What Is This USWNT Player’s Deal: Sofia Huerta
11:32 AM EDT on July 14, 2023
Welcome to What Is This USWNT Player's Deal, a recurring series in which Defector selects a name from the American players most likely to go to the Women's World Cup this summer and answers the question: What is this USWNT player’s deal?
Most elite athletes’ careers are full of ups and downs. Several of the players we’ve written about for our USWNT previews have had frustrating, oftentimes stalled journeys to this 2023 World Cup: Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, and Kristie Mewis, for instance. But Sofia Huerta? She’s got one of the most wild, circuitous, and ultimately impressive careers—not just on the USWNT, but in all of sports.
Her story starts before she was even born, when her Mexican-born father and American-born mother moved from Guadalajara to Boise, Idaho. Last year, Huerta told ESPN's Jeff Kassouf that the family only had $500 when they made the move.
Huerta grew up facing all sorts of obstacles that come with being the child of immigrants in a decidedly not diverse state. “Spanish was my first language,” she said, “but then once I started going to school I was embarrassed because I couldn’t speak that good of English.” Despite feeling out of place, she was still American, having the same dreams of playing for the USWNT as all the other players on this 2023 squad. “I was born in America. Playing for the U.S. team was always a dream of mine because I saw them on TV all the time,” she said.
Fast forward to 2012, when the U20 FIFA World Cup in Japan rolled around. She was going, but playing for Mexico. The U.S. hadn’t called her up, and Mexico had—what’s a young soccer player to do but accept the invitation? Besides, she loved playing for Mexico, and was glad to get experience playing internationally.
After a couple years of getting called up for Mexico, including to the senior team, she decided to make the switch: she would no longer accept call-ups from the country that wanted her on their team. You could call her ungrateful, or you could call her a dreamer: “I knew, inside, what I was capable of, and I was the only one who knew that,” she recounts, and she held onto that, even though, as she says, “probably 90 percent of people told me to play for Mexico.” It was actually playing for Mexico that gave her the confidence to go after the USWNT roster spot; the U.S. may be way better than Mexico, but they play the same teams, and she felt like she could compete with the best.
After a couple of anguishing years of no international appearances for either Mexico or the U.S., Huerta decided to sharpen her skills on the other side of the world, playing for Adelaide United FC in Australia’s A-League during the NWSL offseason. It worked. After three years of turning down call-ups from Mexico, the day she had been waiting for came: Jill Ellis called her into a USWNT camp in 2017. FIFA had approved her one-time switch to be eligible to play for the U.S. It seemed that her big gamble had finally paid off. She earned her first cap, putting an incredible cross on a silver platter for Alex Morgan, who of course finished the job.
Ellis, however, thought fullback would be Huerta's best slot for the national team. Huerta did what any determined midfielder would do in this case: lobby her club, the Chicago Red Stars, to play her at fullback. Too bad, they said, you’re a really good midfielder (she was). So, after just seven appearances for the USWNT, the calls from Ellis stopped coming.
This brought on Huerta's second national team drought, so to speak. Unsurprisingly, it also brought up a lot of self-doubt. What if she had made the wrong choice way back in 2014? What if she would really be better off playing for Mexico? But those questions were ultimately nothing more than distractions, and she had a mission. She lobbied to be traded to the Houston Dash in the hopes that they’d play her at fullback—they didn’t. Remember, she was a damn good midfielder. So Australia called her name yet again, and during the 2018-2019 NWSL offseason, she played for Sydney FC where she developed as a fullback. She did pretty well for herself, and scored this banger in the league final:
Back in the NWSL, her teams still didn’t play her at fullback. No fullback reps meant no national team call-ups, and certainly no invitation to the 2019 World Cup. It wasn’t until coach Laura Harvey returned to the OL Reign in 2021 that the tide shifted for Huerta. She had been traded there in 2020, but was still playing assorted midfield roles (despite another stint in Sydney from 2019-2020). Harvey blessedly let her play fullback, and like a charm, she got a call-up from Vlatko Andonovski. She missed out on the Olympics that year, but has been a frequent presence in USWNT camps since.
Huerta's World Cup invitation didn’t come as a surprise, but it was no guarantee. She said that prior to deciding on his squad of 23 this summer, Andonovski “definitely has been vocal with me about what I’m good at—why I’m on the team—and what I need to improve. And so he’s laid that out for me very specifically, so I knew exactly what I needed to do in the beginning part of the NWSL season and I did feel confident in that.”
Now Huerta is 30 years old and right where she wants to be, but she still thinks back to where she was almost a decade ago, wearing her other country’s kit. “When I was making the decision to play for Mexico or the U.S.,” she said, “I had a hard time deciding because I didn’t want it to feel like I was choosing one or the other, or having to choose what I wanted to identify with more because it felt that way at times because I identify as Mexican-American.” Huerta has certainly embraced her platform as a Latinx athlete: “I hope that all the little girls and boys that see ‘Huerta’ on the back of my jersey know that they can accomplish anything that they want, too.”
Who Does She Play For?
The OL Reign, Huerta’s club since 2020, has clearly been a great home for her. Since Harvey’s return in 2021, Huerta has excelled in her desired position. Her expansive style fits right in with the Reign’s clean, smooth playmaking. See this impressive play, with several passes and a long run which attracted hordes of defenders and ultimately resulted in a goal:
The Lindsey Horan Magnifique Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does She Play?
Similarly to fellow USWNT fullback Crystal Dunn, Huerta’s history as an attacking player is deeply woven into her outside-back play. There is simply no one who can whip in a devilish cross across the face of goal as well as she can, and no one who craves it as much as she does. You can know this, but the statistics will still blow your mind. The second Tweet here shows how far she is above every other player in the best league in the world:
In a video of a USWNT training session, she’s shown doing a defensive drill, looking up at the attacking players getting ready to send in set-pieces, and wistfully observing, “Oh I would love to be out there, just crossing in dimes.” She loves nothing more than putting balls in front of net, and that’s good news for all of us.
Needless to say, she’s good at, well, defense, and is able to tackle oncoming dribblers, move out of tight spaces, and anticipate shots. She’s also damn tough: she played in the 2012 U-20 World Cup with a broken elbow, and scored in all three of Mexico’s group stage games in that tournament.
The Parental Recognition Index
The Parental Recognition Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will become a big enough star at the World Cup that one of your parents will send you a text message about them.
Considering there’s an 80 percent chance Huerta is going to make a cross as beautiful and iconic as Megan Rapinoe’s semifinal game-winning ball to Abby Wambach in 2011, and there’s a 50 percent chance it’ll be Sophia Smith on the other end of it, I’d give it a 40 percent chance you’re going to get a deeply cringey text from your parents about it: “sof/phia would be such a beautiful name for a granddaughter.”
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
Huerta’s love for crossing directly translates to a love for insane distanced shots. Playing outside back? No matter! She will still score.
A little treat now, from all the way back during her midfield days:
How Does She Fit In With The U.S. Team?
This, of course, has long been the burning question for Huerta. She took extraordinary measures to be eligible to play for the team in the first place, then totally changed her role on the pitch for both club and country for a shot at making the national squad. She has settled into her role as a right fullback quite nicely, and feels like an heir to Kelley O’Hara’s legacy of relentless attacking while in the role. (Yes, I know that O’Hara is still on the team. Considering she has only played 45 minutes for the USWNT this year, I feel just fine talking about her legacy.) Even if she’s in her defensive third, Huerta’s playmaking skill is undeniable. Here’s a great example of this, against Japan in February:
Under pressure around the 18-yard box, Huerta still manages to pick out Alex Morgan halfway up the field, and serves her an impossibly precise ball, which Morgan then sent on to Mal Swanson, who—you guessed it—scored. It’s rare these days that the U.S. has this kind of cohesion, and there’s nothing Sofia Huerta does better than connect.
How Close Is She To The Hypothetical Best XI?
If Andonovski’s decisions in the July 9 send-off game against Wales are any indication, he sees Huerta as an off-the-bench option. She subbed in for starting right fullback Emily Fox in the 64th minute, and was part of the engine that livened up the U.S. side after what had been a bit of a torturous hour for American fans. As I wrote earlier, Huerta, Fox, Emily Sonnett, and Kelley O’Hara are all in contention for that right back spot, but Huerta will hope that her ability to transform into a genuinely lethal attacking player pulls her ahead of the rest. I, for one, hope so too.