'The heart of a lion': Veronica Latsko, by those who watched her rise

Ahead of the NWSL Championship Final, Squad Depth caught up with some of the people closest to the OL Reign forward to talk about her football journey.

There is nothing quite like watching a breakout player make their way into the headlines. This couldn’t be more true of OL Reign forward Veronica Latsko, or “Playoff Ronnie” to her teammates and friends.

After finishing fourth in the regular season, the Reign have navigated their way to Saturday’s NWSL Championship Final against NJ/NY Gotham FC off the back of two narrow 1-0 victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

In both defensive knockout wins, first against Angel City and then over the San Diego Wave, it was Latsko who provided the decisive moment.

Against Los Angeles, Latsko made a back-breaking charge into the box to meet a Phoebe McClernon cross with her head despite ACFC centrebacks Paige Nielsen and Sarah Gorden providing plenty of coverage.

With a spot in the final on the line in San Diego, Latsko fortuitously chipped Wave goalkeeper from 25 yards out, on the right-hand side of the box, just after half-time. After the full-time whistle, she confessed that the strike “wasn’t meant to be a shot.” They all count.

Latsko is now just the third player (after Debinha 2019 and Amy Rodriguez 2014, 2015) in NWSL history to score match-winning in multiple playoff games in the same season.

The two match-winning strikes also gave the Reign their first NWSL playoff victories since 2015. After eight years of losing league and cup knockout matches, the club’s “curse” had been lifted.

Into the spotlight

With huge names in International football littered across the Reign squad, it has been refreshing to see Latsko become a defining player in Laura Harvey’s team.

It’s a testament to the team culture and ability of the group to create opportunities for all. But it is also a product of the the extraordinary work ethic of Latsko. Now in her fifth season as a professional footballer, Latsko has garnered a repetoire as one of the NWSL’s ultimate team players.

The 27-year-old was drafted by the Houston Dash in 2018 and then traded to Seattle in 2022. Only once, in 2021, has she started more than 10 league matches in a season.

But despite few starts, Latsko has been heavily involved as a substitute and rotation player. She has featured in over 92% of the league matches for those two clubs when she is in the matchday squad.

Need someone you can rely on? Bring on Latsko.

“Honestly, she's the epitome of work hard and good things will happen to you,” Reign head coach Harvey said after the 1-0 semifinal win over theWave. “She trains so hard every day. She works her socks off every single day. We have all the data and all that stuff. She always is the one that's done the most. She always runs about like a lunatic every day. But she's getting the reward.”

In order to learn more about the forward’s rise, we spoke to prominent figures from her footballing journey to talk about how Latsko the super-sub became “Playoff Ronnie”.

Veronica Latsko playing for the OL Reign | Credit: Orlando Ramirez, USA Today

Steve Swanson, UVA head coach (2000 — present)

The University of Virginia head coach first met Latsko as a ninth-grader when he was working with a USA Olympic Development Program. Even then, Swanson remembers vividly what stuck about Latsko was her unwavering endeavor.

“Nobody was gonna outwork her. And I think that she brought an intangible I hadn't seen in a long time, and that was just this willingness to, to do whatever it took to win,” he told Squad Depth this week. “She just has the heart of a lion.”

A few years later Swanson decided to recruit Latsko for UVA. Being from Pittsburgh, PA, she wasn’t from a hotbed of a U.S. soccer. There weren’t too many elite youth programs in the area. But that grit and determination suited Latsko and made her exactly the type of player Swanson new he wanted on his team.

Once in Charlottesville, Swanson was blown away by how Latsko developed. She wasn’t the most technical player ever recruited by the program but she was always trying to learn and improve. After 23 years as UVA head coach, and working as an assistant with the national team, Swanson says there are few players that he has come across that have the same level of “perseverance” and “evolution” as Latkso.

“Don't get me wrong, she was an exceptional player. But [coming out of college] you would never have thought well she's gonna be six, seven year pro in the NWSL. A lot of people would have had their doubts about that. But you know, the thing about Veronica, and this happened in college, she got better and better and better because she worked at it. And I think that's the same thing that's happening in the pros. She got better and he continues to get better and better and better. Because she's, she's all about the process,” Swanson explained.

A co-captain and double-major at UVA during her four year stay, Latsko was a huge part sculpting the team culture. After 93 matches and 26 goals in four seasons for the Hoos, Swanson beams about the brilliant person and mentor Latsko is.

“There's much more to Veronica than the soccer player. You know, she is incredible. She's incredible values or education, you know, she's got her own opinions. You know, she's somebody that can change the world,” said Swanson.

“Outside of soccer, you know, and make a difference make a positive difference. I think he's really I just think he's an amazing person. And that's what my times were there you know, it wasn't it wasn't only about soccer with her. There's there's so many more things to Veronica. She wants to be a lawyer. She's an advocate for others. She fights for others, a great leader sets a great example.”

Steve Swanson (central, in cap) takes a training session with Virginia | Credit: UVA Athletics

Megan Reid, Angel City FC — UVA (2014 -2017)

Yin needs yang. Football teams need balance. On the pitch, and off it.

Spending four years together at UVA, co-captains Reid and Latsko brought tranquility and tenacity.

“She has to have been one of the most like high energy people I have ever met,” Reid told Squad Depth. “It's just funny because I'm like very mellow even keel. I'm basically like this 99% of the time. Honestly, I think that's why we're good as co-captains.”

Reid smiled and let out a laugh remembering what Latsko was like during UVA training sessions. Every session in Charlottesville would begin with coach Swanson asking the players to do laps of the pitch.

However, the UVA players back then couldn’t allow Latsko to lead the warm-up because it would be too grueling. Instead, Reid and her teammates would take turns rushing to the front of the line to set a more manageable pace.

“Everyone would fight, to make sure that V cannot lead the warmup line. And if V got in front of the line, we’re probably going at like 70% of most people's max sprint because she just wants to go like she comes in. She's already warmed up. And she's just like, go, go go,” laughed Reid.

Never afraid to overload her responsibilities Reid fondly remembers how Latsko had to take her LSAT between matches on a double-away trip in North Carolina. To no one’s surprise, she aced the test.

“She literally played like a 90-minute game. And then she went to go take the LSAT and then we like bussed in and then have to play another 90-minute game. And I think that's kind of like the epitome of her.”

Before finishing the call, Reid shares one more emotional story that speaks to the enormous size of Latsko’s heart. Reid lost her father George while at the University of Virginia and she retold the first training session back with the team after his passing.

“As soon as Steve blew his whistle for training to be over, at like full sprint, I don't think I've ever seen her run so fast, V came over and literally put me in the biggest f****** hug like there is to imagine, and it was like really special.”

Megan Reid (left) battles in the air with Veronica Latsko (right) | Credit: John Froschauer, USA TODAY

Katie Lind, Houston Dash

Katie Lind shared a locker room with Latsko for two seasons between 2020 and 2022. In that time, the Houston Dash won their only silverware in team history the Challenge Cup.

After many good times together by each other’s side, Latsko happened to score her first-ever goal for the Reign against Lind on her very first match back in Houston.

“She's one of those players that you always want on your team and you never want to play against because you know she's never gonna stop she will run down every single ball. She will get 110% effort in every play and you just want somebody like that that's going to work for every little inch. It is s a nightmare to play against and I think she's putting people on notice this year,” Lind told Squad Depth.

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that the two became close. With so much uncertainty, the support of close friends and teammates became vital.

Lind was new to Texas and had only just joined the team a few months earlier from the Chicago Red Stars. Latsko had been on since she was a rookie in 2018.

“We got pretty close once I came to the Dash in 2020. Obviously, that was a strange year with COVID and the tournament that we had in the bubble and everything but she immediately welcomed me into the new team and new environment after I got traded. We worked out together all the time, during that uncertain phase of that year, and yeah, we just developed a really close friendship over that.”

Like Reid, Lind is someone who is known for her ability to lead with a cool head. But the Dash defender has always appreciated Latsko’s willingness to get outside people’s comfort zone. Broaden horizons. The Reign’s forward playful thirst for adventure is part of what makes her a special person.

“She [Latsko] is the most quirky, silly, goofy, adventurous person, but has an incredible heart and she's very intelligent and always thinks things through the core but when it comes to like living outside of soccer, she is always down for an adventure and pushes other people to explore with her and I love that about her,” said Lind.

“We planned so many last-minute trips, and she has a knack for finding an Airbnb, whether they're good or bad. So it's finding something to do, wherever we are, which I admire about her, and always tries to make the best out of any situation, which is always good to have someone like that in your corner and she was actually with me in my bridal party on my wedding.”

As one of Lind’s best friends, she says she’ll talk to Latsko often and about anything. But since they’re no longer teammates it’s more about their personal lives than soccer these days.

Lind has been thrilled to see Latsko “flourish” in the NWSL this year but admits she’s held back from discussing this remarkable playoff run too much.

“I would feel comfortable doing it if I knew it was her benefit, but I also don't know what their tactics are. And I don't know what the game plan is. So I don't want to interfere with anything that they might be told by their coach or other teammates,” Lind reflected.

“There are some things that I always want to encourage her to do, but I think I've done the best I can in the role as her friend. But in terms of soccer Yeah, I think it is a little different when you're on different teams just because you don't know what's being said behind the scenes.”

With the biggest match of Latsko’s career about to be played, the only message from bride to bridesmaid on Saturday is: win. Of course, even if the Reign doesn’t triumph over Gotham in San Diego, Lind will still be a leading member of the Latsko fan-club.

“I hope V gets that medal and the recognition but I think Gotham is on a roll as well and there's a lot of hype with Ali Krieger and her last game and it's Megan Rapinoe’s last game too.

“I'm just so so happy for her and that it's all paying off in a big way, like I said, and she deserves the recognition she's getting, and hopefully like you said, we'll still be singing her praises after the final whistle on Saturday.”

Katie Lind (right, facing camera) embraces Veronica Latsko (right, No.12) after scoring for the Houston Dash | Credit: Houston Dash