From the NCAA to Mexico, why women soccer players are moving south of the border

In the Mexican city of Monterrey that lives and breathes fútbol, a total of 40,039 fans pack the Estadio Universitario, commonly known as El Volcan (“The Volcano”), for a women’s club soccer playoff match on Nov. 20.

With the backdrop of erupting cheers in the sold-out venue, Tigres are hosting crosstown rivals Monterrey — colloquially known as Rayadas — in the second leg of a highly anticipated Liga MX Femenil semifinal series. Held in front of a boisterous and massive crowd that most in women’s global soccer only dream of, the derby played out in tense fashion between rivals that are aiming for a place in the upcoming 2023 Apertura final.

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Amid the noise and drama of the match that eventually finishes 1-0 in Tigres’ favor are two U.S.-born players and former NCAA athletes, Monterrey’s Carlee Giammona and Tigres’ Maricarmen Reyes, who made the unique choice this year to start their professional careers south of the border.

Taking part in college soccer from 2019-2022 at the University of Alabama and Pepperdine University, Giammona, a former U.S. youth national team member, began to reconsider her plans after attempting to cement a spot domestically in the NWSL with the Chicago Red Stars.

“One thing that really drew me to this league [Liga MX Femenil] was how up-and-coming it is. You can see how talented everyone is, how it’s growing and how players from really all over the world are coming and playing in this league,” said Giammona to ESPN.

Reyes, who scored the game-winning goal for UCLA in last year’s NCAA Division I women’s soccer championship match, also took notice of what was happening in Mexico’s women’s top flight that was founded just six years ago. Instead of opting for a place in the NWSL, the Mexican national team midfielder decided to join Tigres, where she has since thrived as Liga MX Femenil’s joint top goalscorer of the 2023 Apertura tournament.

“This league is growing super quick,” said Reyes to the L.A. Times in February. “What is super special about this team [Tigres] is our fans. And that’s something that I didn’t really feel when I was in the U.S.”

Although a direct move to Mexico from the NCAA isn’t a traditional path for most U.S.-born players, it’s a trend that’s becoming more common. Drawn by accelerated progress, growing connections to foreign leagues and immediate opportunities for competitive minutes, Liga MX Femenil has become a viable and unexpected option for NCAA players that want to become professionals in fútbol.

Opportunities in a young but flourishing women’s competition

Since the founding of the league in 2017 by men’s Liga MX clubs that finance operations, Liga MX Femenil has rapidly evolved past its initial focus on the development of young Mexican-born players. At first, each team was allowed no foreign signings and could only register two players over the age of 23. That over-age limitation was eventually dropped and by the summer of 2019, dual-nationals were also allowed into the league.

In the summer of 2021, the competition allowed teams to sign two foreign players (now currently at four) with no Mexican ties per team. Months later, at the start of 2022, we got our watershed moment in Liga MX Femenil with Tigres’ signing of UCLA star Mia Fishel, who used the league as a platform to later join Chelsea and the U.S. women’s national team.

Originally selected by the Orlando Pride in the 2022 NWSL draft, the striker decided to instead pave her own route through Mexico.

“I need to be in control of my career … with the draft, I only knew that I was going to Orlando Pride probably two minutes before I got called. So that whole situation was very stressful and I think very unnecessary for a new player. I think I deserve better than that,” said Fishel to ESPN last year.

But why leave the U.S. and take a chance on Mexico?

Outside of what are attractive contracts for high-profile additions, there’s the strong possibility of guaranteed minutes, on-the-field appearances, and recognition early on in careers — all while being just a short flight away from home.

“It’s traditionally hard for a rookie in the NWSL — like someone from the NWSL draft — playing and seeing minutes,” said Guillermo Zamarripa, founder of The Marketing Jersey agency that represents Fishel, Giammona and Reyes. “You have players wondering: Hold on a second, instead of sitting on the bench for a year, let me go to Mexico. I think that’s exactly the logic that a lot of players are starting to have.”

They can also become instant celebrities at a young age. “When you look at Liga MX [Femenil] it survives and resides in a country that’s all about soccer,” said Zamarripa. “I remember conversations with Mia, when she initially arrived in Monterrey, just a few days in she would walk in a mall and get stopped for pictures and autographs.”

Fishel’s move has also proven to be a blueprint for success. Quickly making a name for herself as the league-leading goalscorer and a title in her first Liga MX Femenil season with Tigres, the forward eventually gained a move to Chelsea in August of 2023, which then led to her USWNT debut in the fall — all thanks to the experience gained in Liga MX Femenil.

With a mixture of young Mexican talent, NCAA graduates and marquee signings from abroad like Pachuca’s Jennifer Hermoso or Club America’s Andrea Pereira, the development of the league has also made significant strides over the last few seasons. “Everyone is so tactical and creative and technical,” said Giammona. “That was one of the first things I noticed on my first day of practice, just seeing the amount of talent that is in the league.”

Results from friendlies and exhibition tournaments should be taken with a grain of salt, but nonetheless, Liga MX Femenil teams have exceeded expectations in recent showcases. In 2022, Club America defeated Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan on their run to third at The Women’s Cup tournament in August. One month earlier, they also surpassed Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 during a July friendly. In the same year, Monterrey claimed a runner-up finish in the 2022 Women’s International Champions Cup after earning a victory through penalties against the NWSL’s Portland Thorns in the semifinal round.

Plaudits have continued in 2023, with Tigres defeating 2021-22 UEFA Women’s Champions League quarterfinalists Bayern Munich 1-0 in a January friendly. Back in March, Monterrey also clinched a 2-1 friendly win over the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage. “It’s a league that is going to attract a lot of these [NCAA] players because as the level of the league increases, players are more inclined, or at least open to consider coming to Mexico,” added Zamarripa.

The NCAA role in Mexico’s soccer ecosystem

For Mariana Gutierrez Bernardez, the head of the Liga MX Femenil, U.S. collegiate soccer is an important factor in the continued advancement of the league.

“The NCAA is very valuable, because that structure, that model you have in the United States, you don’t see that worldwide,” said Gutierrez Bernardez. “What happens here in Mexico, and a lot of countries, is that we don’t have strong enough public policies that invest in [women’s] sports.”

Although Liga MX Femenil doesn’t keep track of the exact number of players who have been part of the NCAA, a quick search through the full rosters of 2023 Apertura finalists Club America and Monterrey highlights a total of 21 players with U.S. collegiate soccer experience. When expanding that search to all eight Liga MX Femenil teams that qualified for the playoffs, the number then grows to 55.

Of those 55, over half (32) are U.S.-born players like Reyes that are able to be registered as domestic Mexican players due to their lineage through family. Others, such as Giammona, take a chance on a culture and country they may not know much about.

With 337 teams in the top division of NCAA women’s soccer in 2023, and only a total of 12 current NWSL clubs — soon to be 14 by 2024 — it makes sense as to why there’s interest in an improving league next door. And through those college experiences, the players are given a strong foundation for success in Mexico.

“I think what’s cool about colleges now, specifically, you’re kind of trained in a professional environment,” said Giammona. “My coach at Pepperdine, Tim Ward, he wanted us to act like we were professionals, we needed to train like we were professionals … the girls that wanted to play pro didn’t feel such a drastic change when they did go pro.”

There’s also the recognition that teams abroad are following along with what’s happening. “After talking to a few NWSL coaches myself, I do know that they are very aware of the Mexican league,” said Cori Sullivan, a former Arizona State University and the University of Washington player that signed with Scottish champions Glasgow City F.C. this summer after a short Liga MX Femenil stint at Cruz Azul.

“It’s a great environment [in Mexico] to get some pro experience as a U.S. player, if you’re a U.S. player looking to play in the NWSL, but don’t get an opportunity.”

A major NWSL signing earlier this year signaled that clubs, especially north of the border, are now willing to spend for top talent in the neighboring league. According to ESPN contributor Jeff Kassouf, a record transfer fee between the NWSL and Liga MX Femenil was reached in February when Racing Louisville FC signed Tigres’ Uchenna Kanu for a reported $150,000 fee. That amount might not seem like much in the global game, but for a Liga MX Femenil club, that’s a huge sum and a testament to the league progressing and getting more recognition.

Managing issues as the league continues to develop

Something that made negative headlines in the past in Mexico, but seems to be improving, is the issue of players getting paid. Last year, a source confirmed to ESPN that around $300 to $7,000 per month is the usual range for most in Liga MX Femenil but that “very few players get over $5,000.” This year, the same source indicated that “overall, they’re getting paid better [in 2023]” and that clubs such as Monterrey, Tigres, Club America and Pachuca tend to pay the best. Unsurprisingly those teams, alongside Chivas, are the only ones from a larger 18-club pool to have qualified for a Liga MX Femenil final.

In a 2022 conversation with ESPN, Monterrey forward Christina Burkenroad stated that “the investment in every single team could be helped” while also noting “there’s a lot of girls that are living off below minimum wage, and that’s just not okay.” As for the NWSL, there’s a minimum salary of $35,000 per year, and reports of some earning as much as $250,000+. That said, Bernardez noted that she speaks “every day” with clubs about increasing wages and that the numbers are still climbing.

“We don’t have the salaries that the NWSL have, [but] we compete [salary-wise] with European leagues, I can say that. That’s the reason why we see Jennifer Hermoso here, Charlyn Corral, we see Andrea Pereira,” said the head of the league.

“The growth of it, it’s been really fast. We always speak about leveling the game, but we have to be very responsible of understanding [that] this is also a business unit that has to be sustainable.”

That leveling of the game has also become a political talking point in recent days. Last week, committees from Mexico’s senate proposed a bill that could set a base salary and other basic rights for professional women’s athletes in the country, which would directly increase the investment being made in Liga MX Femenil. Yet there are still plenty of steps left before it possibly becomes law, including numerous questions about the composition of those new rules or how they would be regulated.

Off the field, there was also a prominent issue this year with player safety after Club America forward Scarlett Camberos left the country in March after online threats. Camberos, a former NCAA player with UC Irvine, dealt with harassment, threats and hacked social media accounts from an individual that was only given 36 hours of house arrest.

“The response from [Mexican] authorities does not give the player and her family sufficient guarantees for her emotional stability, development as a person and or for a life free of violence,” read a statement from Club America about the dual-national that has since been transferred to Angel City FC.

“They let their best player go because safety is first. The safety of players is first,” said Gutierrez Bernardez, who added that the league has since worked with experts in human rights to create guidance for players in future situations.

“We actually speak between us, all the [women’s] leagues, and we’re finding best practices to learn how to fight [online harassment],” said the head of the Liga MX Femenil. “We’re working on it, we’re pivoting, we’re learning.”

Those conversations eventually led to the formation of the Women’s Leagues Forum, a global alliance between professional women’s leagues and governing bodies from 11 different countries. Announced earlier this month, the group has shared information and strategies that could help development going forward.

With Bernardez selected as a board member of the Women’s Leagues Forum, there’s a clear desire of wanting Liga MX Femenil to evolve through the participation in the alliance. There’s undoubtedly room for improvement, especially in financial aspects, but there’s also much that could be gained by the Mexican league that could still reach further levels through support from competitions around the world.

College soccer representation in the Liga MX Femenil final

Turning back to the field, all eyes will be on the upcoming two legs of the Liga MX Femenil final between Club America and Tigres on Nov. 24 and Nov. 27. Representing the highest level of play that the league can provide, there will be no lack of NCAA representation via players who decided to make their professional debuts through Mexico.

Over at Club America, U.S.-born former collegiate players like Miah Zuazua, Eva Gonzalez, Kimberly Rodríguez, Sabrina Enciso, Nicolette Hernández and Destinee Manzo all earned their professional debuts through Liga MX Femenil. As for Tigres, names such as Athalie Palomo and Reyes were also able to start their careers through Mexico’s top flight in women’s soccer.

As mentioned earlier, if we’re extending the count to those who debuted professionally outside of Mexico — regardless of where they were born — the number of former NCAA players who could take part in this month’s final then balloons up to 21.

With a title now up for grabs, several of these players will soon become champions, likely inspiring others within the NCAA to look towards Mexico for similar opportunities that may not seem as atypical with each passing year.

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