaches the challenge with the same desire to improve.
“I need to just focus on me as a player,” she says, “and knowing my characteristics as a player instead of a certain position.”
Playing for the USWNT, the No. 1 team in the world, comes with a certain amount of outside pressure. Kornieck relies on Morgan, a USWNT veteran, for guidance on how to adapt to two very different roles for club and country.
“I’m always just picking her brain on just any more information she could give me,” Kornieck says.
.@taylorkornieck heads home the corner! pic.twitter.com/45gITngDeP— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) January 21, 2023
.@taylorkornieck heads home the corner! pic.twitter.com/45gITngDeP
Defensive positioning and simple passing are her focused areas of improvement, but she’s eager to pick up the skills to become a more well-rounded player.
“If you teach me how to do that, and I get some of that in my game as well on top of playing that long ball, which I do feel really comfortable doing, I think you could create something incredible,” she says.
For the USWNT, Kornieck embraces being whatever type of player she’s asked to be, with the goal of making her first major tournament roster for the 2023 World Cup. With just one national team camp left before Andonovski names the roster, Kornieck has continued to get consistent call-ups, most recently for the April international window, and appears to be one of the young players close to achieving that goal.
For the Wave, the task at hand is simpler: generate attack, score goals and keep improving. The club isn’t happy to simply repeat their 2022 success; they want to win every trophy available to them this year and play more nuanced styles of soccer, which requires the consistent progress that Kornieck embodies.
“I’ve worked closely with Taylor now for a year, I’ve seen so much growth and improvement,” Stoney says. “And I want to continue on that streak with her, because I think her ceiling is very high, and there’s so much more growth to come.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.