SPOKANE, Wash. -- At family picnics and holiday gatherings, Army Capt. Kailey Utley wouldn’t hesitate to challenge her older brother and his friends in pickup soccer games.
She attacked the former men’s collegiate players with the same relentless tenacity as she did against West Virginia University opponents. Following a standout senior campaign at WVU, Utley had decided that a career in optometry would take priority over a game she has played since the age of five.
But she still found her way back to the soccer field.
Now an Army optometrist stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Utley competes in the semi-pro Women’s Premiere Soccer League and she also trains with a men’s club team at JBLM to continue to hone her skills.
And most recently, during 11 scorching days in the Pacific Northwest, Utley helped lead a resurgence of the U.S. Armed Forces women’s soccer team at the 2022 Women’s Military World Football Cup held in Spokane, Washington July 11-22. Utley’s ability to create and break through defenses helped the Americans outscore opponents 18-6 during the tournament.
“She is a rare gem,” said U.S. coach and Air Force Col. Derrick Weyand. “She’s the full package: speed, technical ability, great teammate.”
The Americans finished in fourth place, the best U.S. finish since 2004 following a 3-0 loss to South Korea in the bronze medal match on July 22.
Utley had to miss the final game of her current club, PacNW, to train with the Armed Forces team in June and July.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me,” Utley said of playing in the Women’s Military World Cup. “It was important for me to be here.”
Utley along with a new fusion of talent combined with a foundation of returning players helped the Armed Forces women’s soccer team return to prominence.
Utley tallied four goals and three assists during the five-game tournament, but numbers can’t fully quantify Utley’s offensive impact.
She can put defenders on their heels with swift moves. Utley, a wing forward who can score and attack with either foot, combined with fellow Soldier, 1st Lt. Haley Roberson, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Katie Gernsbacher, and Air Force Capt. Morgan Roberts to give the Americans its most potent offense in years.
In the opener against Belgium on July 11, Utley coasted past her Belgian opponent, she sent a cross to Roberson for an early goal.
Three minutes later on a setup from Roberson, Utley sprinted toward the net and following a deflection, dribbled through the legs of Belgium’s keeper sending the ball inside the left corner of the net.
Utley helped spur the U.S. offensive attack, scoring two goals and assisting on another in the win over Belgium.
“Her ability to think and then coupled with her ability to just outwork anyone on the field I think has just … catapulted her to where she’s at today,” said her brother, Capt. Mike Utley, an Army Ranger stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the 2-1 loss to Cameroon, Weyand said Cameroon assigned extra defenders to limit Utley’s touches. Utley scored the first goal in the Americans’ 2-1 triumph over Germany, avenging a loss to the Germans in the 2019 World Military Games.
“When she gets the ball, she creates something special,” Weyand said.
High school star
Just west of St. Louis where I-270 and I-70 meet near the Champ Landfill, sits Pattonville High School, where Utley starred for the Pirates’ varsity.
As a grade schooler Utley watched her brother compete for the Pirates’ varsity boys’ team on the same field. Mike eventually earned a scholarship to compete for Division III Fontbonne University before enlisting in the Navy. After completing his degree at Fontbonne, Mike commissioned into the Army as an infantry officer.
“I think he’s always influenced me my whole life,” Utley said. “We were pretty close growing up. I always kind of followed in his footsteps.”
She took steps her brother did not including joining a club soccer team at age 7. Utley eventually made a name for herself at Pattonville, totaling 86 goals and 60 assists for the Pirates over her four years, while netting 23 game-winners. As a sophomore, she led the Pirates to a runner-up finish at the Missouri state tournament.
From struggle to triumph
Nine years ago Utley noticed a nagging pain in her left shin during her sophomore season at West Virginia University. An MRI revealed she had a stress fracture that limited her explosiveness and ability to attack.
In 20 games as a sophomore reserve, Utley failed to score a goal and had only one assist for the season. For the first time, unbeknownst to family, she had doubts about her abilities.
“I didn’t know what my soccer career was going to be like,” Utley said. “Because at that point it was not panning out like I had planned. It was a struggle.”
Following treatment and recovery, she decided to raise the level of her training, choosing to practice and workout every day. She remained on WVU’s Morgantown campus each summer to train instead of going home.
“I just knew I had to fight through it and keep working,” she said. “Because you’re not getting handed anything.”
The extra hours paid dividends. Utley bounced back with 5 goals and 5 assists as a junior before her stellar senior campaign. Utley led the Mountaineers to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament in her final season while collecting a career-best 12 goals and 6 assists, establishing herself as one of the best players in the Big 12.
In the Sweet 16 game vs. Loyola Marymount she tallied a hat trick in her final home game.
“Sometimes you just get into a zone and you’re not even thinking,” Utley said. “Sometimes things just happen. It was a cool experience to be a part of and to help the team. Really the only thing that matters [is] we ended up winning the game.”
Behind Utley and a stifling back line, the Mountaineers finished the year 19-3-1 and ranked No.7 nationally in 2015.
Utley had earned an invite to try out for the FC Kansas City of the National Women’s Soccer League after her WVU graduation. She later continued to compete on the semi pro team Fire and Ice while attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Utley maintained a rigorous training regimen with a robust academic schedule while studying optometry at UMSL.
During her undergraduate studies, Utley shadowed an optometrist in Morgantown, West Virginia. She grew fascinated in the complexities of optometry and the eyes’ connections to the brain. She saw another opportunity to advance her career, and, follow in her older brother’s footsteps: joining the Army, while following her own path as an optometrist.
Utley received the prestigious F. Edward Hebert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program to commission into the Army while completing her studies to become a military optometrist.
Utley moved back to the St. Louis area, joining Fire and Ice soccer club of the WPSL, leading the club to a national title in 2017. “She’s just one of those dedicated people,” Michael Utley said. “If you’ve ever met somebody like that, she strives for excellence in everything she does.”
Now Utley practices optometry as the commander of the deployable optometry unit 166th Medical Detachment, part of the 56th Medical Multifunctional Medical Battalion. In 2021, Utley’s optometry team traveled to Belcourt, North Dakota, to train with Army reservists to offer optometry and fabrication services to local residents.
“She’s always been a leader and that was evident from the moment she walked in the door,” said Utley’s former supervisor Lt. Col. Patrick Miller.