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Following a path all her own, Mia Fishel makes her USWNT debut

The 22-year-old Chelsea forward bypassed the National Women’s Soccer League to start her pro career in Mexico

CHICAGO — It’s tough to compete with soccer forward Megan Rapinoe’s majestic, celebratory outstretched arms. Every time she touched the ball during her final match as a international player at Soldier Field, she dazzled the stadium crowd as her U.S. team defeated South Africa 2-0 on Sunday.

The match was the second of two international friendlies. It served as a passing of the torch from veteran players Rapinoe, and center back Julie Ertz, whose last game was Sept. 21 in Cincinnati, to younger players, such as forward Mia Fishel, whose first game was Rapinoe’s final game.

When the 22-year-old Fishel debuted dressed in a jersey with the crest of the women’s national team in the 65th minute of the game, the stadium crowd roared nearly as loudly as they had for Rapinoe.

As a central striker, Fishel, who recently signed with Chelsea in the Women’s Super League, doesn’t share office space on the field with Rapinoe, who tends to exploit the left flank, but the two are bound by a dogmatic commitment to self-authenticity. For Fishel, that has meant paving her own path to success, bypassing the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) after college and beginning her pro career in Mexico before Chelsea came knocking. Doing so, she said, has allowed her to acquire her chosen set of specialized strengths, including the skill of adaptation, a theme that captures the current state of the national team.

The U.S. had a dismal performance at the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand failing to advance to the round of 16 for the first time in tournament history after losing to Sweden on penalties. Then-head coach Vlatko Andonovski resigned Aug. 17, as did then-U.S. Soccer general manager Kate Markgraf. Twila Kilgore, formerly an assistant coach, was tapped as interim manager as the federation seeks to fill the role in time for the 2024 Paris Games, which is less than a year away.

Fishel is the only player in the history of U.S. soccer to choose this route — playing in Mexico, then England — and the prospect of what that could add to the U.S. national team appeared to be a warming balm to the stark reality of Rapinoe’s retirement Sunday night.

Speaking to Andscape before the team played South Africa in Cincinnati on Sept. 21, Fishel reflected on her chosen journey. In 2021, she announced her decision to turn pro after excelling at UCLA for three years, and was given the rare opportunity to follow her college coach, Amanda Cromwell, straight to the NWSL with the Orlando Pride, which had recently hired Cromwell.

“When I got drafted, it wasn’t necessarily the choice I wanted,” Fishel said of Cromwell’s offer. “I said, ‘Hey, this isn’t something I’m comfortable with, and when something doesn’t feel right, I tell someone I trust, like my management team. I’m like, ‘Hey, is there something else? Is there another option?’ ” 

That was when Tigres UANL Femenil, the five-time champion of Mexico’s pro women’s league, entered the picture. “They came with a whole presentation [about] how I fit in the puzzle, how we align, and it was kind of perfect for where I was at,” Fishel said. She signed with them on Jan. 14, 2022, exporting her brand of “Big Fishel energy” from her native San Diego to Monterrey, Mexico.

Tigres UANL Femenil forward Mia Fishel celebrates after scoring her team’s first goal during the semifinal second leg match against Monterrey as part of the Torneo Apertura 2022 Liga MX Femenil at BBVA Stadium on Nov. 7, 2022, in Monterrey, Mexico.

Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images

Fishel was prolific in her season with Tigres, scoring 17 goals in the first half of the season, known as the Apertura (which concluded with Tigres winning the league title), and another 13 in the latter half, or the Clausura. Both times, she was the league’s top scorer.

“If I didn’t go to Tigres in Mexico, I have no doubt that I would not be at Chelsea now,” she said in Cincinnati. “I strongly believe in that. It was a whole experience, and you have to kind of immerse yourself: a new language, new team, new style of play. In the States it’s more physical, a lot more transitional. In Mexico, players are, like, 5-foot-3, average 5-foot-4, and they don’t really have that athletic advantage that you would think. They’re more clever.”

Her first few training sessions with the club brought those differences into stark clarity. “They were just Tiki-Taka-ing around me and I’m like, ‘OK, this is a more technical environment,’ ” she said, laughing, referring to the style of soccer established at FC Barcelona, characterized by an aesthetically pleasing culture of relentless passing by (and through) any means necessary. Honing her own technical precision alongside international standouts such as forwards Stephany Mayor of Mexico and Uchenna Kanu of Nigeria, who were her teammates at Tigres, also bolstered her résumé.

But blazing new trails is inherently risky, and Fishel’s move to Mexico might have come at a cost to her ascent on the U.S. national team. Despite the accolades she picked up at the youth level, which included the Golden Ball at the 2021 U-20 Women’s CONCACAF championship and a nomination for Young Female Player of the Year, Fishel received only one invitation to the senior women’s camp. Her first invitation was in October 2020, along with other Pac-12 standouts Catarina Macario and Naomi Girma, who played for the national team for the first time in January 2021 and April 2022, respectively.

Like Fishel, Macario went abroad to begin her pro career, but the Brazilian-born midfielder landed in France with Lyon, the most decorated women’s side in the world. Most U.S. women’s national team players participated in the NWSL.

When he named his roster for an August 2022 international window, Andonovski had not had any conversations with Fishel.

“We do follow her form and her performances, but I also have to say that there are a lot of players in the NWSL that are performing as good and even better than Mia,” Andonovski told the media at the time. “She does need to continue playing well and show consistency and for more than two or three games, a consistent 10 to 15 games, to prove that she belongs on the best team in the world.”

Fishel received that the way any respectable No. 9 would: as fuel for the fire. Two days after Andonovski’s comments in August 2022, she scored a goal for Tigres and mimicked a mouth talking with her hand as part of her celebration. After the game, she tweeted, “While you talk, I’ll keep applying that pressure,” along with an emoji of a gas tank and a shrug.

But each time Fishel’s name was absent from a national team roster, Andonovski was asked about it. When it happened again three months later in November 2022, he indicated that he had opened the lines of communication with her. And when the same thing happened before the national team’s trip to New Zealand for a set of matches in January, he was explicit about holding no bias about Liga MX Femenil in his decision.

“We analyze every goal that she scores, and analyze the difficulties of the goals, and compare to the players that we called up, and try to see how they would fit or how they would replicate [those goals] on the team that we have,” Andonovski said in January. “For Mia in particular, the league doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t matter where she plays. It matters, obviously, first what she does, but also what she does in comparison with the players that she’s competing [with] for the spots.”

From left to right: M.A. Vignola, Jaedyn Shaw and Mia Fishel of the United States after training for the U.S. women’s national team at David L. Olberding Training Center on Sept. 19 in West Chester, Ohio.

Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF

At the time, that waiting list for a place on the national team was long for strikers, and the competition was fierce, as it included stars such as striker Alex Morgan, established national team players like Mallory Swanson and Lynn Williams, and Fishel’s peers from the U-20 national team, forward Trinity Rodman (who beat out Fishel for that 2021 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year award) and Sophia Smith. But for Fishel — who was once a first-round draft pick for the same league they were in, and who took her scoring skills to Mexico without skipping a beat — to continually miss out on national team call-ups raised questions.

Nevertheless, Fishel stayed her course, went with the flow — a phrase she uses often — and eventually, she received the only invitation that could compare to the one she’d been waiting on from the national team.

“Chelsea’s my dream, and when I got that call saying that Emma [Hayes, Chelsea women manager] wanted me, it was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is where every player wants to be, playing in a top club, Champions League, all that.’ ” In signing with Chelsea, Fishel reunited with Macario, a fellow San Diego local (the two played on the same club team as kids), and joined Lindsey Horan as the only other player on the current national team roster who plays on a club outside of the NWSL.

“Things are meant [to happen] for a reason,” she said.

Just over a month after Fishel signed with Chelsea, she received the second coveted call-up she’d been working toward when Kilgore selected her for national team camp. Making the roster was itself the simultaneous ending of one chapter and introduction to another; earning a cap from there was her first challenge. Fishel didn’t suit up for the first game for the U.S., a decision Kilgore said was intentional.

“We’re in a learning phase. It doesn’t mean that they can’t compete at the highest level, because they do, but we really want to set a pathway for them to be able to make the most of their opportunities and have potentially a long-term game,” Kilgore said after the Cincinnati match. 

“Of course, they have to earn that, but like you saw, Mia didn’t suit tonight and Jaedyn [Shaw] didn’t play in the match, but we’re taking it slow because we want them to acclimate to the environment, to be able to spend time with legends like Pinoe and [Julie Ertz], get a sense of what’s going on, and just take those steps that are a little bit more like this,” she added, making a hand gesture that imitated an ascending staircase.

And while their interactions were brief — Fishel’s long journey from London to Cincinnati for camp caused her to miss a training session with the U.S. — Fishel took every opportunity to soak up the veterans’ knowledge, particularly with Rapinoe.

“Through training I tried to ask her as many questions as possible because this [was] the last time,” Fishel said after the game in Chicago on Sunday evening. “She’s so friendly and she’s just a great person, and she has changed women’s soccer in the world, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

Fishel also made the most of her approximately 25 minutes on the pitch, holding off an undeterred South African defense when her back was to the goal, and posing a threat with the ball at her feet when she faced it — the same thrills that first attracted her to the game when she was little. She’s regularly inundated with questions from younger players about her unique career, and always emphasizes the importance of choosing the best course for their personal goals.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be what your friend does, or what a whole nation does, or what society thinks is right or wrong,” she advises them. “Don’t be afraid to do what makes you the happiest.”

When the referee blew the final whistle at Soldier Field — Rapinoe’s last, Fishel’s first — the players on both sides were flooded with emotion as they slapped hands and embraced, taking in the weight of the moment. In seconds, Fishel was joined by defensive center midfielder Andi Sullivan, who pulled her aside, talking to her and motioning urgently. A loose translation of their body language indicated that Sullivan, who has 50 caps, was administering postgame instructions and feedback. Fishel watched her intently, sometimes nodding, and then the two hugged and joined their teammates in a huddle — bar raised, assignment given, challenge accepted.

Tamerra Griffin writes stories about women's soccer through the lens of the Black diaspora. A former soccer player herself, she was also a correspondent based in Kenya for BuzzFeed News, and has also reported in Sudan, Rwanda, Brazil, South Africa, Madagascar, and many other places.