For some, the pull of coming home is too strong to ignore. After four years at Penn State, this was the case for Colts Neck native Frankie Tagliaferri. The midfielder returned to New Jersey for her final year of college eligibility and helped propel Rutgers University their most successful season in recent years. Tagliaferri is now preparing to go pro in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with the North Carolina Courage.
Coming Home Again
Although she had a wonderful four years at Penn State, getting one last year of college soccer at Rutgers before she turned pro had a number of benefits for Tagliaferri. Because of COVID, she did not get to see her family as much as she would have liked, so she used the opportunity of a fifth year to head back home one more time. “Rutgers is only thirty minutes away, so I got to drive home for dinner and see my younger brother grow up,” she said.
Not only did she get to spend time with her family, but she got the opportunity to train with top-notch coaches at Rutgers, many of whom she had trained with at Players Development Academy (PDA) while growing up in New Jersey.
For Tagliaferri, the most important takeaway from her time at Rutgers was the opportunity to feel uncomfortable again. “At Penn State, I got so comfortable in my role there,” she explained. “Coming to Rutgers gave me a challenge - to be able to feel uncomfortable and navigate my way through that while only having one season to chase after our team goals.”
Her entire experience at Rutgers, including making it to a national championship, has only set her up for success as she starts to navigate her first year as a pro. In fact, Rutgers had an extremely successful 2021. During her year there, the program earned their first ever Big Ten Conference Title and made it to their second College Cup appearance in program history.
Although a number of Rutgers players have transitioned into the NWSL over the years, Tagliaferri took a slightly different path than her teammates. Instead of entering the College Draft, she was directly picked up by the North Carolina Courage via the discovery process. Her coaches at Rutgers were not surprised that the midfielder was quickly picked up, considering how important she was to the success of the Scarlet Knights last year.
During her time in college, both at Rutgers and Penn State, Tagliaferri earned a significant number of accolades. In addition to being a 2021 MAC Hermann Trophy Award Semifinalist, the midfielder was a two-time All-American, three-time All-Region, five-time All-Big Ten, and three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree. The 2021 Big Ten Midfielder of the Year made 114 appearances over the course of her time in the NCAA, the most games ever played by a DI women's soccer player.
“Frankie will be joining NC Courage with a great deal of experience, not only as a great player but also with her leadership skills,” Rutgers Head Coach Mike O’Neill told Jersey Sporting News. “She contributed to our team culture and winning mentality and helped lead our team to an undefeated regular Big Ten season and an exhilarating run to the NCAA College Cup. As a midfielder, Frankie's ability to be an offensive threat in the final third and scoring goals will undoubtedly contribute to the organization's success this upcoming season.”
A Unique Path to Pro
Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the Draft and the NWSL season due to COVID, Tagliaferri and other fifth-year undrafted college players were given the option to either stay as a discovery player or enter the NWSL draft. “Draft Day is awesome - it’s a huge day that kind of just reminds you of all the hard work that you’ve done,” Tagliaferri said. “But after talking to my family, coaches, and agent, I personally came to the decision to stay as a discovery player.”
I have nothing to lose, only something to gain. That’s when I play my best - when I have something to earn.
Because her rights had initially been picked up by OL Reign, Tagliaferri knew that it would be a fantastic opportunity to play in Seattle. And if OL Reign was interested in a deal, Tagliaferri was open to the idea of going to another team who would want to pick up her rights. She told her agent that she preferred to be on the east coast, who in turn helped facilitate signing her to the Courage. In fact, the North Carolina organization was more than happy to bring the rising star into their ranks.
“Adding Frankie to our roster is a great opportunity,” Head Coach Sean Nahas told Jersey Sporting News. “She is a top-level young talent that has had a great career thus far through club, college, and the youth national team system, and she possesses great technical quality, game understanding, and passion for the game. We look forward to having Frankie in our environment and watching her develop and become a part of our growth here at the club.”
New Places, Familiar Faces
As she prepares to transition from college to the pros, Tagliaferri is most excited to get back to being a rookie. “I have nothing to lose, only something to gain,” she said. “That’s when I play my best - when I have something to earn.” Tagliaferri is ready to earn her place with the Courage and lucky for her she already has the support of a familiar face: fellow New Jersey girl and current Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
Although they did not overlap during their time at Rutgers, Murphy and Tagliaferri have been training together since their days growing up in New Jersey and training at PDA. “Since 6th grade, I’ve trained with Casey,” she explained. “And we’ve been training together in the off-season now.” Murphy’s success at the Courage has been an inspiration for Tagliaferri, and she is confident that the staff at the Courage will help her flourish as well.
For Tagliaferri, who has been playing soccer since she was 4 years old, putting in the work has always been of the utmost importance. “My parents quickly realized that I had a talent for soccer,” she said. “They also realized that I loved it because I was always working hard at it, even as a youth athlete.” Putting in the work to be her best never felt like a sacrifice for Tagliaferri, even as she missed time with friends as she trained growing up. She always knew she had a future in the sport because she was doing what she loved.
This mindset got her through high school soccer at Colts Neck High School and her four years of college at Penn State. Tagliaferri knew early on that Penn State was a great fit for her. They offered her a scholarship while she was still in 8th grade, but the coaches there made sure she knew how important it was for her to explore her options before committing. Although she initially considered Rutgers as an option, she liked the idea of getting out of her comfort zone and having a college experience a little further away from where she grew up. “Ultimately, Penn State just felt like home,” she said, adding that she was able to get the best of both worlds by playing her fifth and final year of eligibility with the Scarlet Knights.
The Pull of New Jersey
While she enjoys her last few weeks in New Jersey, Tagliaferri has not stopped working. She is preparing for the transition to professional soccer by not taking her foot off the gas. “I’ve been training a lot with some of the Rutgers girls, including Casey Murphy up at Sports Performance Lab in Middletown,” she said. “I’m really excited to get down to North Carolina.”
Tagliaferri will be joining the NWSL along with her Rutgers teammates Gabby Provenzano and Amirah Ali. For Tagliaferri, the rising number of Rutgers players joining the league speaks volumes about the prestige of the program. “Rutgers belongs in the Big Ten and deserves to have respect,” she said. “It just shows that Rutgers women’s soccer program earned their right to be where they are.”
Because of RU's sustained success, Tagliaferri believes they will continue to recruit top talent to the program. Rutgers also has something special that other colleges don’t have: New Jersey. “Most of our team at Rutgers was comprised of Jersey girls, and it says so much about our coaches and our program that people want to stay here,” she explained. “You have PDA right here, one of the best, if not the best, development club in the country, and that’s where Rutgers gets a lot of their players from.”
For Tagliaferri, this means that top homegrown talent is staying in-state, and getting top tier training and development experience from the youth level through college. In 2021, Rutgers made it clear that they’re a force to be reckoned with, and Tagliaferri attributes this to their coaches and the on-field leadership from players. “All the pieces fit together,” she explained. “The co-captains had incredible years, and we had amazing freshmen come in who contributed so much.”
Tagliaferri is so grateful that the team took her in so easily last year, allowing her to meld into the group and help them excel. Most importantly, the team as a collective took on the season with the mindset that they had nothing to lose. “We wanted the respect,” Tagliaferri said. This attitude of always wanting more propelled the Scarlet Knights forward, adding to the trajectory of a program that continues to grow.
On a personal level, Tagliaferri has her own goals in sight as she turns pro. “My biggest goal as we go into preseason is to go in with confidence,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing for any rookie.” She keeps in the back of her mind a piece of advice she got from her mother - “If you just believe in yourself, you’ll earn everything you get, and more than you can even imagine.” To this end, Tagliaferri hopes to keep her confidence up and push aside the doubts. And although the pros are her main focus right now, Tagliaferri sees a potential future outside the sport. “Eventually, I want to get involved in kinesiology or maybe PA school,” she said.
As Tagliaferri prepares to join the North Carolina Courage, she wants the supporters of the team to know that she will always work as hard as she can for her team. “Regardless of how many minutes I get, regardless of what the score is, I promise to always work hard,” she said. “I will always be respectful towards anyone - rookies, veterans, coaches, and fans - I’m going to work for the NC Courage, and make sure I put everything I can into this season for them.”
For more information on how to watch Frankie Tagliaferri in her rookie season, visit North Carolina Courage's website.