Ready or not, prodigy Alyssa Thompson cast as soccer’s next superstar

ALYSSA THOMPSON SITS on a white leather couch at the Nike headquarters in Los Angeles, crammed between her two sisters and parents. Thompson’s legs are crossed, her hands pinned between them, a white, crisp Nike sneaker bouncing metronomically in midair. A smile crosses her face like a searchlight, here and gone in a flash.

Some 2,700 miles away, in Philadelphia, the 2023 NWSL draft is about to start without its star. It’s no secret: Thompson, who preferred to stay close to home, is about to become the No. 1 pick and the first high school player to be selected first in league history. A week earlier, Angel City had moved mountains to get the first pick and wasn’t shy about what they planned to do with it. Nearly 50 people, including former coaches, teammates, agents, media and Angel City employees, encircle Thompson on elevated chairs and a smattering of hot-pink and white beanbags.

“Everyone take a deep breath in,” an Angel City FC staffer advises the crowd. “Hold it … breathe out.”

But there isn’t much suspense as NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman comes into frame on the TVs bolted to the walls.

“In the first round of the 2023 NWSL draft,” Berman says, “Angel City FC select … Alyssa Thompson.”

The cameras catch Thompson as cheers erupt around her. She covers her mouth with her hands. While the pick is nothing more than a formality, there is nothing orchestrated in Thompson’s celebration with her sister Gisele.

They lock eyes and smile, a silent, shared moment as their paths diverge for the first time.

A couple of weeks before, Thompson sat on her twin bed in her shared bedroom with Gisele agonizing over the pros and cons list the Thompsons had made about turning pro. She knew she was days late on a decision. “OK, I’ll go pro. Everyone is saying I should go pro. There’s no fighting it at this point,” Thompson said to Gisele, laughing and shrugging her shoulders.

But now, there’s little time for Gisele, or any family and friends. Thompson gets patched through to the live broadcast, wide-eyed and flustered. “My heart is racing,” she says as Angel City staffers hand out scarves and jerseys with “Thompson” and “No. 21” on the back. “This is really surreal, I still can’t process it.”

Off to the side, Angel City co-founder and president Julie Uhrman gets a text from team co-founder and Academy Award-winning actor Natalie Portman: “ALYSSA!” Minutes later, Thompson’s jersey is for sale online.

Thompson has dreamed of this night for years, long before she committed — and decommitted — to Stanford. Before she and her sister became the first high schoolers to sign NIL deals with Nike. Long before she starred for the U.S. team at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and before she debuted for the U.S. senior women’s national team, subbing on for two-time World Cup winner and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Megan Rapinoe.

And now, two months after her 18th birthday, Thompson is so much more than the first overall pick in the NWSL.

She’s the prodigy from Los Angeles who will be the cornerstone of the league’s most compelling franchise, complete with celebrity owners and die-hard fans who turned out to the tune of 19,000 per game last year in the club’s inaugural season. She’s the freshest face of the decade-old NWSL, a league that is attempting to distance itself from abuse and safety scandals that have endangered its very foundation. She’s a fleet-footed forward invading a league that set viewership and attendance records in 2022 and hopes to cash in on new broadcasting rights at the end of 2023. She’s a contender for a roster spot on the USWNT, which will be going for its third straight World Cup title starting in July in Australia and New Zealand.

As the NWSL and women’s soccer demonstrate the importance of investing in women’s sports, Thompson finds herself at the fulcrum of growth and potential for the game. And she knows it.

So why, here on draft night, can she think only about escaping to a sushi dinner with her family?

“I never expected for this to happen,” she says, “so soon.”

After two hours of photo, video and social duties, Thompson returns to the couch. She cozies up to her Harvard-Westlake friends. Her shoulders relax. She turns the group toward a cellphone, a video just for friends. They claw their hands and bare their teeth, pretending to be wolverines — their school’s mascot.

As they growl in unison, Thompson’s smile never fades.

IT’S BEEN THREE WEEKS since draft night when Thompson returns to Harvard-Westlake’s Ted Slavin Field, a field she hasn’t played on with a team she hasn’t played with in nearly two years between youth national team and club soccer responsibilities. She’s arguably more out of place here than at Nike’s headquarters, though she comes out to support her friends and former teammates whenever she is home and free.

She certainly wasn’t going to miss senior night.

As temperatures drop into the low 50s — arctic by L.A. standards — Thompson joins seven other senior girls’ soccer “teammates,” all wearing bright red Harvard-Westlake shorts with black, red-striped jerseys. Parents, siblings and students trickle into the stands minutes after the JV game’s completion.

Posters for all eight seniors line the fence around the field, accompanied by red and black balloons. Thompson approaches her poster, six pictures from various stages of her childhood soccer career, framed by gold glitter. In block letters, it reads: “FEAR THE #5 / HER SHOTS WILL MAKE YOU DIVE / SO EVEN IF YOU TRY / JUST KNOW YOU WON’T SURVIVE!”

Four months ago, she made her senior U.S. women’s national team debut at Wembley Stadium in front of 76,000 against reigning 2022 UEFA Women’s Euro champs England. Now she’s braving unseasonable California cold, sitting happily on the bench, sleeved hands, in front of less than 50 people.

“Just before the draft, we played a game in torrential rain,” says Harvard-Westlake coach Richard Simms. “I turned around, Gisele and Alyssa were standing on the bench. I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It was a monsoon, [right] before the draft. But they were there, and they’ve always been here even if they haven’t been playing on the team.”

Thompson’s arms are tightly folded across her chest. She waits to be called over the microphone and slowly jogs to Simms, who hands her a bouquet of red and white flowers as “Thompson” booms through the stadium. She embraces him, followed by the other coaches, before high-fiving her way through two rows of cheering teammates and meeting her family at the other end.

“These moments, being here together, will be what matters most to us,” mom Karen says later. “We always try to emphasize some level of balance — even if it’s not the average balance — carving out moments like this.”

Before kickoff against Flintridge Sacred Heart, as Alyssa and Gisele huddle with the team, Thompson’s best friend, Layla, and a few other girlfriends arrive in a huff, a big, white poster board in Layla’s hand with eight pictures of Thompson — none of them featuring her playing soccer. Layla kicks herself for missing the pregame ceremony.

“It’s amazing to witness all of this with Alyssa,” she says. “I’m so proud of her.”

As the night’s temperature continues to drop, Thompson and Gisele join their former team on the bench and watch the game unfold. Their father, mother and youngest sister, 11-year-old Zoe, sit in the stands and watch the entire game.

In less than two months, Thompson will make her professional debut. Later in the spring, Thompson will graduate high school and her friends, like Layla, will leave for college. Thompson will stay home, albeit as a face on billboards in one of the world’s most famous cities.

“Sharing these moments and coming back for these events and making the time is what is important to me,” Alyssa says. “I am still 18 years old; I still want the same things as what an 18-year-old would want. Like being at senior night. And going to prom. I’m still in high school, so I still will act like a high schooler. I’m a pro now, but I still want to do the normal things that seniors in high school get to do.”

Thompson realizes that she might not be able to attend her prom: Angel City has a game that day.

“I don’t want to think about it.”

THOMPSON GREW UP 15 miles north of Angel City’s BMO Stadium in the Studio City house her father, Mario, grew up in. The first place she kicked a ball was in the backyard with Gisele.

Before elementary school, Alyssa and Gisele claimed the backyard as their playground, chasing each other and a soccer ball around before they even got out of pajamas. Mario set up drills with small orange cones, a makeshift obstacle course for his daughters.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Alyssa says. “We just knew we were having fun learning how to play.”

The goals were simple: 1. Learn how to dribble; 2. Have fun. But the Thompson sisters quickly mastered every drill Mario could concoct. Their dribbling was soon as proficient as their exceptional speed.

“It wasn’t like Karen and I said we wanted to have the first No. 1 draft pick. That never crossed our minds,” says Mario, an elementary school principal. “They have this crazy work ethic, and they’ll do whatever it takes.”

When Alyssa started playing club soccer in elementary school, it was already clear how dominant she was. She needed more of a challenge — athletically and technically — almost immediately. By middle school, she was playing against girls five years her senior.

“When I realized how good I was at soccer was also when I realized how much I would sacrifice because of soccer,” Thompson says. “I remember every dance, sleepover and party that I had to miss. I’ll realize just how important those sacrifices were when I really [make] it. But I definitely — and will always — have FOMO, I think.”

While Thompson tallied those sacrifices, others were counting goals. After her sophomore year at Harvard-Westlake, she won the Gatorade National Girls Soccer Player of the Year. She’d scored 48 goals and added 14 assists, leading the Wolverines to an 18-0 record, with Southern Section, Division 1 and SoCal Division Regional championships to boot. (There is no state championship for soccer in California.)

“She’s better than everybody,” Simms says. “Alyssa has always been better than everybody.”

Since she was 9, Thompson has played for L.A.’s Total Futbol Academy. Before her sophomore season, she needed to be challenged, so Mario and Karen signed up Alyssa and Gisele — talented beyond her years in her own right — to train with the academy’s U-19 boys’ team. Just one footnote: the U-19 boys’ team competed in MLS Next, the feeder system into Major League Soccer. The speed of play was significantly faster than what Alyssa was experiencing in high school — and exactly what she needed.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thompson sisters didn’t just train with the boys, they joined the team and remained the only girls on the squad. After her first season, Thompson incorporated additional training with private soccer coach Michael Holzer to fine tune her technical skills. Quickly, Thompson became a dominant force and standout scorer against the boys.

“Playing time was 100 percent earned on her part. I did not start her because she was a girl, I did not play her because she was a girl,” Total Futbol Academy coach Mario Gonzalez says. “I played and started her because she earned it. And it was around the midway point where I told her dad, ‘She’s special. There’s something here.'”

The last week in January, Thompson attends her final Total Futbol practice with Gisele. That night, Mario drives his daughters so they could take much-needed naps. Sporting oversized hoodies, the sisters rouse from sleep, their bobbing buns the only anomalies in a sea of dozens of boys on adjoining fields.

For the next hour, the Thompson sisters dart and dive, in and around teammates. Whether they realize a chapter is ending as another begins is anyone’s guess. Right before 8 p.m., they grab their backpacks on the field and start to walk to the parking lot. But before they could exit the field, two elementary-school-aged boys from the academy’s youth ranks stop Thompson. “Can we take a photo with you?” Thompson obliges. As she starts to walk away, a player’s mother stops her: “Can I take a photo with you?”

Looking on from just a few feet away, Mario says, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

THOMPSON ARRIVES AT Cal Lutheran University for Angel City’s first week of preseason practice in early February. In the same facility where the Los Angeles Rams practice, Thompson’s tenacity and speed — the speed that propelled her to the second-fastest 100-meter time in California high school girls track last year — beguile all in attendance.

“She has this quiet confidence about her. She very much knows who she is and what she’s about,” Angel City midfielder Dani Weatherholt says of the 5-foot-4 winger. “I think it’s so admirable for her age because she’s not nervous. She’s not trying to fit in. She’s just her.”

Weatherholt adds, “If she didn’t talk about how she might miss her prom, I wouldn’t know she’s in high school.”

During 7-on-7 at the end of practice, Thompson is awarded a penalty kick. Thompson faces the goal, runs up, and matter-of-factly curls the ball into the lower right-hand corner as Brittany Isenhour dives the other way. She gives a low-five and quickly pivots back into a defensive position. Job: done.

“No doubt she was meant to be a professional player,” coach Freya Coombe says. “She dominates in 1-v-1, and she’s a very explosive player, which gives her the opportunity to beat players and create lots of opportunities on goal. But one thing that we are seeing from her is her willingness and ability to come in and combine with other players and learning to develop that area of her game as well.”

After practice, Thompson sits by herself and ices her hip. One day before, Thompson sat next to her sister, Gisele, after practice.

“If Gisele wasn’t there for some of the practices, I might feel more alone,” Thompson says. “But when she’s not there, I’m like, ‘Oh I wish Gisele was here so I could talk to her.'”

Right before the draft, Angel City and the Thompson family discussed the possibility of signing both sisters after the NWSL introduced a new mechanism to allow players under 18 to enter the league. But the 17-year-old Gisele felt she wasn’t quite ready. So, in an attempt to comfortably transition Alyssa into the pros and get Gisele acquainted with her potential future, Angel City added Gisele to the preseason practice roster. On days that Gisele wasn’t at school or Total Futbol Academy practices, she laced up and took the Cal Lutheran field with her sister.

“I’m trying to be in the moment, trying to finish my junior year,” Gisele says. “I’m watching what Alyssa is going through and how it plays out and just trying to figure out what it might look like for me. She’s kind of the guinea pig right now.”

Alyssa adds, “I like that it’s always been the Thompson sisters. It feels weird when it’s just myself. I don’t really like having the spotlight to myself.”

At the behest of Angel City staff, Alyssa answers questions from a handful of reporters waiting to hear how her first week of practices went. Reporter after reporter asks the same questions she has been asked since draft night. Thompson sits at a long table adorned with black Angel City paraphernalia. “Yeah, for sure,” Thompson repeatedly utters before most of her answers, not only processing the questions but also reminding everyone that she’s only 18.

“She is the next-generation leader of the U.S. Women’s National Team,” Uhrman says. “She’s from Southern California. She’s playing for her home team. She’s 18. There are all these unique storylines around Alyssa.”

As her teammates leave the facility to go to lunch together, Thompson gets into her car, blasts Drake’s album “Her Loss” and begins the hourlong journey home. Resisting the urge of her heavy eyelids, Thompson turns up the volume. Family dinner, homework and — ideally — sleep beckon.

“I want to be with my team,” she says. “I don’t want to just get there and then go, and that’s a lot of what I’m doing right now.”

The guilt and gratitude spill out of Thompson interchangeably. She wants to build camaraderie with her Angel City teammates, but also see friends her age. She wants to go to the mall with friends and eat Korean barbecue, but she has too much work with online classes, speeding toward graduation. She doesn’t even mention prom this time.

“Balancing it all … it’s a good problem to have and I’m happy I have it,” she says. “I just want to do so many things. These are all part of the sacrifices.”

THE NIGHT BEFORE Thompson’s professional debut, she doesn’t sleep. Not a wink.

In less than 24 hours, she plays in her new home stadium for the first time as a professional, in front of more than 15,000 in a friendly against Club America, and she can’t stop tossing in bed. As the sun creeps over Cahuenga Peak, she can’t take it anymore.

She hops in the shower, throws on a Skims bodysuit and jeans, laces up her Nikes and waits for Gisele to wake up. Thompson has only one in-person class today, at 1:45 p.m., no less, but she wants to head in at 9 with her sister. Like clockwork, the sisters hop in their shared black Volvo SUV and turn on Drake.

“I wanted to get stuff done, but I got a big headache [and] stopped,” Thompson says. “I tried to do everything like normal, but I was just so nervous the whole day. Subconsciously, I was like, ‘I have a game today, my first game in front of a bunch of people.’ I couldn’t stop thinking about how everyone was going to be watching.”

Time seems to stand still: during, before and after English class, the hallways, the drive home. Being nervous before a game wasn’t new, but these nerves felt new.

Before leaving the house for BMO Stadium, Thompson walks past the foyer table.

Baby pictures ensconce a sign full of reminders, among them: “Do your best.” “Never give up.” And “Believe in yourself.” Underneath, framed family photos share a space with a pair of cleats and a soccer ball.

“Those are from my first U.S. women’s national team game. The ball is signed,” Thompson says. It’s a breezy way of addressing a ball inked by the U.S. women — a veritable who’s who of global soccer stars and coaches — from her debut. A club she’s now part of.

Thompson’s focus clicks into place. She calls that game unforgettable and exactly where she aims to be.

“I don’t want to not reach my full potential and just be another one of the upcoming people who get forgotten,” she says. “And people say, ‘Oh remember when she was good?'”

Mario drives his daughters to the game, Thompson finally dozing in and out of sleep. Once at the stadium, Thompson tells Gisele just how nervous she was all day.

“I needed to talk about it,” she says.

Nearly 16,000 in a sea of black and pink trickle in as pink smoke fills the stadium. Even as Thompson takes the field, the nerves remain — almost a physical weight at this point. She has never heard roars echo this way.

Five minutes into the match, Club America turns it over near midfield. Thompson possesses, just like those backyard drills with Gisele, and runs into a swarm of three defenders. Something clicks.

I’m just going to take it, she thinks.

“There was so much space for me to get in and dribble, [they] were pushing up so high,” Thompson says. “I noticed and I’m like, ‘I can use my speed against the backline.'”

She turns, dribbles right for them, and is gone in a heartbeat. A fourth defender flails at her. The goalkeeper comes out … and crumbles against Thompson’s pace and skill.

“That’s a move,” she says, “I’ve always done.”

Thompson races into the arms of teammates Jun Endo and Weatherholt before she’s mobbed by the rest of her team. BMO Stadium erupts, drums pounding in syncopation. Amid the chaos, Thompson peeks out and beams. The smile remains as she catches her breath, nerves be damned.

“She took the goal so coolly,” Coombe says after the match. “Like she had played in 100 games in this stadium.”

Uhrman screams and jumps from the sideline. “That took the pressure off. It was her moment to show that she’s here and this is what she can do.”

“I was shocked,” Thompson says. “I didn’t process it until after the game.”

The nerves remain for all 75 minutes. She couldn’t shake that people were looking at her, as the prodigy on a flourishing franchise, the face of a budding league, the potential future of a sport.

“I was thinking about every move,” Thompson says. “If I messed up, what people would think. There was more pressure. I felt like it all came down to this moment.”

Angel City defeats Club America 3-0 with Thompson winning Player of the Match. She clutches a bouquet of flowers, miles from senior night at Harvard-Westlake, and waves to screaming fans. She shuffles between media and social obligations and meeting Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Michael Davis. At last, Thompson finds her family, youth coaches and a bevy of friends in tow. She’s got plenty of time now.

“All I wanted to do was talk with my family in private without people yelling my name and stuff,” Thompson says. “I just wanted to talk to my family and relax.”

After signing autographs and taking selfies with fans from both teams, Thompson reunites with her family and heads into a field suite. She tells them immediately that it feels like a weight’s been lifted.

“There was so much pressure leading up to my debut. Everyone said, ‘She’s the No. 1 pick. She’s in high school,'” Thompson says. “I wanted to show people I belong. I feel like I belong.”

Two hours after the game ends, and mere weeks before her regular-season debut on March 26, Thompson gets into the backseat of her father’s car with Gisele. They talk about how well she played and how cool the atmosphere was.

Home at last, Alyssa walks into her bedroom with Gisele and they crawl into their adjacent twin beds. For a fleeting moment, she’s but a teenager running on empty. There’s media, virtual school and practice, the burden of expectation — but that’s all for tomorrow.

For now, she’s earned some sleep.

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