By Scott French
If Oklahoma FC is going to win its first Women's Premier Soccer League championship this weekend, it will need to see the best of Dria Hampton, who sets the pace -- and creates the vast majority of scoring opportunities -- from her spot just behind team's terrific three-woman frontline.
It's a job she's particularly suited for: She's got the skill and the vision, plus a unique understanding of the game that's product of a lifetime as a coach's daughter.
Her dad is Jimmy Hampton, head coach of Oklahoma FC (and in Oklahoma City-area youth clubs, and at NAIA powerhouse University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma), and the soccer education she has gleaned from watching him work, from playing under him at Edmond Soccer Club, from discussions while they watch games from around the world has put her in a unique position among her colleagues in the women's game.
At just 21, she's already a coach on the field, and that could be key as Oklahoma FC battles this weekend at the WPSL final four in Pensacola, Fla.
Hampton leads her club against Boston-area power Aztec MA in Saturday's opening semifinal, and a victory would send it up against host Gulf Coast Texans or Salt Lake United -- both unbeaten -- in Sunday's title game.
“I would liken her to a point guard,” said Jimmy Hampton, tossing out a comparison to Russell Westbrook, who “drives the ship” for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder. “Doesn't necessary score all the goals, doesn't necessarily get the final assist, but it seems like on a lot of goals -- a high percentage -- somewhere or another she triggers the goal. ... She triggers [the attack] for us, to find the net when we need to most, definitely.
“And she's better in bigger games. In tighter games, against better teams, it seems her level raises when she feels that challenge. ... I think she embraces tat opportunity to compete against those top players.”
That's a good deal of the reasoning behind Dria's decision to leave the University of Oklahoma, where she has started 62 games in three seasons, and transfer to national powerhouse Florida State, which under Mark Krikorian competes annually for the NCAA title out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, by far the country's best women's soccer league. She goes through orientation Friday and reports for duty immediately after the WPSL championship.
“I think that's one of the reasons she wanted to go to Florida State with Coach Mark, as well-known and respected as he is,” Jimmy Hampton said. “She felt like being under his tutelage for a year, surrounded by the players who go to Florida State, that maybe it could be a springboard for another opportunity.”
Her goal is to play in Europe, and her style of play fits better there than it does at home. That's why she turned down her last U.S. youth national team invitation: what she brings to the field is undervalued in the American system, which still relies heavily on athleticism and direct play.
“The style they play, I just found it so hard to fit in,” said Dria, who had been in the national team program since she was 14. “They pulled me into camp and asked me to do all the things I'm not good at. Everyone has things they need to improve on, but at the same time they pulled me in for a reason.”
She's a playmaker, pure and simple, and if you're not going to play through a playmaker, her talents are wasted. She figures to enhance those skills, and play the kind of soccer she enjoys, with the Seminoles.
“It's been two of my dreams to win a national [college] title and, if the opportunity presents itself, to go play overseas,” said Dria, who will return to Norman following the season to finish a University of Oklahoma degree. “I think playing for Coach Mark puts me in the best position to achieve both of those goals. I'm hoping to be part of a team that has been absolutely incredibly built by him with a great class of seniors that are there, plus all the young players. I'd love to join in with that, go in and win a national title, and increase my chances of being looked at.”
For Oklahoma FC, she's greatly responsible for the numbers Jackie Acevedo (14 goals/5 assists) and Caitlin Mooney (11/5) have put up. Hampton has only 11 assists, but if the pass that led to the pass that led to the goal received credit, that number would double or better.
“She's an orchestrator in midfield. When Dria's on, she's on,” Jimmy Hampton says. “One thing about her that makes her maybe a little different than most [playmakers] is she's a natural finisher inside the 18. Get inside the 18, she's like money. You've got to respect that. You can't just take away the pass.”
Hampton relishes the attention -- and the pressure. That could be key this weekend.
“I'm always relaxed on the ball, really confident and comfortable, sometimes changing the game, slowing it down ...,” she said. “Putting forwards in the best position possible and make it easy as possible to score goals -- that's my job. It's what I'm supposed to do.”