Croix Bethune on her USWNT call, record-breaking rookie year in NWSL and ‘demon time’

When Croix Bethune arrived at Audi Field for the Washington Spirit’s blackout game on April 20 in black Nike Air Force Ones, she said that meant it was “demon time.” The Spirit won the game against reigning NWSL champions Gotham FC 2-0, with Bethune scoring the go-ahead goal in the 41st minute.

Since then, she has added another goal and racked up an astonishing eight assists in six games, including three assists during a 4-2 win against the Chicago Red Stars. She is now the league’s assist leader, ahead of Sophia Smith, Vanessa DiBernardo and teammate Trinity Rodman. Her name is already leading speculative rookie-of-the-year lists.

Was it the black Air Forces that kicked it all off? Probably not. Bethune’s ascendancy is anything but a coincidence, and the Air Forces were just the signal for everyone to be on notice. “If someone’s wearing black Forces, then that person is dangerous and you need to approach with caution,” she said. “This is business. It’s gonna get scary out there. So I would watch out.”

Bethune spoke to The Athletic the day before she flew to Denver to join the U.S. women’s national team training camp. She was called in as a training player, not officially rostered, which is somewhat surprising given her meteoric start to the season. Teammate Hal Hershfelt, another rookie who has impressed with the Spirit, was rostered as a midfielder. Another rookie teammate, Kate Wiesner, and veteran Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan will join Bethune as training players, who will depart camp before the team’s first friendly on June 1.

If new USWNT coach Emma Hayes sees Bethune as a forward, naming her as a training player makes some sense – there is an argument that forward is the one area where the USWNT is nearly overcrowded. On this roster alone, Hayes has called up Crystal Dunn, Catarina Macario, Alex Morgan, Rodman, Jaedyn Shaw, Sophia Smith, and Mallory Swanson as forwards. The area where Bethune operates for the Spirit, typically underneath Ouleye Sarr at the No. 9, is perhaps one where Hayes might want to fit Macario, Shaw, or even Dunn. Bethune can also drift wide and deliver crosses, but she’s not an out-and-out winger, and even if she was she’d need to compete with Rodman, Smith, and Swanson in the U.S. squad. Hayes has a little bit of time to lay her eyes on different players as she decides her final Olympic roster, a decision sure to be rife with painful edge-case cuts with room for only 18 players.

Bethune hadn’t spoken to either Hayes or former interim head coach Twila Kilgore before she was called in. She simply received a notification to report to USWNT camp earlier this month. She’ll travel with a strong contingent of Spirit players, including Sullivan, whom she’s called “an OG,” and Rodman, who has already appeared 36 times for the U.S. There will be plenty of guidance available, although Bethune exudes external calm regardless.

“I’m still in their environment, and it just gives me an opportunity to show them and prove to them what I can do,” she said. “That’s the end goal, but this is just the first step for me.”

That calm competitiveness is her style on the field as well: she plays with urgency, but never in a frenzy. She brings an egg-soft first touch at times, moves confidently with the ball, and can shoot precisely with either foot from inside and outside the box. She is a determined smoke-wanter who loves to sucker in defenders and force open space for her teammates, while also being able to thread complex through balls under pressure.

“I feel like I’ve always been a selfless player. At the end of the day, I want to win so it doesn’t matter who the success is on,” said Bethune. “I just feel like I read the game. The simplest thing to do is if three people are on me, then that leaves two people open.

“I kind of see things before they’re going to happen, and it makes it a lot easier, just scanning.”

So far this season, Bethune is second overall in the league in non-penalty goals (four) and assists, and is tied with the Thorns’ Smith for first in game-winning goals and assists at four. She’s fifth overall in chances created, tied at 22 with Rodman, and second in chances created from open play at 19, tied with Smith and DiBernardo.

Bethune reads well off of the players around her, and while it helps that those players are the likes of Rodman and Sarr, who is currently third overall in NWSL in goals scored, Bethune’s particular soccer IQ has helped propel the Spirit to third in the standings with 24 points and a plus-9 goal differential over 11 games.

When asked what aspects of Bethune’s game worked for the Spirit, interim head coach Adrián González laughed and said “Should I choose one?”

“I think she understands pretty good what is happening in every game situation, in every moment,” he said. “She has that intelligence to try to define where is the space, where is the advantage, which player is in a good position to receive. She is so clever. She also has that talent, that patience, to make that pass at the right time. She doesn’t get anxious to pass very, very quick.”

Bethune has also quickly built trust with her teammates. She makes it sound simple when asked how they’ve done it: essentially, do what you say you’re going to do and then do it repeatedly. She says she’ll put the ball there, so she puts the ball there. Her teammate says she’ll make this run, and she does it. “Each game you trust more and it just becomes a fluid movement,” Bethune said.

But in execution, it can be terribly difficult, especially for a team in a partial rebuild after a mediocre 2023 season and operating for part of the season an interim head coach while they wait for permanent hire Jonatan Giráldez to join them from Barcelona. Yet the Spirit have done it while weaving three rookies — Bethune, Hershfelt, and Wiesner — into their starting XI.

The trust goes both ways, with Bethune confident enough to also be the one giving directions. Her communication style is “straightforward, but not too aggressive.” She emphasizes body language — “A lot of pointing or thumbs up” — because it’s loud on the field. Bethune said she’s apologized sometimes to make sure teammates didn’t take things the wrong way. Direct, but understanding. It’s more important to communicate than to be right, to facilitate rather than to command. She doesn’t just think about what she’s doing, but holds mental space for everything her teammates are doing as well.

“You can’t just focus on yourself and your positioning in the game. You have to focus on your other teammates, but also the opposing team spacing,” she said. “There’s little cues someone might be seeing in a space, and maybe they don’t recognize that they’re in the right space, so just telling them like ‘Yes sit right there, stay there, you’re in a good spot.’ Because they could also be open, but they could drag people in that could leave say, our winger open or leave me open, and then they could be the third pass so they could play the winger, play me, I play the person that was sitting in the right spot. So it’s all about spaces, and communication is key.”

Communication matters to Bethune in all aspects of the game. It was part of why she transferred from USC to Georgia, so she could continue working with head coach Keidane McAlpine and his staff. (It was all love for USC, though, as Bethune said she’d been rooting for them to go all the way during March Madness this year.)

“Getting injured in my last year,” she said, “to be able to not only go home, but go to a staff that I trust, in that they’ve been through a tear with me before, which is an unfortunate thing. I knew that they would look out for me not just as a player, but as a person.”

Bethune said that’s the coaching mentality she responds to as a player,”understanding that you have someone that can be there for you, no matter what you’re going through, it takes it a long way,” she said.

Now arriving with the USWNT, Hayes has built a reputation for being a coaches’ player, but it’s too soon to tell how that relationship might develop. It’s hard not to predict an incoming stellar USWNT career for Bethune, if she’s given the chance. It might have to wait until after the Olympics for a variety of reasons, but Bethune is young, and the Spirit probably aren’t going to complain about having one of their stars available without interruption this summer.

Bethune is level: not too high, not too low. She says what she thinks without revealing everything. She doesn’t use three sentences where two will do. But she also will gladly pause an interview without being asked to take her laptop over to where her pitbull Kush is sweetly whining for attention, in order to show off his cuteness. She has fun with her gameday fits, listing her Cactus Jack leather jacket as another demon time warning sign. “This is business attire. But still adding a little flair and drip to it,” she said. Black Timbs are also for demon time.

“Every game, I come prepared,” she said.

There were Jordan 4 Retros in the military blue colorway and an all blue denim fit for the Salute to Service theme night, a nod to her Air Force parents. For off the field or a more casual feel, she goes to her everyday Vomeros or the ever-versatile Jordans. She hesitated to outright name a grail, but said she’s had her eye on a couple of collabs, namely Supreme x Timberlands and Rick Owens x Doc Martens. She’s 23 and having fun with her career and her nascent superstardom. The statistics, things like being the fastest NWSL player to reach eight career assists, three games faster than Lauren Holiday, she called “a little bit of noise.”

“I don’t really do research on how I’m doing or my stats and all of that,” she said. “But once it’s brought to my attention, it’s motivation to just keep doing more and elevating. I want to continue to break records and set records.”

(Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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