In soccer, all it takes is one moment or one run to change the outcome of a game.
The ability to hone that skill and maintain the composure to come up in that one, special moment often takes years.
But in Penn State’s case, the player with arguably the best capabilities to perform in that skilled winger role is none other than freshman Payton Linnehan — another former member of Nittany Lions’ No. 1 recruiting class from the 2019 season.
Linnehan came in as a standout in the front line, ranked the No. 5 forward on TopDrawerSoccer.com and No. 15 player overall of her class.
She credited her youth coach, Jason Dewhurst, for helping her develop as a young player. Linnehan played for FC Stars from the time she was 12, and like many players in the United States setup, faced a dilemma forced upon by the Development Academy.
“I played high school soccer my freshman and sophomore year, and then I ended up not playing because of the DA,” Linnehan said. “But I played Stars. I would go there like three or four times a week and it was an hour away, so it was difficult at times.”
“I got all my work done doing it in the car and whenever I could. I feel like that’s helped me a lot in adjusting to college, like, we’re really busy all the time and you just have to keep trying.”
Linnehan got her technical skills from her soccer environment. When it comes to her blistering pace, though, it actually took roots in her own backyard.
“Ever since I was young, my dad would help me with my speed in the backyard almost every day,” Linnehan said. “That’s helped me obviously become a good player. My time with the Stars, for the national team and on my own, just building my technical ability and then putting the two pieces together — I think it’s helped me get to where I am.”
Her stellar youth performance also earned her call-ups to the U-15 and U-17 setup. Part of the journey saw her traveling around the world, from China to Argentina to Uruguay, for the U-17 World Cup, which were experiences she would not trade anything for.
“Over time, we started going on international trips and I was so excited,” Linnehan said. “It’s taught me a lot just as a person as well as being a soccer player. I think those experiences have helped me become the player I am.”
Linnehan, like the other freshmen, came on board for a summer semester for workouts and a head start.
“We got to play with each other a little, kind of get to know each other and who we are as players,” Linnehan said. “It helped us coming into the preseason, then we got to adapt again to everybody else on the team.”
That was a smooth transition as well, with the older players being welcoming and Linnehan having co-captain Ellie Jean on her flank.
“During preseason, I was getting used to the style of play, didn’t really know what to expect,” Linnehan said. “[Jean] would tell me what she wants from me, then I ended up getting comfortable with telling her what I want from her.”
“Then we’ve been able to work off each other, move up the field. I’ll come down to help her and she’ll come up to help me and just build a good relationship on the field.”
Jean is a close compatriot to the freshman Linnehan and heaped high praises to her.
“She has an engine and it can go and I think that’s a huge asset to her. That should give her a ton of confidence,” Jean said. “We certainly have a ton of confidence in her. She has a lot to learn, as do all of the freshmen when they come in, but we’re trying to have them see the positive, gain confidence and eventually, that will help us in the long run.”
“She’s only got one goal so far but we know that there’s a lot more in there for her and once it comes out, there’s no stopping that.”
Speaking of that lone goal, Linnehan had goal-scoring chances elude her early on in the season that drew a few “oohs” and “aahs” on a few unfortunate misses.
“I’ve had my string of unlucky attempts, but one finally went it so it felt really good, like a sense of relief,” Linnehan said. “Hopefully, that just carries my through and I can score a lot more for my team.”
“I wouldn’t be getting there without my teammates so hopefully, they can still play me through and give me good passes and I can just get on the end of them.”
In modern soccer, it can be supremely difficult to have success as a one-trick pony. The one position that could be most prone to that is a traditionally speedy and technical winger, but Linnehan worked hard to prevent herself from falling into the category.
A lot of collegiate players early on in her career very much mimics a sponge. Being in a new environment, they had to quickly adapt and improve themselves. In coach Erica Dambach and Jean’s eyes, it was Linnehan’s improvement in her work rate that was the most impressive.
“[Linnehan] has got a bright future and a lot of goals in her,” Dambach said. “But what I’m impressed with most is her work rate’s improved and her push defensively has improved. I’ve seen a side of her game that has grown a lot in the past few games.”
It is arguably more important for Jean as she is a full back with attacking instincts and no matter in a high press or defending against the counter, Jean simply cannot be left on an island.
“[Linnehan] has that engine that can go forward and it can go backward,” Jean said. “It’s essential for us, obviously, to regain the ball and try to get the ball back as fast as possible. It’s a great asset for her that she can do both side of the ball.”
Much akin to most players on this squad, Linnehan does not care what role she plays as long as she can give back to the team.
“I was a starter at the beginning and then I ended up coming off the bench,” Linnehan said. “I think it’s just running with it and doing the best you can to make an impact wherever you can support those on the field.”
“I think just being there for each other and support what each other does has helped us come this far.”
Linnehan is already one of the more dangerous players on this squad. In a more direct attacking system, a team always need a player who could change the game on her own and this edition feature players like Coffey and Linnehan.
Linnehan would have that burst of creativity and flashiness on the flanks, but it is surely not erratic. Her calmness and maturity is beyond her age, be it on or off the field.
“As a freshman, I think being new to the program, I try not to focus too much in the past and not look too far ahead,” Linnehan said. “We just like to focus on the next game and how we can get better the next day and just move from there, I guess.”