While the National Women’s Soccer League is considered one of, if not the, best competitions in the world, some players opt to begin their professional careers abroad for a variety of reasons. Whether desiring immediate playing time or the right to choose their landing spot instead of going through a draft, heading to another country can present the more appealing choice. Mary Alice “M.A.” Vignola moved to Iceland after college before eventually making her return to stateside. Due to a strong season, the 25-year-old Angel City FC fullback earned her first call-up to the United States Women’s National Team and could be in store for further inclusion in 2024.
Born in Cincinnati, Vignola competed at the club level as a forward with Ohio Elite in the Elite Clubs National League, twice finishing in the national top ten. She also played with her high school, St. Ursula Academy, and contributed 35 goals and 26 assists. In addition to earning All-City honors multiple times, the burgeoning prospect was selected for the 2015 High School All-America game.
Rated as the 36th-best recruit in the country, Vignola committed to the University of Tennessee over North Carolina, Florida, and Louisville. During her sophomore season, she shifted from forward to fullback, a move that paid short- and long-term dividends. The now-defender earned All-SEC Second Team honors and reached the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament as a junior, followed by contributing nine goals as the team’s leading scorer and being named All-SEC First Team in her last year as a Volunteer.
Opting against entering the NWSL draft due to feeling unready “confidence-wise and mentally-wise,” Vignola signed with Knattspyrnufélagið Þróttur in Iceland, which returned to the first division for the first time in several years. Her adjustment process included arriving in the middle of winter, dealing with the weather, and the sky being “pitch black for around 23 hours of the day.” She scored six goals in 12 appearances and was named to the League Team of the Week four times. Despite the “difficult task” of joining the top level, the club narrowly missed the drop and avoided relegation based on goal differential.
“I was like, ‘Iceland? What’s in Iceland?’” she told AngelCity.com. “But I got there and it was beautiful. I fell in love with the culture, I fell in love with the people, I fell in love with how they accepted foreigners onto the field. It was just a welcoming community, and they love soccer—and people showed up to games.”
In 2021, Vignola stayed in the land of fire and ice, joining Valur in the capital city of Reykjavík, which featured several Iceland national team players. She injured her labrum in her debut but played through the pain and ultimately contributed two goals in 18 matches as Valsarar won the title. Local media described her as playing a “key role” toward claiming the trophy with the “slightly different and faster team.”
Vignola then returned stateside and signed with NWSL expansion side Angel City FC on a two-year contract with a one-year option following a trade with the Washington Spirit. Due to lingering pain, she spent the majority of her first season undergoing surgery and rehabilitating her hip injury, which “took a bit longer than expected.” After being medically cleared, there were two brief substitute appearances at the end of the schedule.
“[The doctors] didn’t know how much work they were going to have to do, until they got in there,” Vignola shared with the LA Daily News. “It was tough to hear coming out of surgery, going from I’ll be ready to go midseason, but that was not the case... I took that time to step back and really focus on my mental, take a breath and realize where I’m at and accept the process. And the best part of it was the help from the Angel City staff and my teammates. They really had my back and I was able to work on the things mentally that I needed to work on.”
The 2023 season was a breakout year for Vignola, playing in 22 matches and starting 19, with manager Becki Tweed noting that the fullback had “a ton of room to grow” and was yet to demonstrate her full potential. She found the back of the net three times and was named to the NWSL Team of the Month for June and September, which resulted in Best XI Second Team honors. As expected, the club exercised her contract extension, citing “tenacity, positive, and energy” which make her a “key part of the squad.”
At the international level, Vignola received call-ups for the United States in the U-14, U-15, U-17, and U-18 groups. In September of 2023, she accepted her first invitation to the senior team as a replacement for Kelley O’Hara and debuted in a friendly against South Africa, experiencing “a whirlwind of emotions” in her hometown of Cincinnati. Interim manager Twila Kilgore named her to the roster for October’s friendlies with Colombia and December’s fixtures against China, but the defender was unused in both windows.
Standing 5’6”, Vignola is a fullback who is praised for her “athleticism and versatility as a defender” with the ability to contribute in the final third. Equalizer Soccer describes her as “a powerful runner with a nice change of pace” who “can dribble using either foot.” She is above average in one-on-one duels and claims headers but truly excels at driving possession into the attacking half.
The USWNT is going through a transitional period in advance of next summer’s Olympics, giving several players a shot at breaking into the fold. Vignola impressed with Angel City and is slowly gaining a toehold at the senior international level. Many players are capable of earning a call-up or two, but being added to the roster for a major tournament is an even greater challenge. After beginning her professional career abroad, she appears on the right track despite the “crazy journey.”