By Matt Leon

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Over the last few years, the La Salle University women’s soccer team has emerged as an elite program in the region, winning back-to-back Atlantic 10 titles and making the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons. One of the big reasons for the program’s success was the play of midfielder/defender Courtney Niemiec. She has now taken her game to the next level, proving to be a key contributor with the Portland Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League.

“It’s great out here, I love it,” Niemiec tells KYW Newsradio. “It was an easy transition from college, even though its been completely different. I mean I had high expectations for this league and it’s going pretty well.”

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As a junior in 2012, Niemiec was the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year and earned first-team all-conference honors. her senior season saw her once again pick up first-team, all-Atlantic 10 recognition. During her four years at La Salle, she scored 8 goals and added 14 assists while helping to anchor a stingy defense. She says it was as her college career drew to a close that she first realized a door to the pro game was opening.

Niemiec has played in 11 games this season as a rookie in Portland (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC)

Niemiec has played in 11 games this season as a rookie in Portland (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC)

“After our Georgetown game (in the 2013 NCAA Tournament), my coach (Paul Royal) came up to me and said that this will not be my last game of playing soccer,” Niemiec says. “And I was kind of confused, but then we talked about it and everything and we talked about the possibility. All the coaching staff wanted me to do was to get an opportunity in the NWSL and (Portland head coach) Paul Riley gave me that opportunity and I just made the most of it.”

Niemiec actually came to Portland just for a tryout, impressed enough to get an invite to preseason camp and then made the team. So far this season for the defending NWSL champion Thorns, Niemiec has played in 11 games (10 starts), logging 824 minutes on the pitch.

“It is completely, probably ten steps higher  than what I had in college,” Niemiec says. “It’s just a lot harder, it’s a lot more physical and it just takes a lot out of you. Even practices do. Practices are mostly just like game speed, they’re quick, they’re physical, it’s just like playing in a game every day.”

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Niemiec is a Philadelphia native, so now calling the Pacific Northwest home is quite a change, but she says she is adjusting well.

“At first it was hard because this is only like my third time being on the west coast,” Niemiec says. “Being so close to home in college, (La Salle) was only 25 minutes away, it was pretty tough. But having the opportunity to go back like once a month for a couple days made it a lot better. And every time we go home to the east coast, I always see my family and friends.”

Niemiec and the Thorns return to action on Wednesday when they take on Sky Blue FC.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattleonkyw.

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