Is Alyssa Thompson a LeBron- or Serena-level soccer prospect? The world is about to find out

CARSON, Calif. — When the director of an all-boys Los Angeles soccer academy agreed to give a 14-year-old girl a tryout, he assumed he knew how it would unfold. Mario Gonzalez was certain she would struggle to keep pace with bigger, stronger high school boys.

Alyssa Thompson had piled up goals and accolades playing club soccer against girls up to five years older than her, but training alongside some of Southern California’s top boys prospects was a different level of hard. Total Futbol Academy competes in MLS Next, the feeder system into Major League Soccer.

What happened next was Gonzalez’s first hint that Alyssa was destined to one day emerge as one of women’s soccer’s brightest stars. The lone girl in a sea of boys didn’t just hold her own during Total Futbol Academy’s preseason workouts 3 ½ years ago. She outperformed all but Gonzalez’s most decorated prospects.

“I was waiting for her to break down,” Gonzalez told Yahoo Sports. “I was waiting for her to quit. I was waiting for her to say, ‘This is too much. I can’t handle it.’ And it just never came. A lot of the boys were dropping out or they were fatigued or tired, but she just kept going and going and going.”

When Alyssa also didn’t look out of place during subsequent scrimmages, Gonzalez decided that he wanted her to do more than train alongside his players. He invited her and younger sister Gisele to play for Total Futbol Academy, making them the first girls to ever compete at the top level for U.S. boys’ talent.

Playing against boys in MLS Next isn’t the only time that Alyssa has accomplished something unprecedented. No other teen phenom has ever landed an endorsement deal with Nike, made her professional debut and earned a call-up to the U.S. women’s national team all before graduating high school.

While Alyssa is 2½ years younger than the next youngest USWNT player who will open World Cup play against Vietnam on Friday (9 p.m. ET, Fox), her time is coming soon. The 18-year-old is one of the USWNT’s brightest talents, the rare forward with the technical skills to play in tight spaces and the pace to leave defenders behind.

One of Alyssa’s former coaches describes her as a LeBron James-level prospect. Another insists she will become “the Serena Williams of women’s soccer.”

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’m not joking,” said Carlos Marroquin, coach and owner of the semi-pro Santa Clarita Blue Heat. “In another two or three years, Alyssa is going to be the best player in the U.S. and the world.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 17: Alyssa Thompson of USA poses for a portrait during the official FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 portrait session at  on July 17, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

USWNT’s Alyssa Thompson, 18, has had a whirlwind 10 months and could make her World Cup debut Friday against Vietnam. (Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Thompson’s potential for greatness begins to reveal itself

For Karen and Mario Thompson, the first hint that their eldest daughter was different from other kids came when she joined a game of freeze tag at a park near their home in Studio City, California. The dad who organized the game quickly chased down all the other kids until 6-year-old Alyssa was the last one left unfrozen.

The dad put his cellphone down. Alyssa still evaded his grasp.

The dad removed his keys from his pocket. Alyssa continued to elude him.

“He had to use all of his speed to go after her and finally tag her,” Karen Thompson said. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘Wow, she’s pretty quick.’”

While Mario was a standout point guard and wide receiver at Division III Occidental College and Karen played basketball in high school, neither of them had any background in soccer. They had no road map to follow when Alyssa gravitated to soccer before she even learned to read or lost her baby teeth. Or when Gisele, 13 months younger than her older sister, did the same.

When Mario encountered a gifted student in his job as an elementary school principal, he typically sought to challenge them so they could maximize their potential. He chose to do the same with Alyssa and Gisele when they began to separate themselves from their peers on the soccer field.

It started when Alyssa was 8 and dominating as a forward for her club team. Mario observed that her coaches would always try to take advantage of her speed by instructing teammates to play the ball over the top to her so that she could run onto it. While Mario may not have grown up playing soccer, he says with a laugh, “I knew there was more to it than that.”

Mario vowed to find an environment that would push Alyssa athletically and technically, one that would require her to develop new skills. At first, that meant playing up an age group. By middle school, Alyssa was playing against 16- and 17-year-olds and making it look so easy that even opposing coaches recognized her rare talent.

“When you have club coaches calling you about a kid at a different club,” said ex-U.S. U-14 girls national team coach April Kater, “that’s when you know a player is special.”

The pursuit of fresh challenges led Mario to ask Marroquin if Alyssa could spend her summers playing for the semi-pro Blue Heat. Marroquin initially was skeptical that a girl a few months shy of her 14th birthday would fit in among college and international standouts. Eventually, he gave Alyssa a chance to play in a scrimmage and came away awestruck by her clinical finishing and passing and her quickness and creativity running at opposing defenders with the ball at her feet.

“Once she stepped on the field, she killed everybody at 14 years old,” Marroquin recalled. “That day I said to myself, ‘That girl will be a pro and she’ll play for the national team.’”

Ashley Sanchez, now Alyssa’s current World Cup teammate, played forward for the Blue Heat when Alyssa made her debut. The former UCLA star said she didn’t realize that Alyssa was so young until years later because she played with such poise and skill.

While playing for the Blue Heat for four summers accelerated Alyssa’s development and pushed her to become a more well-rounded attacker, her father wondered if that alone wasn’t enough. Mario Thompson believed Alyssa also needed an environment that would challenge her during the non-summer months — one that went against conventional wisdom.

From playing with the boys to receiving that life-changing phone call

For years, some of America’s best women’s soccer players have honed their skills competing against guys. Julie Ertz trained with a Phoenix boys U-19 club team this year while trying to regain her fitness and form after childbirth. Alex Morgan played pickup games against men in Madrid while studying abroad during college.

What makes the Thompsons’ story unique is that they didn’t just train or play pickup games. They played meaningful matches in an elite boys league, where making a sloppy touch or failing to track back quickly enough meant letting your team down.

Kater, the ex-U.S. U-14 national team coach, said top girls prospects typically stop competing against boys by the start of high school “for physiological safety reasons.” That’s usually when boys go through puberty and gain a significant advantage in speed, power and muscle mass.

“The Thompsons sought that out,” Kater said. “They physically could keep up with the boys and it was evolving a level of their game.”

It took weeks of phone calls, liability waivers and perseverance for Gonzalez to persuade MLS to grant Alyssa and Gisele permission to play. Then once MLS finally stepped aside, Gonzalez had to figure out how to coach the girls without alienating his own players.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Alyssa Thompson #7 of the USA Women's National Team hits a header to make a pass against the Wales National Team in the first half of the Send Off Match at PayPal Park on July 09, 2023 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Alyssa Thompson was a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup for the USWNT’s sendoff game against Wales on July 9. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

For Gonzalez, the solution was to treat the Thompsons no differently than any other player. He assured concerned players and parents that he wasn’t “trying to make history” by bringing girls onto the team and that “this was just a unique situation that presented itself.”

Alyssa played about 50% of the available minutes her first season on Total Futbol Academy’s U-17 team as she adjusted to having less margin for error due to the speed and strength of opposing defenders. She earned a starting spot the next two seasons after she learned to be more cerebral with her first touch as an attacker and to use her speed to race back and snuff out counterattacks whenever her team lost the ball.

“When I dribbled around the keeper and scored my first actual goal with them, my teammates all told me to come to the corner flag,” Alyssa said. “So we all went to the corner and celebrated. It just felt really nice that they all wanted to celebrate with me.”

While others only tallied Alyssa’s goals and assists, she herself also kept track of the parties, dances and sleepovers that she missed. Even Alyssa’s mom says she would occasionally have to remind her husband, “Hey, can we have a vacation here? Can we hang out as a family and do something fun?”

The comforting presence of Gisele usually helped coax a smile or laugh out of Alyssa whenever soccer felt too much like a job. The sisters still share a bedroom and play off each other as well away from the soccer field as they do on it. As Alyssa puts it, “Having my sister with me in any environment makes me feel like I can be myself and be super confident.”

All the sacrifices that Alyssa made for soccer began to bear fruit 10 months ago. In early September, she learned that she was on USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski’s radar. Only a few weeks later, she was boarding a flight to England to play alongside some of her childhood idols at Wembley Stadium.

“When I came in, every single player I saw, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s her in real life,’” Alyssa said.

None produced more awe than two-time World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe, who Alyssa replaced when she substituted into her debut game in the 80th minute.

“Even now, every time I see her I’m starstruck,” Alyssa admitted last month. “I don’t believe that I’m her teammate. It’s crazy to me.”

‘Everything I’ve done up until this was for this reason’

In the 10 months since her callup to the senior national team, Alyssa has continued to tick off lifelong goals at breakneck speed. She turned pro in January after outgrowing her previous commitment to play college soccer at Stanford. Then she went No. 1 overall to hometown Angel City in the 2023 NWSL Draft. Then she needed a mere 11 minutes to score a dazzling goal in her professional debut.

And yet as unfathomable as all that was, her most unforgettable moment was still to come. In June, with her family gathered around her in their living room, Alyssa answered her phone and learned that she had become the youngest player to make a U.S. World Cup roster since Tiffany Roberts in 1995.

“It made me feel like everything I’ve done up until this was for this reason,” Alyssa said. “I’d been wanting to be on the World Cup team since I was little. I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but when it did I was very happy.”

Added Karen, her voice quivering with emotion, “Even now as I talk about it, I’m getting a little teary-eyed.”

How big a role Alyssa will play for the U.S. in New Zealand remains unclear, but it appears she has already gained Andonovski’s trust. Alyssa was a surprise inclusion in the U.S. starting XI for its sendoff game against Wales earlier this month and recently drew praise from Andonovski for her creativity on the ball.

“You never know what she’s going to do,” he said. “Is it going to be a 1-on-1? A 1-on-2? A give-and-go or a shot? Left foot? Right foot? She’s very hard to track or prepare for.”

As Alyssa prepares to play on her sport’s biggest stage in the coming days, she finds herself in limbo between adolescence and adulthood. She possesses talent and guile beyond her years with a soccer ball at her feet, but in so many other ways she remains just a typical kid.

She constantly misplaces her AirPods. She listens to new music many of her older teammates don’t even recognize. When she learned that she made the U.S. World Cup roster last month, her pressing question for team captain Lindsay Horan was what she should pack.

“Best phone call ever,” Horan said with a laugh.

Is Alyssa truly a LeBron- or Serena-level soccer prospect? Will years of excelling against older girls and bigger, stronger boys prepare her to be one of the new faces of her sport? To her, it’s an honor anyone is even asking those heady questions. After all, she remains baffled whenever a fan approaches her for a picture or an autograph.

“I look up to so many people on this team,” Alyssa said. “It’s really crazy to me that people see me as a role model too.”

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