Melbourne Victory Women’s Dani Weatherholt opens up about the key ingredients behind the club’s first Premiership trophy, playing abroad, and her passion to grow the game, in an exclusive with The Football Sack.

If you would’ve asked the Orlando Pride loanee if Victory Women’s would win their maiden W-League Premiership at the start of the season, you’d better believe it when Dani Weatherholt said they were going to win everything.

Image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

“Having not played for Victory before, I just came in with high expectations that we’re going to win it all. From the first training I knew we were a talented group but I had no idea what to expect, so I just set my expectations really high, so us winning was not a shock to me,” the 24 year old said.

“I’ve no doubt in my mind that we have a good championship culture. It’s interesting, every game I went into, I never doubted, there was never a game where I was worried, the way the team pulls together.

“Our emphasis is playing for one another, fighting for one another, working hard, and I think that shows every game. We’re passionate, we want to have fun, we want to be laughing and enjoying what we’re doing.”

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Apart from the close knit camaraderie the side displayed, the defensive midfielder says that she was swayed by Jeff Hopkins to play for Victory, despite having been in contact with other W-League club.

“From the beginning… he was more concerned about who I was about a person, my values and my character. I think that spoke volumes about him, I love that he was a coach that wanted to being in good people,” Dani said.

“His emphasis was to create a culture – good people that were hardworking and play for each other. That was exactly what he orchestrated at Victory and I’m very proud of what he’s done. I’ve done multiple film, training sessions with Jeff and he’s made himself available to me to work on stuff I want work on individually, which has allowed him to grow immensely as a player.

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“Not only has the girls been exceptional but Jeff’s an incredible coach – I feel like Jeff could be like my dad,” Dani said.

8000 miles away from home, in a whole new league

Challenges was something the Californian embraced and built on. Since young, Dani choose to put hours into the sport she was the weakest in, rather than pursuing her other strong suits in softball, golf, or baseball. This incessant push to improve her game saw her suffer a meniscus tear at a tender age of nine, and a broken sesamoid bone at 16. That failed to stop Dani, instead, it further prepped her for the adversaries that lay ahead. Keen to power through her ambition of turning professional, Dani spent her college holidays attending summer classes at Santa Clara University to ensure an early graduation.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been home for longer than a week so it’s tough. Not being home with my family for Christmas is hard, but I couldn’t be more excited to see my family now, so I think there’s a blessing in that,” Dani said.

Having spent three years in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with Orlando Pride, the loan move abroad for the 2018/19 W-League season was her first time playing in another top-tier league. She feels there are key takeaways in the W-League.

“The speed of play in the US is a lot faster, I’ve grown a lot in the W-League as the games are slower and it allows me to see the whole picture on the field. There’s an emphasis for our team specifically, on possession, attack, and breaking down the tactical side of the game, whereas in the NWSL it’s more of a physical game,” Dani said.

Displaying her usual combative, defensive prowess this season, Orlando Pride fans’ ears would be pricked to hear that Dani has been melded and prodded by this Victory outfit to work on the attacking side of her game. She has already picked up 2 assists this season, having never registered an assist in her professional career before her stint at Victory.

The gift of football

The passionate photographer’s Instagram and VSCO might be populated with picturesque sceneries, but Dani has other pursuits that she holds close to her heart. Working with Soccer Without Borders, Dani has already made multiple trips to poverty ridden towns in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to help empower young girls through football, despite being a professional football player of less than 4 years.

“Giving girls those tools to be confident, to have self belief and to know they can push themselves through sports, that’s something I’m passionate about. I’ve seen girls playing football for the first time, I’ve seen all their their smiles, and I think that’s the highlight of all my football career,” Dani said.

Image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

“I feel so fortunate that there were no boundaries for me to play sports, to play with the boys, beat the boys. I pride myself on being a tomboy but I’m confident that I’m a woman who’s strong and I think that’s such a quality to pass on to the girls.

“Getting people to play the sport that has given me so much, it breaks down so many barriers … once the ball’s on the ground, it’s level playing field,” she said.

Back in Orlando, Dani actively participates in local community sports clubs, spending time with kids “as many times as possible in a week”. She intents to partake more actively in similar projects once she’s hung up her boots.

But for now, the fringe U23 United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) player remains focused on being called up for the senior team. Dani has travelled with the U23 team to Spain and Norway for friendly tournaments in late 2018, but has recently been cycled out of the squad.

“I’m just working hard to pursue my dream of a USWNT senior team call-up, but I’m just focusing on what I can control … at Victory and Orlando,” Dani said.

“My first year here has been amazing, and I’m so grateful for that, but I think we want to win it all.

“Winning the league is one thing, but we are so set on winning the whole championship, as that’s more important than anything,” she said.

Dani and co. will face Perth Glory Women this Sunday (10 February) in the first leg of the W-League semi-final at AAMI Park, at 2pm.

Feature image credit: Ngau Kai Yan

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Journalism undergrad at Monash University, Kai is a multimedia journalist covering Melbourne Victory. Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. Once "stole" Shinji Kagawa's plane ticket.