WOMEN’S SOCCER: Four Yale alums train in NWSL preseason
Since 2014, four Yale women’s soccer graduates have taken the leap to professional play, either in tryouts or on the roster for National Women’s Soccer League clubs.
Courtesy of Yale Athletics
In the past five years, four Yale women’s soccer players have traded the Blue and White for the professional kits of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Meredith Speck ’15 and Aerial Chavarin ’20 are now players on the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars, respectively. Michelle Alozie ’19 and Noelle Higginson ’20 are currently on a preseason trial basis with the Houston Dash and Racing Louisville. Each player shone as a member of the Yale women’s soccer squad.
“I feel like I just want to go all out with soccer since that’s literally been my dream since forever,” Alozie said. “I just want to get my footing in. I don’t want to stop and then look back and think, I wish I had played more. I just feel like my body will only allow me to play soccer for so much longer, whereas school — everything will always be there.”
For each of these players, the journey to the NWSL was different. For Alozie, a season-ending injury during her senior year at Yale prompted her to spend a year as a graduate transfer at the University of Tennessee. There, Alozie felt a serious shift in her training; while her academic workload softened, the athletic demands were much higher. At Tennessee, it was “a shock how seriously they took [athletics].” In many ways, Alozie said she already felt like a professional athlete during that time. Following her year in Knoxville, Alozie made the leap to BIIK Kazygurt, the 13-time national champion of Kazakhstan. Though the American had planned to play with the club for longer, her trip lasted only three months, due to COVID-19 concerns. She is currently training in Houston.
Chavarin dominated the field during her time as a Bulldog. She was the team’s highest scorer three out of four seasons, including netting 10 game-winning goals across her four years. In January 2020, she was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Red Stars. Though the COVID-19 pandemic and a series of hamstring injuries made for an unexpected first year as a professional athlete, Chavarin is now back to training, with practice five days a week and team lifts twice a week. With such a high standard of competition at Yale, Chavarin felt prepared to realize her potential at the professional level — but the intensity is far beyond collegiate play, she said.
“My very first training with the Red Stars was insane,” Chavarin said. “Everything—the pace of the passes, the movements, the people, etc.—was much faster compared to college. I definitely got acclimated quickly, but remember leaving the first training session feeling out of place.”
All of these players emphasized how much the Bulldogs aided their path to success. Higginson credits head coach Sarah Martinez with supporting and encouraging her to return to soccer. After graduation, Higginson took a desk job and began preparing for law school at NYU. She continued playing soccer after work and maintained her fitness, but had mostly come to terms with pursuing an academic career.
Yet when Martinez reached out to teams on her behalf, Higginson knew she did not want to pass up such amazing opportunities. Ten months after closing the door on her soccer career, she is back on the field in Louisville.
“Honestly I think that similar to when I was rehabbing my ACL, when you’re not able to play, you realize sort of how much you love it and how much you miss it,” Higginson said. “Then, when the opportunity arose, I realized just how much I missed it. And I thought, well, I should go for this.”
Though Chavarin and Alozie are also familiarizing themselves with a new team, Higginson is in the unique position of trying out for an entirely new club. Racing Louisville was founded in late 2019 and its coaching staff is in the process of building the team. Higginson said the coaches have been enthusiastic about bringing younger talent to the squad and that she is energized by the opportunity to create a new team environment from scratch.
Speck — the most senior of the four players — has been playing professionally since graduating in 2014. She started her career with Western New York Flash, which later was sold and rebranded as the North Carolina Courage. Since 2017, she has been competing with this squad. Two years ago, the Courage became the first team in NWSL history to win both the Championship and the Shield in one season — with Speck playing in 15 out of 26 total games that season. Speck could not be reached for comment.
“Seeing Meredith, Michelle, Aerial and Noelle have opportunities to continue to play at the highest level in the NWSL is an incredible thing,” Martinez said. “All four have taken different journeys to get to their respective places, but they each represent our program and the Ivy League in such a positive way. We are proud to follow their careers as they continue to pave the path for future players of our program to follow their professional dreams.”
All three former Bulldogs are ready to tackle the NWSL challenges ahead and pursue the sport for as long as they can. But looking ahead, they are equally driven in their goals after the conclusion of their soccer careers. Higginson plans to get her law degree from NYU while keeping soccer a part of whatever life she chooses through adult leagues and other forms of informal play. Alozie graduated from Yale with a molecular, cellular and developmental biology degree and plans on attending medical school after she leaves the soccer world. Chavarin plans to start a private practice that helps people in underprivileged, minority communities with their mental health.
Following an unconventional year, the NWSL Challenge Cup is set to resume on April 9. After that series, the 10 teams will begin their regular season of 24 games between mid-May and the end of October. With some NWSL players away competing at the 2021 Summer Olympics, there is an opportunity for younger players to shine in these tournaments.
Each of the former Bulldogs hopes to inspire future generations of young female athletes coming up behind them. They all echoed the same sentiment: the need to push yourself, listen to your body and trust the process.
“Know your why,” Chavarin said. “Why do you play soccer? What keeps you going to practices and games? When I realized the importance of knowing my ‘why’ and reflected on what my ‘why’ is, I played more freely and soccer became even more fun and that is when I found the most success.”
During their collegiate careers, these four players scored a combined 61 goals for the Bulldogs.
Alessa Kim-Panero | firstname.lastname@example.org