Alexia Delgado was nervous.

She wasn’t a stranger to high-pressure situations. Already, the youngster was playing soccer matches at a high level at the Estadio Azteca, Mexico’s national stadium. She’d traveled overseas to represent her country, too.

But this was different.

“I was so nervous that I wrote my speech on my phone,” Delgado recalls. “I sat my dad and my mom down, literally pulled out my phone and read what I wanted to say because I was so scared.”

Delgado was about to throw away what had been “basically the dream since [she] was a kid” – tossing away her chance at playing in college in the United States. Instead, Club América had offered her a professional deal in the still-new Liga MX Femenil.

For anyone who follows Arizona State’s women’s soccer team, the ending to that story is already clear.

Delgado turned down the chance to turn pro. Instead she continued with her plans to play college soccer for the Sun Devils.

Now, the team captain, she’s bracing for what could be her final match in Tempe.

She’ll do so alongside two of her roommates, Nicole Douglas and Eva van Deursen. Between them, they’ve formed the core of the Sun Devil side for several years and broken program records along the way.

“There’s no way that we would have achieved all this without each other,” van Deursen says.

It’s hard to disagree. Delgado brings leadership from her focal spot in the locker room. Van Deursen displays poise and creative flair from the middle of the park. Up top, Douglas’s cutthroat finishing have lifted her above the rest of the pack as ASU’s leading all-time goalscorer.

The challenge isn’t over yet, though. One last clash against the University of Arizona is on the cards to round out the year, and it’s a matchup that none of the three has ever experienced victory in. A win in this game could mean more than that, giving each of them a final run at the national tournament.

Nicole Douglas, Eva van Deursen and Alexia Delgado have been key players at ASU for Sun Devil Soccer

Nicole Douglas could have given up the sport at 13.

That was when her world changed forever as her father passed away.

“I think I took about six weeks off from school, because I just didn’t know how to deal with it,” Douglas says. “My granddad passed before that, but I was so young, I didn’t really understand what was happening or how I should be feeling. 

“Then, I got to age 13 when you understand so much more about death and stuff like that. It hit our family really hard, and I was just so disconnected from everybody.”

That impacted her on the field too, and led to questions over what would come next.

“I had doubts about whether I should even continue playing soccer any more,” she says. “Is it worth it?”

Sport had always been in her family. In his youth, her father had played rugby union. Douglas’ mom had been a synchronized swimmer, and her grandmother had played as a goalkeeper at a high level.

But it was Nicole’s twin brother, George, who first got her started playing in the backyard.

“He was more into sports back then than I was,” she says. “We were about four. He always wanted someone to pass the ball with, so he dragged his sister outside.”

That same brother who dragged her into the backyard was the one to drag her out of it. When George’s team was one player short, he again volunteered his sister. Soon, Nicole was signed up for the side permanently.

Douglas grew up in Staines, a town in the shadow of London’s Heathrow Airport that’s most commonly known to the outside world as the home of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character. 

That proximity to the capital helped land her on Chelsea’s radar, and by around 6 years old, she’d been snapped up by the London club. For years, she would have to rush through her after-school routine to make the hour-long trip to training.

Her efforts paid off. Once Douglas had started scoring, she couldn’t stop. As the years went by, she climbed the ranks up to the club’s development squad, one below the first team. 

Nor did her efforts go unnoticed by the national team setup. Douglas was first called up in her early teenage years with the under-15s, participating in training camps that took her away from home.

“It was difficult when I was younger, definitely,” she says. “I kind of got homesick a little bit, because you step into an even more professional environment and you don’t know what to expect. You’re surrounded by the best people, the best coaches in the game, the best players. Especially when you’re not performing as well, you kind of doubt yourself: Am I really in the right place?”

By 2016, Douglas was travelling away to her first UEFA U-17s qualifying group in Lithuania.

“It was cold, and I wasn’t used to the food,” Douglas says. “Some people got sick from the food, so it was a whole experience.”

Whatever it was in the food, it did no harm for Douglas. She proceeded to score four goals for England against the qualifying group’s host nation.

It was thanks to the national team that she first heard of ASU’s interest in bringing her to the desert. At the 2017 U-17 Euro, being held in the Czech Republic, Sun Devils coach Graham Winkworth first made contact with Douglas’ mother.

At the same time, opportunities were opening at Chelsea. Douglas had progressed through the ranks, and had impressed sufficiently enough in the development squad and in training with the first team that she herself could have had the chance to step up into the professional ranks.

Despite the allure of one of the biggest clubs in the world, and despite her own since-assuaged doubts through her freshman year, Douglas committed to Arizona State after visiting the campus.

“For me, gametime was massive,” Douglas says. “For me to develop into a good player, the best player that I can be, I need gametime. Playing at a Division I, Pac-12 school is where I’m going to get that experience and those minutes.

“I had a gut feeling that if I signed pro at Chelsea, I would have either gone out on loan, or not really played a lot of minutes. I wouldn’t have developed as much. For me, staying at Chelsea for 11 years, I’d have wanted to stay at Chelsea, not go out on loan, because Chelsea was my childhood club. I knew with the likes of Fran Kirby, Bethany England, there was a very, very, very slim chance that I was going to play above them.”

Now, nearly 10 years on from those doubts about her future in the sport, Douglas is coming to the end of her spell in college. She does so as one of the best center-forwards in the collegiate game, a Third Team All-American in 2021.

Earlier this season, she paid tribute to her father on the field, much as she did too after her grandmother’s passing ahead of the 2021 season. She remembers her father’s humor, and the image of him in her head is of a man packing away sandwiches in a cool box, ready to hop in the car and pick up a teammate on the way to another game.

But about those doubts as a young teen?

“I’m glad that I did [keep playing],” Douglas says. “It was my escape. It made me feel better, and it’s what my dad would have wanted me to do.”

Nicole Douglas has long been a key player at ASU for Sun Devil Soccer

Douglas first met both Delgado and van Deursen in Tempe. The latter two, however, had both been in contact with each other earlier. They first linked up via text as they represented their countries at the U-20 World Cup in France, just prior to enrolling at Arizona State.

Eva van Deursen was wearing the bright orange of the Netherlands, a country known for success on the field in both men’s and women’s football.

By American standards, the cluster of matches in Brittany in the northwest of France may not have felt that far away from Van Deursen’s hometown of Veldhoven, where everything was no more than a short bike ride away. Yet, being born into a family that barely had anything to do with the sport, her journey there was perhaps more surprising.

From a young age, van Deursen’s mother remarked that the now-midfielder always seemed to have a ball at her feet.

“My brothers didn’t play,” she says. “My dad didn’t play, my mom didn’t play. It was just me, bringing it into the family.”

If anything, the influence from her father Rutger should have pushed her toward water polo. Despite her parents’ insistence that she learn how to swim and pick up her diplomas in the pool, the young van Deursen pushed back: “I hated it so much,” she recalls of her time swimming as a child.

Much like her now-teammates, when van Deursen started playing, she was part of a club of boys. She continued doing so for years, up until making it into a regional training side.

“I think that’s a key thing in development,” van Deursen says. “Until 15, I think you can play with the boys. If you’re good enough, then you will learn so much playing with the boys just because they’re more physical, they’re faster and it pushes you.”

That move to the regional side brought with it a huge change in pace. Gone were the days of training just three nights a week. Instead, van Deursen would finish up school and head off for training, sometimes with two sessions each day.

It was the experience of moving forward with the development side in Eindhoven that gave her the confidence that she could become the player she is today.

“That’s when I started to realize that I can play with these girls, the best girls in the country,” van Deursen says. “Then we started to play games against Belgium and Germany and Sweden. They were our first international games, singing our national anthem and all that.

“Thinking I can play with these girls, that was when I started to think that this is what I want.”

Van Deursen had an interest in moving to the U.S. ever since a family road trip as a youngster. Her progression as a soccer player brought the opportunity to mind too, but it slipped out of view until Winkworth’s appearance at a tournament in Spain.

While her teammates – both at home, and later with ASU – debated over turning professional not, van Deursen portrays a relative ease on how she settled into a decision to attend college. It was her interest in continuing her education, something that would have been almost impossible had she stayed home, that pushed her in the direction of playing soccer for the Sun Devils.

Perhaps it helps, too, that her field of study – kinesiology, followed by a Master’s course in exercise physiology – doesn’t seem a whole world away from her on-field pursuits.

“I love how the body moves, how it works,” van Deursen says. “It’s very applicable to what I’m doing every day on the field, how to fix little things little things in the biomechanics.”

Still, the vast distance of the Atlantic Ocean can bring challenges. While some may be more trivial, such as finding bread and cheese that are up to the standards of a continental European, being so far from family can be difficult.

Yet, despite those circumstances, her family insists that it couldn’t ever be too difficult given that she is pursuing what she loves.

“Always, when I came home from being here for a couple of months, I knew home was always there,” van Deursen says. “They were always going to be there for me no matter how long I was gone. For me, it’s been such a moment of realization, and I’m so, so grateful that I have that as a base in the Netherlands. I could always get back to that, and talk to them whenever I needed, even in the middle of the night, or them waking up at four in the morning to watch games.

“To see that… even though I’ve been away from home, I think the bond between me and my parents has grown in that sense.”

While they may have spent the last years watching from afar at unsociable hours, they still remember the prouder moments from closer to home fondly.

“All the national teams, from where it started when she was a little girl, we were so proud of her,” Eva’s mother Ilse says. “She worked so hard for it.”

Her time with the national teams didn’t end with her taking up a spot at ASU, but arguably one of van Deursen’s finest moments on the pitch came in that 2018 U-20 World Cup. There, in her team’s first match in Brittany, she scored the winning goal against New Zealand. It was a strike good enough to make FIFA’s shortlist for goal of the tournament.

“That was the big news in Holland on all the channels,” Rutger, Eva’s father, recalls. “Primetime, and there was our girl, on television.”

Eva van Deursen has long been a key player at ASU for Sun Devil Soccer

Much like van Deursen, soccer was not supposed to be the path for Alexia Delgado.

Delgado’s mother, Sonia, had been a high-level gymnast. With the chance her daughters had picked up those genes, that was the course for them in their early years. But that wasn’t in line with what Alexia wanted to do.

Instead, she was drawn more towards her older brother’s activities. He started playing soccer at school, and Alexia soon followed.

“After he would play, we would get home and he would be like ,’Oh, do you want to go to the park and play as well?'” Delgado says. “He also didn’t have anyone else to play with. So I started to go with him to the park and realized that, ‘Oh, I kind of like this.'”

The bug stuck, and has been with her ever since.

“I came home one day and told my parents that I wanted to change sports,” Delgado says. “I don’t want to go to ballet and gymnastics any more, I want to do soccer. My mom was like, ‘No, why?’ She told me that’s not a sport for you.”

Her parents eventually relented, buoyed by her father’s assertion that it would likely prove just a phase. It didn’t, and soon Delgado played alongside the boys. She paid little attention to the whispers of other parents that she shouldn’t be taking the field ahead of their son.

Before hitting her teens, she was recruited to start playing more with other promising girls. Yet options were hard to come by in Tepic. It’s a city that Delgado describes as “small” – much to the objection of some of her European teammates – but most opportunities could only be found in neighboring Guadalajara.

Thus began her new test — making the pilgrimage across to the other city at least twice every 14 days.

“They would pick me up from school, and then my dad would leave work as well,” Delgado says. “We would go to the bus station, take a bus to Guadalajara. I’d get there and train. As soon as training was over, I would get a bus back and arrive home at midnight. Then, the next day I would do the same.

“These other nine girls were doing the same with me, and my dad was the only adult going with us. He always went with me on every single trip, but as the months started going on, it was really hard. At the end it was just me and my dad. The other nine girls just didn’t really see it as worth it.”

She soon found a different way, as the family of one of her teammates in Guadalajara offered to take her in. Captured by the allure of training every day, Delgado was immediately onboard. Inevitably, though, leaving home at 13 proved tough.

“As soon as I saw [my family] leaving, I think it hit me,” she says. “When I saw them leaving and knew I wasn’t going to see them in a while, I genuinely felt my heart break down. The first week, probably two weeks, I was crying every day.

“I called my mom and told her that I don’t think I can do this. My mom was like, ‘I told you. I asked you so many times.'”

If it weren’t for the fact that moving home would have meant dropping out of school, Delgado might not be where she is today. She agree to hang on, pushing through the end of the semester until eventually realizing that she was strong enough to cope with the move.

“I think that was basically the most crucial moment in my life,” Delgado says. “They always say that it’s good to get away from your family at 18, 20. I did that at 13 years old. I think I did mature faster because of that, and it of course helped me character-wise, resilience. They were things I probably didn’t know back them, but now I look back and realize I was so independent.”

From Guadalajara, Delgado won her first call-ups. She traveled to the Youth Olympic Games in China, picking up bronze, while also making the trip to the Middle East for the U-17 World Cup.

In some ways, though, a bigger challenge was on the horizon. Work was underway to establish a women’s league in Mexico, and that paved a path for Delgado to be one of the first to play in Liga MX Femenil for Club América.

“At that moment, we were really kind of in shock,” Delgado says. “We were like, ‘Wow, are we really going to have a professional league?’ That was kind of the dream, but we never thought it was going to come that soon.”

By this stage, Delgado was already on the path towards becoming a Sun Devil. To maintain her eligibility, she signed an amateur deal with the side.

“I’ve always been a Club América fan,” Delgado says. “My whole family also likes Club América. We always cheered for them, so it was really special to play for them. We also got to play in their stadium, Estadio Azteca, so that was also a highlight of my career.

“Playing there is something else. I remember watching a game there and thinking it was huge, but being on the field, it’s another level.”

Delgado says she doesn’t bring up those early comments about picking up the sport with her mother, years later.

“She says she does regret it,” Alexia’s sister Goretti translates for her mother. “At the time, that was not something she pictured Alexia doing. There were different ideas about girls playing soccer. But she regrets it now, because she can see just how much Alexia could accomplish.”

Of course, if it wasn’t for a separate intervention from Delgado’s mother later in Tepic, this entire story would have been different.

Looking back now, Alexia speculates that her mother’s stubbornness about continuing with a visit to Tempe may have been due to her nonrefundable plane ticket. If it weren’t for that, she’d have likely still been playing in Mexico, forging a career in the professional leagues.

Instead, she found herself in Arizona. There, with her locker next to van Deursen’s, she hit off with the Dutch youngster quickly.

The adjustment to the college game didn’t come as quickly, though.

“I thought I was going to come and make an immediate impact, being one of the best players,” Delgado says. “It was definitely not like that. I just thought I was going to be really good at everything fitness-wise, gym-wise. I was not. Even going in the weight room, I was probably the weakest one. Me and Eva were probably the weakest ones.”

In the early years, things weren’t smooth sailing off the field, either.

“Especially in sophomore season, because things didn’t go the way we planned, there was a lot of talking behind people’s backs,” Delgado says. “There was pointing fingers, saying it was your fault, or it was your fault. We never really got that healthy culture and that connection with everyone. It was more like small groups.”

That started to change during the following COVID-impacted year. More of an emphasis was placed on building relations outside of the boundary lines. At the same time, Delgado was picked by the coaching staff to wear the captain’s armband.

“She’s the best captain that I’ve been on a team with,” Douglas says. “She’s so professional, definitely the right person for the role. We saw attributes of her being a captain coming through the years, and she has every attribute of being a captain and a great captain.”

“The energy that she gives to the team is what we feed off of, so she can’t really have an off day,” van Deursen says. “She’s always on time. She always does the extra work, and is always giving 100 percent in training and taking care of her body very well. She had that when she came here, but she developed that to a higher level.”

Delgado has had her own struggles, though. Being called up to the senior national team is an honor for any player, but it can bring huge pressure. After a surprise exit at the first hurdle in the CONCACAF W Championship, fingers began to be pointed. Delgado, as a college player starting ahead of professionals, became an easy target.

“I remember after our first game, everything was on TV,” Delgado says. “Everything was in the newspapers, and on Twitter, and on Instagram. The bad thing about such a passionate country like Mexico is that when things go well, it’s like, ‘Wow, you guys are amazing, this is great.’ When things are going wrong, ouch, they will literally target you.

“I did receive a lot of hate. They would tag me on Twitter and all that, so I did have to delete social media while I was with the national team because it was just too much. As much as you don’t want to, you end up reading those messages and that doesn’t do anything good.”

“That was very rough for her, and we spoke about it a lot,” van Deursen says. “What we spoke about was bringing that into perspective, that she was playing for her national team. She was a starter. In those moments, there’s not really anything you can say to make her feel better, but time heals it.”

Time has started to heal the wound. When she returned to Tempe, Delgado couldn’t hold back tears when asked about the tournament. Soccer, the sport she’d loved since a young child, had turned cruelly against her.

Still, she persevered. It’s paid off. After an injury-impacted 2021 season, Delgado has now racked up her highest goal tally in a single season. Along the way, she’s played her role in helping Douglas break the program record for goals, and van Deursen to tie for most assists.

While they’re record-breakers on the field, they’re mostly normal college students off of it. Delgado is constantly found napping by van Deursen, and after four years still can’t quite grasp Douglas’ accent. Douglas irritates both by constantly ordering delivery food and leaving the packaging scattered. Van Deursen is the seemingly studious one that can become hyper and completely turn when given ice cream.

Soon, that’ll be behind them. All three intend to enter the NWSL draft, although Delgado and van Deursen’s eyes look toward Europe. Douglas, meanwhile, keeps her cards close to her chest.

Yet their work isn’t done in Tempe. The side still faces a good chance of making the NCAA tournament. A matchup against Arizona has their focus, and for good reason: In their four years with the Sun Devils, there hasn’t been a single win over their biggest rival.

To do so, they’ll need a better performance than was managed against Oregon State on senior night. A poor showing saw them fall to the Beavers, who hadn’t won a conference match all year prior to that point.

After the game, following the senior ceremonies, coach Graham Winkworth took a moment, looked up and wiped his face.

“Some of the greatest players to ever kick a ball for Sun Devil soccer are in this senior class,” Winkworth said afterwards.

“I’m just going to miss seeing them daily. I’ve been struggling emotionally myself, so I can’t really blame the players for a poor performance when I’m not able to keep my own head straight.”

“We were really his first recruiting class at ASU, so I understand it,” Van Deursen says. “The things we’ve been through… the whole COVID season, going through a culture change where he recruited a lot of internationals that maybe, at the beginning, was not as much appreciated in the culture that we had in freshman year.

“It changed so much over the years, and we’ve grown. We’ve seen that change over the years, so I think that’s super, super special. You’ve seen each other grow as well, so it feels maybe like daughters for him.”

Now, they’re about to scatter. The trio of Delgado, Douglas and van Deursen will almost certainly be on different teams come the new year. They will plausibly be on different continents.

“I think the chemistry that we have on the field, and the bond we have outside the field, it’s very unique,” van Deursen says. “I’m going to miss it so much, because building that bond with players inside the field but also having it outside the field is so unique.”

Follow Owain Evans on Twitter

Author

>
X