Interviews

'I'm American': Huerta explains why her USWNT dreams went through Mexico

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

The five-time Mexico international has applied to FIFA for a permanent switch to the U.S., but this isn't your usual story of a dual national.

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SEATTLE -- “It was not natural for me to play for Mexico.”

It’s a surprising confession from somebody who, as of four years ago, was a Mexican international. Between the country’s youth and senior national teams, Sofia Huerta has made 13 appearances for the nation of her father’s birth. Trips south to visit family were parts of her childhood. And when, five years ago, as a 19-year-old at Santa Clara University, she was asked to play for Mexico at the Under-20 World Cup, she had no reason to say no.

But Huerta is American. She has always been American, she insists, and as she sits on the cusp of fulfilling her childhood dream, that identity has never been more important.

“I have sheets of paper that I wrote on when I was six years old saying I’m going to play for the U.S. national team,” she says. “I even received texts from old friends saying, ‘I remember you doing a project on this when we were in fifth grade.’”

This is why FourFourTwo is here, in the lobby of a downtown Seattle hotel, talking with Huerta about the high point of her professional career. In the coffee shops of the surrounding blocks are the members of the most famous women’s team in professional sport. Just out of a meeting, U.S. women’s national soccer team players have quickly hit the streets of Seattle, hoping for a brief distraction before resuming their afternoon schedule.

But not Huerta. As teammates carrying coffee cups pass back through the lobby, she alternates between the back and edge of her seat, trying to find a comfortable range with a reporter she’s never met before. There’s no anxiety or discomfort, but the questions are personal, and their intentions are missing their mark. This might seem a relatively straightforward story about identity and culture. Quickly, it becomes evident: Huerta’s journey is something different.

“I consider myself American,” she says, unambiguously. “The goal was always [the] U.S. [Playing for Mexico] was the abnormal thing to do.”

All of which leaves her in an unusual place. So intent for so long on representing her country of birth, Huerta finds herself with five senior caps for Mexico. And now, four years after her last international appearance, she awaits FIFA approval before getting her international dreams back on course.

The writing on the wall

My dad is the only one of his family that moved to the United States, so I did feel like I grew up American. I don’t speak Spanish. I feel very American. I’ve always wanted to play for the U.S.

- Sofia Huerta

Huerta knows what it looks like from the outside. She has a “Mentions” column on Twitter, too. She knows how people have reacted to the dual nationals on the U.S. men’s national team, and she’s under no illusions about the assumptions. Even beyond soccer, when it comes to someone’s national identification, most expect loyalty to overwhelm nuance.

Her story is different, though. This isn’t a German-born player who has formed a late tie to the United States, and this isn’t men’s international soccer. To the extent that Huerta, the soccer player, has ever identified as a Mexican, she did so only after a setback within the U.S. system.

“I can take you through how it all played out for me,” she says, beginning a story she’ll have to repeat ad nauseam as her international profile grows. She’s open about it, though, offering the type of help that tries to preempt the next problem.

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

She was first brought into the U.S. setup as a part of U-14 national team tryouts. She worked her way through the system from there until, as a 19-year-old, she got her first hint that achieving her childhood dreams would require navigating some unforeseen obstacles.

“I went to a U-20 camp with the U.S. team [before the 2012 U-20 World Cup]. Steve Swanson was the coach. He said, ‘Look, we’re not going to take you. We liked who you are, but you’re not going to fit into this roster.’ At that moment, it was, ‘Wow, I do have this dream of playing for the U.S., but they don’t want me,’ and Mexico came knocking on my door.”

As Huerta goes over her backstory, though, the conversation gets difficult. With one poorly phrased question, the atmosphere changes, and the interview feels more like an interrogation.

Shifting forward in her chair, she doesn’t wait for the follow-up: She knows the next question, because she knows everyone will ask a version of it. If you’re American, they think, and you always wanted to play for the U.S., then why did you appear for Mexico?

“I was young. I was 19. It seemed like a really good opportunity, and it was. Why would I turn that down? I’m going to the U-20 World Cup. I get to play internationally. That was the biggest thing, for me. I get to experience something that a lot of people don’t get to experience, so I want to take that opportunity. Who would turn that down?”

For people without Huerta’s options, the answer may seem obvious. But to the extent their answer is “anyone,” it’s one that lacks empathy, in addition to denying Huerta her autonomy. Huerta’s experience is unique – no senior Mexico international has ever switched to the U.S. women’s team – and any rules developed for Jermaine Jones, Sydney Leroux, or any other prominent dual national don’t apply to her. For those trying to decipher her intentions, it’s important to realize that she was born, raised, and has always felt American.

Huerta embodies that importance. She knows that going from the U.S. to Mexico and back will lead some people to question her allegiances. There’s an intent in her voice, an urgency that wants to assuage all doubt. Still, the more obvious that urgency, the easier it is to envision Huerta, on the verge of this new level of recognition, having to explain in interview after interview: She is not Mexican.

“I was born in Idaho, it’s very low diversity,” she says. “My dad is the only one of his family that moved to the United States, so I did feel like I grew up American. I don’t speak Spanish. I feel very American. I’ve always wanted to play for the U.S.

“I do understand how that can turn people the wrong way, or some people don’t understand the whole play for one nation, how can you want to play for another; at least, that’s what I see on Twitter.”

Besides, to conceive of national identity as an absolute, something that’s experienced the same way by each person, denies something increasingly obvious about a post-globalization planet: Nationality is not always a cut-and-dry thing, and to the extent that FIFA requires a player to have one (and only one) national identity, that doesn’t map perfectly onto the real world. The concept entangles two very different things: As much as you are representing your country when you play internationally, your FIFA status is not always the same as how you see yourself.

For two years, that was the case with Huerta. Eight appearances at youth levels, where she scored three goals for Mexico at the U-20 World Cup in Japan, preceded five senior-level appearances, giving her experience against some of the world’s top teams.

“I can say that I have played against Brazil, Denmark, Portugal, the U.S.,” Huerta says, saying most first-time national team call-ups don’t have the benefit of that type of experience. “I’ve played in those environments where there are thousands and thousands of people, and the crowd’s so loud you can’t hear what your teammates are saying, and those nerves hit you. I’ve experienced that, so I am happy I did that.”

Keeping the American dream in mind

All along, Huerta remained conscious of her U.S. future. There was, she admits, an element of naive 19-year-old ‘why not’ when she first accepted Mexico’s invites, but as she inched toward a point of no return - a senior-level appearance in a FIFA competition - Huerta slowed her course, knowing the caps she’d already accrued would already complicate her U.S. future.

“My coach, Jerry Smith, at the time at Santa Clara, said, ‘Look, you may not be able to play for the U.S. if you play for Mexico again. Is that something you want to do?’” she remembers. “And just being young and being so in the moment at the time, I said, ‘Yeah, I want to play for Mexico. I want to play against the big names. I want to play internationally.’

“I made that decision [to play for Mexico], but I also kind of knew if I didn’t play in a big tournament, that I would be able to make that one-time switch. In my eyes, it was ‘Well, right now, I’m not going to have an opportunity to play internationally with the U.S., so why wouldn’t I take it with Mexico?’”

If you’ve wanted something so much your life, why wouldn’t you go for that, whether or not it goes as you want it to?

- Sofia Huerta

The turning point came after one of Huerta’s most vulnerable moments. At the end of 2012, shortly after becoming involved with Mexico, she was misdiagnosed with a stress reaction in her left foot and was placed in a walking cast for months. A subsequent diagnosis discovered a condition called osteochondritis dissecans, or OCD -- a condition that compromises a joint’s cartilage and bone.

Huerta still has ankle issues, and she always will. Occasionally, the joint stiffens up. She still has a bone spur, and has scar tissue built up, but a cortisone shot and rehab eventually got her back on the field.

During her time away, she started reconsidering the tightrope she was walking with Mexico.

“[Mexico] kept calling me. It is one of those things where it’s like, ‘I can’t go because I’m injured.’ That’s when it all came to me. ‘I’m semi-glad that I am injured, because it gives me more time to think about what I really want.’ That was the decision. I know I want to try to reach for the goal that has always been my goal.”

She has turned down Mexico’s calls for three-plus years now. At the same time, she’s become an indispensable player for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago Red Stars. Along with fellow U.S. international Christen Press, she forms one of the best strike partnerships in the NWSL, with the three goals and four assists she’s posted this year in 15 appearances understating the value the attacker offers across multiple positions.

“I feel like I can score, and I work hard, and I’m coachable. Those are the things that have given me success at the Red Stars, at the NWSL-level,” she says, but only after realizing her career’s new context.

“I think that I bring a lot to the table, but what’s so interesting about [the national team] is so does everyone.”

In time, what Huerta brings to the table will came back into the focus, but today, she can’t play with the U.S.: She can only train with the team as she waits for her transfer paperwork to be approved. It’s natural for people to focus on this part of her life, for now.

If and when the change is approved, Mexico’s calls will stop. Her one-time international switch will be done, and her official FIFA status will match her identity: American.

By then, too, Huerta’s story should be known. The questions will cease, and the Boise-born Bronco will no longer have to explain herself.

Until then, though, Huerta is willing to get the word out on her own behalf.

“Of course, I would have enjoyed the youth national teams from when I was 14 up until now, but that wasn’t the journey, for me. I think that’s what makes my story cool, and relatable, because that doesn’t happen to a lot of people.

“If I could say anything to anyone, it would be, ‘If you’ve wanted something [for] so much your life, why wouldn’t you go for that, whether or not it goes as you want it to?’”

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