On September 21 in their game against Gotham FC, OL Reign defender Sofia Huerta became the 16th player in NWSL history to reach the milestone of 150 NWSL regular season appearances. She joined teammates Jess Fishlock (May 29, 2022) and Lauren Barnes (May 15, 2022) in that incredible accomplishment.
“Wow, I’ve been in the league for a long time,” Huerta began her reflection on reaching the milestone when she spoke with Ride of the Valkyries last week, prior to OL Reign’s regular-season finale against Orlando Pride. OL Reign won that match 3-0, securing first place and the NWSL Shield.
“To have such a long career, I’m really proud of and I’m just really thankful I’m on the Reign and able to celebrate that milestone. 150 games is a lot of games, and my career has definitely been one that’s had a lot of ups and downs. It’s been difficult at times and not the most enjoyable, but I think I’ve been able to stay the course and really believe in myself, and I think the milestone kind of represents that,” she reflected.
“There were so many times in my career where I just didn’t know what it was gonna look like, so again, I’m so happy to have met that milestone with the Reign and really proud of myself. I appreciated my time in Chicago and Houston, but I’m just really thankful to be here and of course to be back on the national team. So really, thankful and grateful for everyone that’s been with me on the journey.”
After beginning her pro career at the Chicago Red Stars in 2015, where she was drafted 11th overall, then getting traded to the Houston Dash in 2018, Huerta finally joined OL Reign and more specifically returned to the comforts of home in the Pacific Northwest in 2020. The outside view could have been interpreted as her career coming to a crossroads, if not a last-chance saloon. Reflecting on when it was official that she was joining OL Reign, Huerta spoke of relief from adding any extra pressure on herself.
“I remember thinking like I needed to change in my career when I was at Houston,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be on the Reign, for many reasons. Obviously, the club has a really great reputation on and off the field and I want to be there. So when it happened I thought it could really be a good thing for my career.”
While there was no regular season that year because of the pandemic, there was the Challenge Cup, but Huerta recalls carrying an injury through the competition and that a focus on her mental health saw her through any doubts that the move to OL Reign wasn’t what she hoped it would be.
“I did get hurt in the 2020 Challenge Cup, new faces were being called in and so I did have this thought of like, you know, maybe it’s not gonna happen for me,” she recalled. “But you don’t want to put that kind of pressure on yourself, because I would have had that mentality the whole time, and then maybe I wouldn’t have been in a good situation when I did get the opportunity.
“So I knew it was gonna be a good thing when I got traded to the Reign, but I just tried to take the pressure off a little bit and change my definition of success because it’s so easy to think about what you’re not accomplishing, what you’re not doing. Instead, focus on what’s happening right in front of me: I’ve had a long career in the NWSL, I’m a professional athlete, and I get to play soccer for my career. And once I took the pressure off of, ‘I need to get back on the national team or I’m not successful,’ it became easier every day to have that narrative. I felt more free as opposed to, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my opportunity, I have to take advantage.’ It’s no, I’ve been preparing for this, and I’m okay.”
The work on her mental health comes from having a life coach in Lisa McClenahan, whom Huerta mentioned when Jeff Kassouf profiled her during the CONCACAF W Championship this past summer in Mexico. Huerta has been working with McClenahan for the past seven years.
While Huerta was with the United States for that tournament, which they won and punched their ticket to next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Ride of the Valkyries spoke with her OL Reign teammates Veronica Latsko, Nikki Stanton, and assistant coach Sam Laity. All three praised the hard work ethic that she brings each day to training, even before being here at OL Reign. Stanton was Huerta’s teammate in Chicago in 2018 prior to Huerta’s trade to Houston that season, and Latsko was her teammate at the Dash. All three used the same word in describing Huerta’s growth over the years: confidence. That ethos brought her to OL Reign, where she’s been thriving and is back on the national team.
“You know what I learned about confidence? I’d listen to podcasts that would say, no one’s born with confidence, but I think definitely people are born with some, but confidence can be gained. It’s like what you’re doing every day to ensure you’re feeling good, and confidence is something you can work on. I feel like my whole career I have depended on my confidence — almost too much. It was like when I was feeling confident I was doing really well and when I wasn’t feeling confident, I wasn’t doing well. I didn’t want my play on the field to be determined by that, and if it was going to be determined by that I needed it to be a more consistent thing. I think it’s common in professional sports for your confidence to waver and for it to go through ups and downs, but I think it’s asking: what can you do every day to just fill that cup?”
The confidence Huerta brings on the field is because she works on life off the field to be just as healthy. With her sister living in the Puget Sound region and her parents just a couple of hours away in Boise, Idaho, she’s finding that balance.
“It’s been really great to be so close to all of them,” Huerta said. “My sister lives down the street and then obviously my parents have more incentive to come here now because they can see both of us at once, so it’s been really nice having them. Sometimes I think we can get so caught up in soccer unfortunately, like it is our lives, but sometimes we’re in this bubble and we’re making it more than we need to. So when you can kind of just be more present, that definitely can help with your performances.”
Part of that life off the field was recently featured when she took part in Saks Fifth Avenue’s spread celebrating Hispanic & Latinx Heritage Month last month.
“I didn’t get to talk about [my heritage] a lot when I was younger, just because it didn’t seem like it was celebrated or it didn’t seem too important,” Huerta said when asked about being approached by Saks for the profile. “So I never really was able to share my experiences about growing up or going to Mexico twice a year, being able to be with my family, and how much I really am proud of being Mexican-American. So I was so excited to do that.”
Training at Lyon
After the Challenge Cup in 2020, Huerta, along with forward Bethany Balcer and then-teammate, defender Celia, traveled to France for a couple of months, where the trio got to train with OL Reign’s sister club, Olympique Lyonnais. The rest is history as far as training alongside and forming relationships with prolific players like Dzsenifer Marozsán, Eugénie Le Sommer, and Sarah Bouhaddi, but what also stood out to Huerta was the quality of the training environment in Lyon in contrast to the facilities that OL Reign is still working to improve. Earlier this week, the Sally Yates report investigating systemic abuse in the NWSL mentioned OL Reign in the larger context of clubs still lacking a professional-quality training facility.
“The things that [Lyon] have, it’s a completely different environment and setup than we have here,” Huerta recalls. “Obviously, we’re trying our best to get there, but that was my initial reaction when I went there. Just wow, this is what it feels to be a true professional, and it was such a great experience. Just having that feeling of having everything set up, having a chef, all of that can add to feeling confident and feeling really good. Unfortunately, a lot of the teams in the NWSL don’t have that setup, and I think that’s the goal to get there in the U.S.”
“It’s time and we want to win.”
Shifting to the present, when OL Reign finished the regular season last weekend above rival Portland Thorns FC and won the NWSL Shield for the third time in club history, it was a culmination of the team reaching their peak at the right time. Looking back at how everything worked out in OL Reign’s favor, which enabled their regular-season finale match to be something of a coronation, there was general agreement that their final road trip, featuring a gauntlet of three matches in a week and 6,000 miles of travel, showed the mettle of the players.
“This team is really special,” Huerta said when asked if there was something different about this season’s squad. “We have a lot of memories on the team and so we all know how it feels to get to the end of the season. You know what it’s like to have a pretty good season, get to the very end, and not win. And I feel like we’re all at the point where you know, it’s time and we want to win.”
The way OL Reign finished the regular season suggests the team’s run in the upcoming NWSL Playoffs could be something special. And that something special could carry over into next year for Sofia Huerta. A year from now, among the many potential accomplishments she could have on her resume, perhaps the professional athlete walking the runway of a New York Fashion Week show is one of them?
“Ha, only if they let me walk in flats.”