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Visible impact: Sofia Huerta could be more than just another player for USA

The Chicago Red Star forward could impact the USWNT on and off the pitch.

Stephanie Yang

“My favorite thing about being Mexican-American is just having the culture in me.” It’s one of the first things Chicago Red Stars forward Sofia Huerta tells me when I ask what her favorite thing about being Mexican-American is.

When U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis announced the roster for the 2017 Tournament of Nations, it held all the familiar names of the senior national team. The press release listed several allocated players and a few NWSL standouts. It revealed facts about the team, and where and how to watch the upcoming Tournament of Nations.

In between all that was an interesting bit of news: Chicago Red Stars forward Sofia Huerta, 24, has been invited to train with the team for the duration of the tournament. U.S. Soccer is also filing a change of association with FIFA on Huerta’s behalf. Huerta played with Mexico in the 2012 U-20 World Cup, and some international friendlies as well, but is not cap-tied to Mexico. If approved, Huerta could have the opportunity to play for the United States.

In an interview this June, Huerta described herself as someone who is “open and emotional” and as someone who “views things very realistically.”

“It’s just a really competitive environment [breaking into the USWNT player pool],” she said. “And there’s this kind of grey area between being realistic and striving for your dreams. Like I’ve always had the dream to play for the U.S and I’m going to continue to try and control what I can control and hopefully maybe [I’ll] be in [conversations] of playing for them at one point. But at the same time, I do have to be realistic, and the reality is all I can do is continue playing as best I can with the Red Stars and that’s the only way I’m ever going to get to that level is if I perform and do well with Chicago.”

A lot can change in a month. And for Huerta, it did.

A different background

Her journey to fulfilling her dreams goes back much further than last month. It was a journey that began long ago when she was little girl with a dream of someday playing for the U.S. women’s national team. Like most of life’s journeys, they have twists and turns. Sometimes they have moments of joy and happiness. Other times there are moments of doubts and disappointment. Huerta’s road to the U.S. senior team might be different from others, but it is uniquely her own.

Huerta played soccer in her youth and on high school and club teams. She eventually made her way to Santa Clara, where she was presented with an opportunity: she was cut from the United States 2012 U-20 World Cup roster, and Mexico came calling. As a Mexican-American she was eligible to represent Mexico. Her father, Mauricio, is from Puebla, outside of Mexico City. “Puebla is a bit like you’re either really rich, or you’re really poor,” she said. “Like my dad grew up and had holes in his shoes and played soccer with a rolled-up ball of newspaper. So, in [coming to] America and being lucky and being so fortunate, my dad came here and made a name for himself. [He] became an engineer.”

She recounted her father’s story to me with pride; it isn’t an unfamiliar one in the diaspora that is growing up Mexican-AmericanHuerta doesn’t take that for granted as an adult. “Now that I’m older I understand,” she said, “But seeing [my dad] come to the U.S. and being the only one, and learning a different language and being in a different culture, and just doing that for his kids, is amazing. So, I always want to recognize that.”

Her parents settled down in Boise, Idaho, where she was born. According to 2010 census data, Boise is 89% White. While acknowledging the lack of diversity, Huerta admits growing up ‘different’ was something she appreciated. “Growing up in a bilingual household was so cool,” she said. “I mean, I’m from Idaho. So, it’s a low diverse area anyway, [and] being the only Mexican, or like one of the only Mexicans, in my opinion, was so cool.” Huerta smiled. “I understand Spanish, but only kind of speak it. I’ll eventually get there, I hope.” In the same sentence, she took the time to joke. “But I’ve always liked being different where I grew up. [Even now] I mean I am the only Mexican on the [Red Stars] team.”

Chasing dreams

Huerta’s dual eligibility allowed her to play for Mexico in the 2012 U-20 World Cup. Playing for Mexico was an opportunity to compete internationally, at the highest level, on one of the world’s biggest stages. At 19, the former Santa Clara Bronco did what most teenagers would do - she took the opportunity. She immediately impressed, scoring three goals in four matches. Huerta credits the international experiences with helping her game evolve. “From a young age, I always wanted to play for the U.S. and then in college I didn’t have the best freshman and sophomore year and then Mexico approached me,” she said. “And it was one of these things where it was like, ‘OK well I went to U-20 camp for the U.S. and got cut, and then I had an opportunity in front of me, and I’m 19 years old, why would I not travel around the world and play soccer?’ And so that’s a decision I made. I don’t regret that decision.”

She elaborated on the importance of taking that opportunity, that it showed her she had the talent to compete at that level. “Honestly that helped me because I did play internationally and I know that I can compete at that level. If I would have never played for [Mexico], I mean I really don’t know where I’d be at right now. If I didn’t play for them, honestly. I really don’t. Maybe I wouldn’t have played in the U-23’s, or maybe I wouldn’t have confidence in my international play. It’s all about the journey, and it was a good experience.”

In 2014, it was reported that Huerta declined further national team invitations from Mexico in a written letter. But Huerta set the record straight for me. “It’s not like I ever wrote a letter anyway by the way,” she said. “I’ve just had conversations, or phone calls. [Mexico] coaches spoke to my dad, and [we] explained my side of the story, which is that I chose to decline any invitation from Mexico [to play].” She further explained, “I just think in general as you get older your mind changes, the things you want change.”

If the request for a change in FIFA association gets approved, it will allow Huerta to perhaps eventually see playing time with the U.S. national team. It’s always been her dream. “I’m 24 now and my dream is still the same as it was when I was 5. I want to play for the U.S. team,” she said.

Visibility matters

When the news broke that Sofia Huerta received an invitation to train with the USWNT, it made an immediate impact, especially within the Latino community.

Latinas have not traditionally seen themselves represented that much among the ranks of WNT players. Should FIFA approve Huerta’s switch and should she eventually make her way to the pitch, she would be only the second Mexican-American player to represent the U.S. crest at the senior level in its nearly 32-year history. The first, Stephanie Cox (née Lopez), played for the team from 2005 through 2013 and won an Olympic gold medal with them in 2008.

Huerta’s hard work and persistence in pursuit of her goals have made her a role model. Her experiences have shaped the type of role model she hopes to be, and she takes the responsibility seriously. “Sadly enough, [in the community] it’s still kind of looked down upon to be athletic [and female],” she said. “I would like to be that role model. Like yes, I’m Mexican-American and I’m athletic and I like to play soccer. And that’s not a bad thing, that it’s a cool thing. That it’s something that I want people to look at and see.”

Huerta recognizes that all experiences are different, and that her story is just a part of a much bigger one. But her identity is what it is, and she has embraced it. “I just want to say that I think I’m still considered a Mexican-American. Like, whether or not I play for Mexico, I am. I’m half-Mexican and half-American and my lifestyle and the way I grew up might be different from other Mexican-Americans in the U.S. and their experiences. But if I didn’t play for Mexico I could still be a role model for Mexican-Americans.”

For a team that has always lived by the motto “Grow the Game” and now hosts an annual SheBelieves Cup, having a player like Huerta on the roster could have a significant impact much bigger than just on the pitch. In a supposed meritocracy like the USWNT, everyone should have the same opportunity, and part of that is getting to feel the same inspiration as other young players. It’s impossible to discount the effect of having role models that look like you, grew up like you, or have a similar last name as you. Sofia Huerta’s journey to the USWNT isn’t like a lot of other American players, and that’s why it could have a significant influence on the diverse, representative community American soccer hopes to be.