Sofia Huerta right at home with Mexico
Growing up in Boise, Idaho, Sofia Huerta knew trouble lurked somewhere nearby when her mom and dad started speaking to her in Spanish.
"Whenever my friends were over and my parents wanted to yell at me or say something that they knew wasn't appropriate to say in front of my friends, they would say it in Spanish," Huerta recalled.
The youngest of Mauricio and Jody Jensen Huerta's three children understood the language perfectly well when it was used to reprimand her. Yet unlike her older sister, who was born in Mexico, or her older brother, who studied abroad in her father's hometown, she wouldn't speak Spanish. She wasn't ashamed of the Mexican half of her lineage -- in largely homogenous Boise, she liked bragging about being different. As her parents put it, and as she admits, she was simply too stubborn to learn.
Which means the only person in the Huerta family who doesn't speak fluent Spanish is one in whose honor the Mexican national anthem is now played with some regularity.
It is her biggest regret, admits the player who starred for Mexico in last year's FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup and looks like a standout in the making for the senior team. Many who have tried to master language fluency in the years after adolescence can sympathize. But she listens, and she understands.
Perhaps more than just the words. Playing for Mexico offered Sofia Huerta a path forward in soccer. It is also a chance to understand where she came from.
Mauricio met his future wife when he studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin as part of an exchange program with the Monterrey Institute of Technology. A Wisconsin native, Jody, in turn, spent a year of school in Mexico. Marriage followed graduation and Jody moved south when Mauricio started a job in Mexico with Hewlett-Packard. When the company relocated the young couple to Boise a few years later, Mauricio didn't view it as a permanent move. He would work there for a few years, earn his MBA from Boise State and eventually the family would move back to Mexico. That was the plan. But the job market at home worsened, and between a house and the couple's second and third children, the roots put down in Idaho grew increasingly strong. It became home.
For Sofia, Mexico was a place she went to visit extended family every year.
"We have Mexican food here and we have Mexican friends and we spoke Spanish, so she understands the culture," Mauricio said. "But obviously she feels more American, because she grew up here, than Mexican. But she relates to the culture. There was an emphasis that [our children] would accept both cultures, that they would be proud of being both. There wasn't an effort to hide the fact that she was Mexican. She feels proud of being Mexican, I think."
Like so many young girls in the United States, Sofia grew up with soccer. In his youth, Mauricio recalled, soccer was a sport for boys in Mexico. Girls might play other sports or pursue other interests, but the sport that inspired and inflamed national passions was a masculine realm. Those invisible lines are beginning to fade, but it remains easier for a girl to reach her full soccer potential in Boise than in Puebla, Mauricio's home. It was in Idaho where Sofia won titles and awards and piled up goals at the club and high school level en route to earning a scholarship at Santa Clara, one of the West Coast's most historically significant women's soccer programs.
On the field, she is a powerful attacking player, blending speed and strength with outstanding balance and dribbling instincts. She earned first-team all-conference honors in each of her first two seasons with the Broncos and has seven goals and two assists through 14 games this season for a team on the cusp of the top 10. Her physical traits set her apart but not alone. Something else does that, a specific skill that opens doors beyond college.
"Her ability to deliver a crossing ball with her right foot to the right spot is special," Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said. "It's world-class, if you will. That might be the only thing that she does that's world-class, but to be world-class in any one thing is phenomenal."
What was lacking, especially early on, was confidence and the corresponding belief that committing herself to soccer was worth the effort. Smith lobbied for her to be invited to a training camp with the United States Under-20 national team shortly after her freshman season. She got the invite, but it didn't go well. Smith asked the coaches to think about her long-term potential. They asked why they should believe in her when it didn't seem she believed in herself. It was a difficult point to argue, he conceded, but he reminded them that some of the same things were said about a player he brought in a decade earlier as coach of the Under-23 national team. And things worked out pretty well for Abby Wambach.
"I'm still a confident player, don't get me wrong, but I just know that there are so many other good players out there," Huerta said. "Jerry knows me better than anyone, especially as a coach, and I am really hard on myself. I think that has to do with why I am not as confident as I should be because I think I should be a lot better than I am."
When it was clear she had fallen out of the mix for the American program, Mexico, under the direction of women's national team coach Leo Cuellar, made its pitch, as it has in recent years with a number of American-born standouts eligible to play for both countries, players like Teresa Noyola, Alina Garciamendez and Veronica Perez.
Huerta was invited to a training camp with the Mexican Under-20 team and fared much better than she had in the American camp, well enough to make the team for the Under-20 World Cup in Japan. Playing for a youth national team of one country does not close the door on playing for the senior team of another country (as in the case of Sydney Leroux, who played in a U-20 World Cup with Canada before switching to the United States), so Huerta signed on for the trip.
She scored goals in each of Mexico's three group games in Japan, helping propel them into the knockout round for just the second time in the premier junior event in women's soccer. Mexico had never before won multiple games but beat Switzerland 2-0 and New Zealand 4-0, Huerta scoring first in both wins. When Mexico subsequently asked her to join a trip to Brazil with the senior team, she decided the opportunity to begin an international career was better than waiting for a call from the United States that might never come.
I've grown to be way more proud of who I am and where I'm from.Sofia Huerta
"I think she has enough evidence to now realize she can be a difference maker at any level," Smith said. "I think that is what the Mexican experience has given to her. We tried to tell her when we recruited her, we tried to tell her in her freshman year how talented she was. She didn't buy into it. I can guarantee you she didn't buy into it."
Like just about every girl who grows up playing soccer in the United States, Huerta dreamed of playing for its national team. Instead, it's the Mexican anthem she sings before games, most recently against the United States in a game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The gap that remains between the two teams was clear as the United States rolled to a 7-0 win that night, but at least the Mexicans found a sliver of a silver lining in the strong play of one second-half substitute from Boise.
"I would have liked to see her have an opportunity [with the United States], but I also believe she's going to make a real positive difference for Mexico," Smith said. "And in the long run, she can actually make a bigger difference playing for Mexico than she could for the U.S. With the U.S., she'd simply be another good player. She might be able to make the difference for Mexico getting out of their group [in a major tournament].
"She might be able to make a difference in helping a cultural turnaround in terms of embracing women playing soccer."
Playing for Mexico was, at its core, a pragmatic decision for Huerta. That doesn't preclude other benefits. The more Mexico is successful, wherever the players were born, the more likely the team is to attract support. And the more time Huerta spends in the tricolors, the more they feel like they represent more than a jersey.
"She's making connections," Mauricio said. "She's starting to appreciate the kind of things we did here, why we did them. She is connecting the dots. When she spends times with my mom or my brothers and sisters down there, she understands why we do things here."
For now, Huerta is on track to graduate from Santa Clara in the spring of 2015, which would put her out in the real world just before that year's Women's World Cup in Canada and potentially the following year's Olympics in Brazil (Mexico has qualified for the Olympics just once since women's soccer was added in 1996).
"Once I got involved in Mexico, I kind of realized that, you know what, maybe I do need to be more in touch with my dad's side," Sofia said. "Slowly but surely, I feel like I'm more Mexican, if that makes sense. ...
"I've grown to be way more proud of who I am and where I'm from."