Hansen celebrates team success, memorable goal in first pro season

photo by: Courtesy of Kaela Hansen

Kansas alumna and current ŽFK Spartak Subotica player Kaela Hansen looks to make a pass during a March matchup against ŽFK Sloga Zemun.

Kaela Hansen started more games and played more minutes than anyone else in Kansas soccer history and never scored a goal. She made herself an irreplaceable fixture on the Jayhawks’ back line for five distinguished seasons, but took just 19 shots during her tenure.

A little over two months into her professional career, though, Hansen controlled a pass outside the box with a smooth touch to put the ball on her right foot, wound up and drove a rocket over the head of the ŽFK Sloga Zemun goalkeeper. The ball caromed hard off the underside of the crossbar and in, opening the scoring in the 26th minute for Hansen’s ŽFK Spartak Subotica on May 14, and giving the Vancouver, British Columbia, native her first goal since she was 18 years old.

She said she started “bawling her eyes out” as soon as she made it to halftime.

“I was on cloud nine for the rest of the game, it was just so surreal for me,” Hansen said. “And then to have all my teammates that I literally just met two months ago all rush to me and give me a hug and praise me and literally be so happy for me was just such an amazing feeling …

“And in that moment, I’m just like ‘Wow, I’m really doing this right now. I’m really following my dream and I just scored my first professional goal.'”

The strike gave Hansen one memorable moment for her adventure in Subotica, Serbia, which would soon be followed by two more as Spartak claimed a “dupla kruna” (double crown) by winning both its league and the Serbian Cup.

The late-season success means that less than a year after leaving Lawrence, Hansen will have the chance to compete against some of Europe’s finest soccer players in the UEFA Women’s Champions League later this summer, a reality she called “so insane to me.”

“I just keep getting blessed with all these amazing opportunities, and I’m just so grateful, so truly grateful to be doing this,” she said. “I look back and it just shows all my hard work and dedication and blood and sweat I put into this sport, and all the downs that happened made it all worth it to get me to this point.”

photo by: Courtesy of Kaela Hansen

Kaela Hansen (middle row, third from left) and her ŽFK Spartak Subotica teammates celebrate their Serbian Cup win, completing their “double crown,” in this photo from June 7, 2023.

Hansen said she wanted to play professionally from an early age, and that her path to the pros started to crystallize as her time at KU progressed.

Hansen entered KU having represented Canada at the youth level and stepped in as an immediate starter on a back line that also featured Addisyn Merrick, an eventual Big 12 Conference defensive player of the year and current standout for the Kansas City Current of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Laura Jackson, a former KU assistant and Jamaican international, who helped coach the Jayhawks’ defense for three years, said Hansen’s technical and tactical skill were apparent early on, but most of all her competitiveness shone through.

“We butted heads at first because she was very, very, I don’t want to say stubborn, but very, ‘I want to be the best, I want to win,'” Jackson said, “and sometimes from a coaching perspective you need there to be sort of a collaboration between you, them and the rest of the players.”

When she truly became a team leader as an upperclassman, and “learned how to sort of give the things that she had learned to players around her,” that “made it impossible for us to take her out of the back line,” Jackson said.

Approaching her last year at Kansas, Hansen considered entering the NWSL Draft but ultimately decided with the counsel of her coaches, family and agent to go overseas. Her highlight tape earned her the interest of Spartak, and by the end of February, only shortly removed from leaving KU, she was living in Serbia.

“Coming from (being) a student-athlete, you don’t realize how privileged you are and how grateful you should be with all the things they do for you,” she said, “for a student athlete, and all the things they take care of for you and all that.”

Beyond the grind of having to “eat, breathe, sleep” soccer as a professional does — the intense tactical sessions, the film review, the meetings — she found herself getting acclimated to a culture that, she said, didn’t move at the rapid pace of America or Canada and placed a greater premium on prolonged, in-person interaction.

“They like to do a lot of coffee hangouts, coffee dates,” she said. “People like being in each other’s presence.”

Hansen started to pick up some Serbian to communicate with her supportive teammates on the field (except for Hansen, an American and a Belarusian, the rest are domestic players). She also had to deal with a more significant in-game adjustment: While she was starting immediately for Spartak and still trying to get back in playing shape, she was also playing as a holding midfielder for the first time since high school.

Jackson said that Kansas had thought about employing her in such a position because she was good on the ball and tactically focused.

“I think that she’s a product of the KU style of play, too,” Jackson said. “We play a very possession-based game where it’s all about sort of players solving problems and making decisions.”

For the final two months or so of her first season, Hansen played holding midfielder. She had to totally recalibrate her sense of positioning and her overall mindset. But it only took her two or three games to adjust, she said.

photo by: Courtesy of Kaela Hansen

Kaela Hansen outmuscles a Crvena zvezda defender during the Serbian Cup final on June 7, 2023

Hence why she was so far up the field on that mid-May day when she scored her first goal.

“I just had a feeling like, I’m going to put this in the back of the net,” she said, “and I literally just nailed the crap out of it … I had no hesitation that I was going to take that shot.”

Hansen said she counted it as her biggest solo accomplishment of the season, alongside the team milestone of the “dupla kruna.”

“I’m extremely proud of Kaela,” Jackson said. “She knows this. Before she left I told her, for me, I coached for 10 years in college, she’s probably one of the best success stories I’ve had. And it sounds weird to say … but from seeing her in her first game at KU to seeing her in her last game and her last practice, the development as a person and a leader is one of the best I’ve seen.”

She added that Hansen will have to keep developing in order to ensure her longevity in pro soccer, as younger and younger players keep coming in.

For Hansen, next up is a short break to spend time with family before she returns to Spartak in mid-July. Then, a full season, complete with the Champions League, awaits, an opportunity to “show these other teams what I’m made of, show my team what I’m made of, and bring the best version of me I can on the field.”


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