Gabby Provenzano has always dreamed of going pro. From her time at the Players Development Academy (PDA) to her years at Rutgers, the New Jersey native from Sergeantsville has only ever had eyes for the beautiful game.
During last month’s NWSL Draft, Provenzano took the next big step in realizing her dream. She was selected by the Portland Thorns in the second round as the 22nd overall pick. “There were a bit of nerves not knowing what would happen,” Provenzano told Jersey Sporting News, describing her emotions on Draft Day. She was excited but was left with the uncertainty of where she would be going, or if she would get selected at all.
After sitting through a very long first round, Provenzano's phone rang. It was the head coach of the Thorns, Rhian Wilkinson, calling to let her know - she had been selected. “For a moment, I was in shock - it was so surreal,” Provenzano said of the moment. “It’s been my dream all along since I was young and aspiring to play pro.”
When it was officially announced on the broadcast, Provenzano finally let it all sink in. “I was so excited and so happy to be given the opportunity to play for the Thorns,” she said. “It’s a great organization, great club, great fans, great city.”
A Scarlet Knight Becomes a Thorn
It’s easy to see why any NWSL team would want to add Provenzano to their ranks. In 2021, the center back out of Rutgers University was named the 2021 Big Ten Defender of the Year in addition to being a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist. As one of her team’s captains, she helped lead the team to the College Cup for the second time in history. Her accolades are numerous, but she has earned every single one - and the Portland Thorns were paying attention.
“Gabby’s coach calls her ‘The General’ because she is a leader in all ways, and we loved that description of her, '' Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson told Jersey Sporting News. “A player that gives everything she has to everything she does, a wonderful teammate and a strong player with a number of wonderful qualities. She can use both feet well, is intelligent in her play, has good speed, can play across a number of positions, and is a player who will add in a number of ways to our Portland Thorns squad. At Portland, we look for great players and great people, and from what we know about Gabby, we will be getting this and even more.”
— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) December 18, 2021
If the Thorns are eager to have ‘The General’ join their ranks, Provenzano is equally as ready to call the Pacific Northwest home - and the Thorns have already started to make her feel welcomed. “After the selection, they FaceTimed me with my whole family,” Provenzano said. “There was a bunch of screaming and cheering as they were welcoming me to the club.”
That moment came as a relief to Provenzano, who had to sit through the longer-than-expected first round of draft picks before her selection in the second round. “It was a bit nerve-wracking,” Provenzano recalled about sitting through a lengthy first round. “But I had a couple of my best friends with me and my family. They helped me put things into perspective to even have this opportunity, no matter what happened.”
A Homegrown Soccer Star
For Provenzano, this opportunity has been years in the making. At the age of 4, she began playing soccer, following in the footsteps of her older brother and sister. She started playing for PDA at only 8 years of age and stayed with the organization until she turned 18. It was at PDA that she met Mike O’Neill, who would go on to become her head coach at Rutgers University.
O’Neill, along with PDA coaches Tom Anderson and Larry Hart, shaped Provenzano into the player she is today. “They pushed me to my limit,” she said. “They helped me improve to where I was able to go on to college.”
Staying in New Jersey and attending Rutgers University was an easy decision for Provenzano. “The biggest thing for me was being able to play for great coaches in a family atmosphere,” she said. “Having the opportunity to play in New Jersey and represent that Block R and my state was my main reason to stay home.”
Growing up, Provenzano was a Rutgers fan. She fondly remembers going to games at the university and thinks the true turning point in the program was when the 2015 team made their first-ever College Cup. By that time, Provenzano was already committed to attending the school, which made her even more excited for her decision to stay local.
Because of COVID-19, Provenzano delayed declaring for the NWSL Draft and instead took a fifth year of eligibility at Rutgers. “I had to make a decision on what I was going to do,” she explained. Ultimately, after speaking with her coach, she decided to stay at Rutgers and give it one more season with the program.
Provenzano’s teammate Amirah Ali, who was picked in the 2021 NWSL Draft, also decided to delay her entrance into the league for one last go with Rutgers. “She wanted to do the same thing as I did, so I told her, let’s go do this together,” Provenzano said. “We decided to stay, and we had a season that will go in the books forever - it was an unbelievable year.”
Although the on-field results were extraordinary, Provenzano explained that for her, the team culture made the difference. “There were times where it might not have been the best day, but we knew we had each other's backs,” she said. It was this mentality that helped propel the Scarlet Knights to one of their most successful seasons in history.
— RUWS | BIG TEN CHAMPIONS (@RUWSoccer) December 18, 2021
In fact, the women’s soccer program at Rutgers has been flourishing in recent years. With her selection, Provenzano became the ninth Scarlet Knight to be drafted into the domestic professional league. In addition to her teammate Amirah Ali, who was drafted to the Portland Thorns in 2021 but traded to expansion side San Diego Wave FC, Provenzano joins the ranks of other former Rutgers players including Casey Murphy (NC Courage), Kristen Edmonds (Kansas City), Taylor Aylmer (Washington Spirit), Erica Skroski (Gotham FC), and Madison Pogarch (Portland Thorns).
"We are extremely proud of Gabby for being the 9th Rutgers player to be drafted into the NWSL," Rutgers head coach Mike O'Neill told Jersey Sporting News. "In our program, when one achieves we all achieve. The program’s culture of competing for and winning championships pushes players to become the best versions of themselves, so for many, this means playing at the next level."
“For the program, it’s unbelievable,” Provenzano said, echoing O'Neill. “There are so many women's soccer players out there who are so talented, and at Rutgers, we strive to have that talent, but we also have great people - I think that aspect is so important.” Seeing these players have successful pro careers has raised the standards for Rutgers, and according to Provenzano, it proves that the sky’s the limit for any Rutgers player to go pro by putting in the work.
From Piscataway to Portland
Provenzano is no stranger to hard work. When she joined Rutgers as a freshman, she wasn’t starting in games. She knew nothing was guaranteed, and all she could do was keep putting in the work, even when people weren’t watching. This is a mentality she hopes to bring to her time in the NWSL. “I was always putting in the extra work, trying to get better,” she said. “For me, it’s also about listening and being open to learning. I’m going to a club where people have great experience and talent, and I’m really looking forward to learning from everyone.”
One such player she’ll get to learn from is her former Rutgers teammate Madison Pogarch, who joined the Thorns in 2019. Provenzano and Pogarch only overlapped for one year at Rutgers, but in that time, they became good friends. “She was one of the first people to reach out to me when I got drafted just to say hi and that she was excited we were teammates again,” Provenzano said. “That is a little bit of a relief for me, going out there - knowing that I have someone there I already know and I am friends with across the country.”
I’m super excited to have the opportunity to play for an amazing, talented program with great fans, and I’m excited for that atmosphere.
As Provenzano prepares to make this move, she has accepted the fact that she will no longer be just a 40-minute drive away from her family. “It’s a change,” she explained. “At first it will be a bit different, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. This is my dream, it’s everything I wanted. To have the opportunity to join the Thorns is really exciting.”
With pre-season starting on February 1st, it’s almost time for ‘The General’ to take her talents west. She explained that her Rutgers coach gave her the moniker when she became captain going into her junior year. She was shy as a freshman, and O’Neill encouraged her to be more vocal. “We always say at Rutgers that soccer has no age,” Provenzano explained. “Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, everyone listens to and respects each other.”
Taking that to heart, Provenzano stepped up, and Mike O’Neill began calling her ‘The General.’ “Me and my fellow captains were all different,” she explained. “I was a more vocal one, having the pulse and keeping the team together.”
Her former coach Mike O'Neill definitely thinks Provenzano is ready to step up again, this time in a professional environment. "Gabby possesses all the necessary qualities to play at the professional level," he said. "Her work ethic and competitive nature in the day to day environment helped her individual growth during her time at Rutgers. Gabby’s technical and tactical awareness of the game and her leadership to command a back line contributed to the team’s success which in turn, gives her an unbelievable opportunity to enter the professional soccer world and make an impact."
A Versatile Rookie
Previously a holding midfielder, Provenzano shifted to playing center back during her junior year at Rutgers. The team was getting ready to play one of their biggest rivals Penn State, and their regular center back had been called into the senior Jamaican Women’s National Team and was missing the game. Provenzano had tried her hand at center back a few other times in the past to fill in during injuries, and her coach asked her to step up again in that moment.
“We won that game,” Provenzano recalled with a smile. “And my coach loved how I played at center back.” She has primarily played in that role ever since, but for Provenzano, it doesn’t matter where she plays. “Having versatility means being open-minded and doing whatever I can to help contribute to the team.”
In the coming weeks, as Provenzano prepares to join the NWSL, she is looking forward to taking her game to the next level. In particular, she is excited to learn more about the center-back role from her new teammate, USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn. “I’m also excited to play against my former teammates,” she joked. “I’m just excited to learn and see the style that Rhian Wilkinson wants to implement for the team.”
Ever since her former teammate Madison Pogarch joined the Thorns, Provenzano has tuned in to many of the club's games to watch her play, and it’s made her eager to start her own journey in Portland. “I’m super excited to have the opportunity to play for an amazing, talented program with great fans, and I’m excited for that atmosphere,” she said. “I’ll always work hard and give it my all. I can’t wait to start my career in Portland.”
This article has been updated to include quotes from Rutgers Head Coach Mike O'Neill (January 7, 2022).