The difference maker

The difference maker

She’s a good player in the United States, but in Mexico, Sofia Huerta ’15 has a great chance to make a real difference in women’s soccer. This article is excerpted from the original, which can be read in its entirety on the espnW website.

Growing up in Boise, Idaho, Sofia Huerta ’15 knew trouble lurked somewhere nearby when her mom and dad started speaking to her in Spanish.

“Whenever my friends were over and my parents wanted to yell at me or say something that they knew wasn’t appropriate to say in front of my friends, they would say it in Spanish,” Huerta recalled.

The youngest of Mauricio and Jody Jensen Huerta’s three children understood the language perfectly well when it was used to reprimand her. Yet unlike her older sister, who was born in Mexico, or her older brother, who studied abroad in her father’s hometown, she wouldn’t speak Spanish. She wasn’t ashamed of the Mexican half of her lineage—in largely homogenous Boise, she liked bragging about being different. As her parents put it, and as she admits, she was simply too stubborn to learn.

Which means the only person in the Huerta family who doesn’t speak fluent Spanish is one in whose honor the Mexican national anthem is now played with some regularity.

It is her biggest regret, admits the player who starred for Mexico in last year’s FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup and looks like a standout in the making for the senior team. But she listens, and she understands.

Like so many young girls in the United States, Huerta grew up with soccer. It was in Idaho where she won titles and awards and piled up goals at the club and high school level en route to earning a scholarship at Santa Clara University, one of the West Coast’s most historically significant women’s soccer programs.

On the field, she is a powerful attacking player, blending speed and strength with outstanding balance and dribbling instincts. She earned first-team all-conference honors in each of her first two seasons with the Broncos and has seven goals and two assists through 14 games this season for a team on the cusp of the top 10. Her physical traits set her apart but not alone. Something else does that, a specific skill that opens doors beyond college.

“Her ability to deliver a crossing ball with her right foot to the right spot is special,” Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said. “It’s world class, if you will. That might be the only thing that she does that’s world class, but to be world class in any one thing is phenomenal.”

What was lacking, especially early on, was confidence and the corresponding belief that committing herself to soccer was worth the effort. Smith lobbied for her to be invited to a training camp with the United States Under-20 national team shortly after her freshman season. She got the invite, but it didn’t go well. Smith asked the coaches to think about her long-term potential. They asked why they should believe in her when it didn’t seem she believed in herself.

“I’m still a confident player, don’t get me wrong, but I just know that there are so many other good players out there,” Huerta said. “Jerry knows me better than anyone, especially as a coach, and I am really hard on myself. I think that has to do with why I am not as confident as I should be because I think I should be a lot better than I am.”

Huerta was invited to a training camp with the Mexican Under-20 team and fared much better than she had in the American camp, well enough to make the team for the Under-20 World Cup in Japan. Playing for a youth national team of one country does not close the door on playing for the senior team of another country, so Huerta signed on for the trip.

She scored goals in each of Mexico’s three group games in Japan, helping propel them into the knockout round for just the second time in the premier junior event in women’s soccer. Mexico had never before won multiple games but beat Switzerland 2–0 and New Zealand 4–0, Huerta scoring first in both wins. When Mexico subsequently asked her to join a trip to Brazil with the senior team, she decided the opportunity to begin an international career was better than waiting for a call from the United States that might never come.

“I think she has enough evidence to now realize she can be a difference maker at any level,” Smith said. “I think that is what the Mexican experience has given to her. We tried to tell her when we recruited her, we tried to tell her in her freshman year how talented she was. She didn’t buy into it. I can guarantee you she didn’t buy into it.”

Like just about every girl who grows up playing soccer in the United States, Huerta dreamed of playing for its national team. Instead, it’s the Mexican anthem she sings before games, most recent against the United States in a game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The gap that remains between the two teams was clear as the United States rolled to a 7–0 win that night, but at least the Mexicans found a sliver of a silver lining in the strong play of one second-half substitute from Boise.

“I would have liked to see her have an opportunity [with the United States], but I also believe she’s going to make a real positive difference for Mexico,” Smith said. “And in the long run, she can actually make a bigger difference playing for Mexico than she could for the U.S. With the U.S., she’d simply be another good player. She might be able to make the difference for Mexico getting out of their group [in a major tournament].

“She might be able to make a difference in helping a cultural turnaround in terms of embracing women playing soccer.”

For now, Huerta is on track to graduate from Santa Clara in the spring of 2015, which would put her out in the real world just before that year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada and potentially the following year’s Olympics in Brazil (Mexico has qualified for the Olympics just once since women’s soccer was added in 1996).

“Once I got involved in Mexico, I kind of realized that, you know what, maybe I do need to be more in touch with my dad’s side,” Huerta said. “Slowly but surely, I feel like I’m more Mexican, if that makes sense.

“I’ve grown to be way more proud of who I am and where I’m from.”

This article is excerpted from the original. Read it in its entirety on the espnW website.

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