MONTERREY, Mexico — For the past decade, Sofia Huerta has actively practiced the concept of living in the present, but her recent past — and how it informs her immediate future — is intrinsically tied to where she now finds herself.
Sitting in the lobby of the team hotel on the day before the United States‘ 1-0 victory over Mexico on Monday at the CONCACAF W Championship, Huerta is keenly aware of the stops and starts in her journey, one filled with critics and self-doubt at times. It has been a process that required her to recalibrate how she viewed her worth as a soccer player and a person.
There were moments in the past when it seemed Huerta would be preparing to play this game for Mexico. After all, the Boise, Idaho, native was eligible to represent both countries, thanks to her Mexico-born father and U.S.-born mother. As Huerta thrived playing college soccer at Santa Clara University, Mexico expressed interest in her and called her up to the senior team as a teenager in 2012.
Huerta found early success, scoring a pair of goals in her first few caps with Mexico. However, that experience of representing Mexico on the soccer stage reinforced to Huerta what she had thought all along: the U.S. national team is where she belongs.
“I thought, well, if I can have these moments against these top international teams, that means that I can compete at this level,” Huerta told ESPN. “Playing for Mexico helped me realize I want to play for the U.S., no question. I think I always, deep down, knew that, but I wanted to take that opportunity [with Mexico].”
In 2014, Huerta made it known that she would know longer accept call-ups from Mexico to pursue opportunities with the United States, the perennial world No. 1. It wouldn’t be until 2017 that it became reality — and then another three-year stretch without a call-up before finally finding a regular place on the U.S. national team.
A USWNT opportunity, followed by regret
Huerta stands alone as the only player to have competed for and against the United States women’s national team.
In 2017, then-U.S. head coach Jill Ellis was in the middle of an extensive search to improve the player pool and her team ahead of the 2019 World Cup after an embarrassing quarterfinal exit at the 2016 Olympics. Full-back depth was (and remains) an area of need for the United States, and Ellis was impressed with Huerta’s crossing abilities in her more attack-minded roles for her National Women’s Soccer League side, the Chicago Red Stars.
Ellis thought those skills could translate well to an attacking full-back role at the international level. Huerta was happy just to get the call and willing to play where she was needed. Two days after the announcement that her one-time FIFA switch was approved in September 2017, Huerta made her senior U.S. debut off the bench and served a looping cross to assist a spectacular finish by Alex Morgan.
Back in Chicago, however, Huerta was still being deployed as a forward. The Red Stars already had a deep back line, so in another effort to advance her national team career, she asked for a trade. In June 2018, Chicago dealt her to the Houston Dash, where Huerta thought she would play full-back. As soon as she arrived, however, the Dash made Huerta the No. 10 in midfield. With Huerta not playing full-back for her club, the calls from Ellis stopped.
The 2019 World Cup was around the corner, and closer it got, the clearer it became that Huerta was not in the picture.
“I had some anger there,” Huerta said of how the situation in Houston unfolded.
Huerta had a choice to make about how she would view herself. She could be Sofia Huerta, successful professional soccer player, or she could be Sofia Huerta, not good enough for the U.S. national team.
“I had to change the narrative of, just because I’m not on the national team doesn’t mean that I’m not a good player, doesn’t mean that I’m a failure,” she said. “Actually, this is amazing and I’m still in the 1% and I’m so grateful for my life. That really helped me stay present and do what I can do, and then I got the call from Vlatko [Andonovski, current U.S. head coach].”
That call came in November 2021, three years after her last call-up. The time in between made her question herself and whether she could have performed better in her first opportunities with the United States. Huerta allowed herself, even momentarily, to wonder if all those who urged her to take the opportunity with Mexico — implicitly, the easier road — were right.
“It was just a really big struggle for me because I was so regretful of how I handled my first opportunity with the U.S. and I felt like maybe I didn’t make enough sacrifices and maybe I wasn’t being as professional as I should have,” she said.
“That was difficult to deal with, but then also having the thought of, I might never get this opportunity again. It’s one thing to not get that opportunity because you just have a coaching staff who might not like your playing style. But to feel like I lost that opportunity solely because of what I should have done differently, it is a really hard thing to sit with. It’s really hard to sit with. It’s uncomfortable to sit with.
“I had many days, nights where I was just so uncomfortable, where I thought, wow, I had this opportunity, I did not take advantage of it and now I may not get it again. I thought that for a long time. And what I’ve said before, I had to start asking myself: ‘How is that serving me?’ “
For the past seven years, Huerta has worked with a life coach, Lisa McClenahan, who she connected with through Santa Clara. They speak regularly as Huerta navigates an ongoing process that she describes as being kinder to herself.
“Sitting here and sitting in this regret and having anxiety about the future, that’s not feeling good,” Huerta said. “So, I had to work a lot on my mental side and figure out what really worked for me. And I think in general, in life, and also in soccer, really trying to stay present is really just what’s best. It’s what everyone should try to do. It’s so easy to look back and regret and look in the future and have anxiety.”
Embracing a different role
There is another narrative that Huerta wishes to squash, one that pigeonholes her as a forward who was converted to play defense. She sees some of the discussion that her defensive abilities are lacking.
“I actually feel like that’s not true,” Huerta said. “I actually played center back growing up, so I do think I have the defensive skillsets. I just think it took me a little bit to relearn some things because obviously I’ve been a forward and attacking player for years. Moving back to that position, it just took me a little bit to adjust.
“Of course, there’s always room to improve, but I just think since I’ve been there for a year now, I really do feel like I’m a good outside back and I think it is natural to say I’m a full-back.”
Huerta grew up as a three-sport athlete, playing basketball and running track. She won four state titles in hurdle events, setting a pair of state records. There was no questioning her athletic ability. When she played soccer, she was in the typical best-player-on-the-field role at that age level, playing wherever she was needed.
“I’m from Idaho, so it was a little different,” she said with a smile. “I’d start up top, I would sometimes score and then be moved back to center back.”
Center-back is where Jerry Smith discovered her. The longtime Santa Clara coach, who Huerta keeps in touch with today and singles out as one of the most influential people in her journey, recruited Huerta to play for the Broncos’ defense. Not long into Huerta’s freshman season, however, her ability to play as a striker became clear. She kept scoring in practice, and Smith knew he needed to move her up top. Huerta went on to tally 47 goals and 19 assists in 81 NCAA games and gained attention from professional teams as a forward.
The abrupt disappointment of not playing full-back at either Chicago or Houston left Huerta immediately scrambling to figure out her next step. She spent the 2018-19 NWSL offseason on loan to Sydney FC in Australia, and this time she made sure that her position was part of the agreement before she joined a team. Huerta’s plan was to get regular minutes at full-back, and doing so during the NWSL offseason, while many other players were dormant, offered an outside shot of getting back into the national team picture before the 2019 World Cup.
It didn’t work out that way, but Huerta’s time in Australia still served a purpose. Huerta played all 14 games for Sydney that season as the side marched to a championship trophy. She scored the game-winning goal in the semifinal and then, in the final against Perth Glory, she scored six minutes in and defended Sam Kerr — now at Chelsea and ESPN FC’s second-ranked player of 2022 — throughout.
Without that stint in Sydney, perhaps Huerta isn’t here in Monterrey helping the U.S. qualify for the 2023 World Cup. Regardless of what it meant for her international career, it was a standout professional moment for Huerta. Crucially, she says, she was finally playing soccer year-round, rather than staying idle during the NWSL’s four-month-plus offseason at the time.
“That’s when I started noticing a difference in my game,” she said.
Houston traded Huerta to OL Reign ahead of the 2020 season, and she endured another 18 months of positional uncertainty, mostly playing on the wings up top. But Laura Harvey’s return as head coach of the Reign in August 2021 sparked the current chapter of Huerta’s career.
Harvey called Huerta and said she wanted her to play full-back. The first game on the schedule: a home match against rivals Portland Thorns FC. Huerta played the full game at right full-back, helping the Reign to a 2-1 victory in front of nearly 28,000 fans at Lumen Field.
“I thank her so much because she had so much confidence in me,” Huerta said of Harvey. “Even when I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, and my first game back was against Portland… I just feel like it was a hard game to go back into, but I had all the confidence from her and my teammates.”
World Cup dreams inching closer
Huerta’s father, Mauricio, worked as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard in Guadalajara, Mexico, but the lure of the U.S. was significant. Huerta’s mother, Jody, was from the U.S. and missed home, and there were greater financial opportunities in the United States. Mauricio applied to every HP location in the U.S., with Boise being the first to offer a position. So, the family packed up life, rented an apartment and bought a car. They had $500 left in their pockets when they arrived, as Huerta tells the story.
Huerta said she is proud of her Mexican roots. Here in Monterrey, she has loved ones — including extended family from Puebla — in attendance to support her during the two-week competition, which doubles a qualifying event for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
That her first major tournament is being played in Mexico — including a match against her former national team — is not lost on her.
“I definitely think there’s something extra about it,” she said. “Simply because I played for Mexico, a lot of people didn’t think that I was ever going to be on the U.S. team. And now I’m here on the U.S. team, in Mexico. I have roots and I have ties here. That’s really special and it means a lot to me.”
Huerta came off the bench on Monday to play the final 26 minutes in the win. She still has a few friends on the team, all of whom supported and understood her decision to chase the American dream, she said.
The U.S.’s 5-0 win over Jamaica on July 7 was the team’s best performance of the tournament thus far. Huerta registered one assist and wreaked havoc on the right flank, including a pinpoint cross to Mallory Pugh, whose would-be goal was negated by an offside call.
“I thought Sof was very good,” Andonovski said after the game. “She was not as aggressive as we are used to going forward, but she had certain tasks to fulfill, which I thought she did a very good job. Positionally, she was spot-on. She was able to draw players from and unbalance players from their midfield line and forward line… “Overall, very good performance and I am happy that she is growing in this role.”
Huerta might be the team’s best crosser; she was second in the 2021 NWSL regular season with six assists.
“Whenever I have an opportunity to cross, I do it,” she said. “I mean literally every time, so that’s probably something I should work on, having more patience in the attack. Offensively, that’s obviously something that is my strength. I think defensively, I do think I’m a solid defender but there’s always room to improve. You’re playing against the best players in the world, so regardless of how good you are defensively, there are going to be times that you are exposed, or you should have made a different decision.”
The message from the U.S. coaching staff to players on this roster is that they are clearly part of the picture for the 2023 World Cup. Huerta is very much in that discussion, a position which challenges her mantra of living in the moment. She lets out a huge exhale and smirks at the thought of representing the United States at World Cup next year, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. It is the destination she envisioned when she started this circuitous journey a decade ago.
“So, of course the goal is to be super present,” she said. “It doesn’t always happen. It’s much easier said than done. I think the reality is that the World Cup is still really far away, a lot of things can happen, but it does feel good to be in the conversation.”
She continued: “When I think about it, I literally get so excited and so happy. At the end of the day, still you’re a year away. I know that if I continue down this path and I do what’s in my control and I keep working hard, that that is a dream that can become reality.”