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Finding her bliss

Knoll is a Times staff writer.

Pssst, China -- got a secret. Shannon Boxx isn’t as scary as she looks.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team plays China at the Home Depot Center on Saturday.

It might surprise China’s team to know that Boxx, a U.S. defensive midfielder whose tackles can terrify, who shoots to kill, whose forehead is weirdly resilient (remember that game-winner she headed past you in January?) is, get this, a laugher.

“I’ve just been enjoying myself so much,” Boxx said after a recent practice. “I’m having fun, I’m laughing, and all of a sudden my game is getting better.”

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Last year, though, Boxx wasn’t in such high spirits -- and thought maybe it was time to bow out of soccer altogether. She had appeared on dozens of international stages, knocked in crowd-thrilling goals, won an Olympic gold medal, was nominated for FIFA world player of the year -- and was emotionally drained.

“I was close to being done,” Boxx recalled. “It started to become a job. I probably wasn’t playing the best because I wasn’t happy.”

The 31-year-old from Redondo Beach credits her reenergized take on the game to U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage, who signed on with the team in November 2007.

“She gives you the freedom to be creative,” Boxx said. “When you score a pretty amazing goal in practice, she’s cheering in the background. How do you not smile and be excited about a goal like that when it’s just practice, but she’s going crazy like it’s the game-winning goal?”

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Nominated again this year for FIFA world player of the year, Boxx will be playing with the Los Angeles Sol when the Women’s Professional Soccer league launches next spring. So she’s not leaving the sport any time soon, and she may even be changing up her play a bit. “Last year she was a holding player, but here I want her to improve her attacking as well,” Sundhage said. “She’s taken a huge responsibility in the midfield with Carli Lloyd. When they play together I like the way they mix it up. [Shannon] has many more years to go. She leads by example, which is important for the team.”

If Boxx stands out now, it’s nothing compared with the days when she was a scrawny 4-year-old playing soccer in the West Covina area. Small for her age, she played on an all-boys team and waited patiently as her teammates crowded around the ball.

“She never wanted to get in the swarm and waited until the ball popped out and then she would go,” said Boxx’s mother, Julie. “She was quick, and she didn’t mind falling head over heels in her effort to get the ball.”

It was Boxx who had begged to play sports, wanting to be like her older sister Gillian, a talented softball player who would eventually win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. When the family moved to Torrance, the two sisters spent their after-school hours at the nearby park trying to one-up each other in anything with a ball. But her close friend and teammate Christie Rampone, 33, says Boxx’s no-holds-barred approach is part of her charm.

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“She has that tenacious side, very focused, very committed on and off the field,” Rampone said. “She’s not afraid and that’s why I like her. She’s not a ‘yes’ person. I can go to her with anything and she’ll give me exactly what I need to hear rather than telling me, ‘Yes this is perfect, this is wonderful.’ She’s very truthful, very honest.”

Siblings know each other best though. And Gillian Boxx said her little sister isn’t always so tough.

“If there’s a collision, she usually hands it out versus getting it handed to her, but in everyday life she doesn’t have that personality,” said the 35-year-old fire engineer from San Jose. “She’s definitely more mellow than she is out on that field.”

The sibling rivalry they once shared has given way to talking on the phone and doing things like getting matching tattoos etched onto their ankles. About the latter, the older sister offered this detail: “When she got her tattoo, she looked like she was ready to cry.”

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Boxx has been close to tears. See China? Not so scary.

--

corina.knoll@latimes.com


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