Sofia Huerta’s trophy dreams


United States full-back Sofia Huerta has a history Down Under. As she returns for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the former Sydney FC star reflects on her career-changing time in the Liberty A-League, writes Sacha Pisani.

If the United States claim a record third consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup in August, they would have done so by winning the final in Sydney. It is a place that evokes unforgettable memories for Sofia Huerta.

It is also a place where the USA international was reminded why she loved playing so much.

Huerta is one of six players in USA’s star-studded squad to have played in the Liberty A-League, including global icon Megan Rapinoe.

The 29-time international won the Championship with Sydney FC in 2018-19 on loan from Houston Dash.

As the USWNT eye history in Australia and New Zealand, the Liberty A-League is not lost on Huerta.

“I was able to learn, and you will really understand this because the culture in Australia is so laid back, I was able to just take the pressure off myself,” Huerta told KEEPUP.

“I was playing in the NWSL, I put a lot of pressure on myself to play so well every game because the national team was watching and I needed to get back on the team.

“But I was able to go to Australia and just enjoy it and have fun. Take the pressure off and I was almost reminded why I loved playing so much.

“I think I was able to carry that back to the NWSL.

“My first season playing in Adelaide and then I came back to the NWSL and I got my first call-up to the national team because I think I was just able to embrace the fun of playing football again, instead of all the pressure I put on myself.

“Everyone in Australia is so nice and so fun, and they love what they do. I was able to take that home with me.

“And also, it was really good football. Back in the day and it has obviously evolved, but our season was only six-seven months long if you made it to the finals. I couldn’t only play football six months out of the year, I needed to go play more. I was already lacking some technical ability because of where I grew up and I just didn’t play all year around.

“So I’d play in the NWSL and W-League and then NWSL and W-League. So I was able to play all year round which was the first time I was able to do that in my life. It just really helped make me a better player.”

In her first trip to Australia, Huerta linked up with Adelaide, where she finished third in the Julie Dolan Medal voting. But it is at Sydney FC where the 30-year-old came into her own.

Part of her decision to join Sydney was their willingness to allow her to play full-back in a bid to be recalled to the national team, having starred as a forward for Adelaide.

During that 2018-19 season, Huerta played alongside Matildas star Caitlin Foord, Chloe Logarzo, Lisa De Vanna, Alanna Kennedy, Princess Ibini, Nat Tobin, Teresa Polias and Amy Harrison. She scored in the Grand Final as the Sky Blues defeated Sam Kerr’s Perth Glory 4-2.

“I literally just got the chills,” said Huerta, who also played for Sydney in 2019-20. “It’s one of my best memories as a professional player.

“With my journey specifically and being converted to an outside back. I had a really difficult journey because the national team was trying to play me as an outside back and then I got traded from Chicago to Houston to try to play there. They didn’t end up playing me there and I was playing forward again. So I never got an opportunity to play outside back.

“Then I stopped getting called into the national team. I just felt the only way I was going to get called back into the national team was at outside back so I was like I need to play outside back and get reps there.

“When I went to Sydney, I said I’ll come if you play me at outside back. I got a lot of laughs in my face when I was asking teams to play me there because I had so much success scoring goals in Adelaide, so no team wanted to play me at outside back.

“But Sydney were great. They trusted in me and felt I’d be a good outside back. It meant a lot to me to score in that final. Not because we were winning the Grand Final but because it was like I took a bet on myself and I knew I could play outside back in this league and have success and still help the team score goals. I scored in the semi-final and I scored in the final as an outside back. I got 14 games as an outside back.

“It meant so much to me to score in that final at Jubilee. It was an amazing experience. It was one of the best goals I’ve ever scored in my life. Some of the best times of my life playing in Australia.

“When I came back to the NWSL, I played forward, I actually returned to Sydney the next season. Played forward, played midfield. So that outside back hope of getting on the national team went away for a couple of years. Then I got converted to play outside back again in 2021 with OL Reign and then months later I was called up again to the national team.

“I believe it was so easy to convert to outside back in the NWSL, although I’d never had the chance to play there, because I played in Australia. I had really good competition there. I had Sam Kerr dribbling at me. I had experience so when I was put there in 2022, I was ready.”

The mindset behind USA’s historic pursuit

Vlatko Andonovski’s USA will look to become the first ever team, male or female, to win three straight World Cups.

The two-time defending champions must first navigate Group E, which will see them face Vietnam (July 22 at Eden Park, Auckland), the Netherlands (July 27 at Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington) and Portugal (August 1 at Eden Park, Auckland) in New Zealand.

Huerta and the Americans are embracing the pressure.

The USA after winning the 2019 World Cup.

“It’s definitely intense. Being on the USWNT is one of the most competitive teams in the world. Every player is very good. Even players in the NWSL that don’t get a shot with the national team are very good,” Huerta said.

“Playing in the US is a very competitive league and then being in the UWSNT is a whole different beast.

“People are saying we’re defending our title but I think we’ve shifted that narrative and have seen it as we’re attacking a new challenge. Realistically, this is a completely different team to the one that competed at the previous World Cup. New coaching staff, we have 14 players who are going to their first World Cup. That’s a new team, right? I feel like we’re not really defending something, we’re attacking something.

“Being in this environment is unmatched. You always have to be on, all day. You need to be the best you can be or you won’t be on team.

“It’s definitely fulfilling. It’s an amazing accomplishment to be named to the roster. Everyone’s happy to be here but now the roster’s been named and we’re in training camp, it’s time to go because we want to win the World Cup.”

Huerta in action for the USA.

This will be Huerta’s first World Cup, having previously represented Mexico. She is the first female to play both for and against the United States and Mexico.

Through her father, she debuted for Mexico in 2012 and went on to earn five caps before making the switch to the USA in 2017.

It was a meeting between Mexico and the US in September 2013 that prompted her decision.

“I remember thinking I love playing for Mexico but I really think I’m meant to play for the US. That is my dream, my goal and my dream since I was five years old,” she recalled.

“In that moment, when we played the USA, that’s when I decided to never play for Mexico again. I respectively declined those invitations going forward for years. Although I never even knew I’d play for the US. I never had any communication with them but I just wanted to take that risk.”

Huerta playing for Mexico against the USA.

“I’m really thankful for the journey I had,” she added. “Even though it wasn’t the easiest decision to make. It’s really unique and amazing actually that I was able to represent Mexico and the US in the same lifetime,” she recalled.

Huerta is in a USWNT squad headlined by 2019 Golden Ball winner Rapinoe, who also won the Golden Boot four years ago.

Rapinoe also scooped the Ballon d’Or Feminin and The Best FIFA Women’s Player in 2019.

There is also Alex Morgan. The 33-year-old has won two consecutive World Cups and a gold medal at the 2012 Games and she was the joint-leading goalscorer at the 2019 World Cup in France, alongside Rapinoe and England’s Ellen White who all scored six goals apiece.

With a UEFA Women’s Champions League crown and other honours to her name, Morgan – who has 121 international goals in 206 appearances – is shaping up as another big threat in a stacked USWNT side.

Rapinoe (L) and Morgan (R)

“It’s unreal. I grew up watching Megan Rapinoe when I was in high school,” said Huerta. “Alex Morgan was up and coming and just making a name for herself.

“These are two players I’ve watched their whole journey from afar, now I get to be apart of their journey. I get to see how professional they are, on and off the field.

“They’re such good people too. Such good professionals and they’re winners. They are two main reasons why the US national team have been so successful over the last decade.”