When my phone rang on that afternoon back in March 2017, I didn’t really think anything of it.
The call was coming from the U.S. Women’s National Team, so I knew it had to be about soccer. But it could’ve been anything.
Thirty seconds later, my life changed.
“Ali, I wanted to let you know that we’re gonna take you off contract.”
I was in shock.
The rest of the call is still a blur. But I do remember that there wasn’t much of a conversation, no real explanation. All I really knew was that the team wanted to call up some younger players. Everything was pretty matter of fact.
After nine years of having given everything I had to the program, and to my country, I was no longer a member of the USWNT — the team that meant everything to me. It was my second family.
My mind was spinning. I kept thinking about how I had just played one of the best club years of my life. And how before that I had gotten on the FIFA FIFPro World XI in 2016. I couldn’t help but wonder: What happened?
It’s always easier to deal with a failure or criticism when you know what you’ve done wrong. That way you can at least try to work on the things that led to the decision.
I was no longer a member of the USWNT — the team that meant everything to me. It was my second family.
You start thinking about all the reasons you might not be good enough. But in work, life or relationships, you don’t always get those reasons and details.
You can decide if you are going to let someone’s decision define you or if you are going to take control of your life and make the most of the situation.
I decided to make the most of it. Adversity is nothing new to me. I’d been there before. I knew what to do.
Twelve years earlier, when I was 21 and playing at Penn State, I actually almost died.
Our team was about to begin play as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and right before our first-round game, we held a scrimmage with the men’s club team. During the game I beat one of the guys, and he took me out from behind. I got tangled in his legs and we both fell to the ground.
I heard a pop. I knew it was bad.
When the doctors took a look at the X-rays, they told me that it was a spiral fracture in my fibula. So on that Friday, instead of playing with my team in the first game of the NCAA tournament, I was on an operating table having surgery.
It was so deflating. I wanted nothing more than to be out there competing along with my friends.
I was heartbroken. But little did I know, the challenge was just beginning.
After I returned to school from winter break, I suddenly started feeling really light-headed one night and I was constantly out of breath. Even just walking 10 feet, I’d be winded.
I could tell something wasn’t right, so I went to the emergency room. And as soon as the nurse took my blood pressure she rushed me back to be seen by the doctor.
From there, everything seemed to get more and more serious by the minute. My breathing wasn’t improving, and the looks on the faces of everyone treating me told me that it was really bad.
I was heartbroken. But little did I know, the challenge was just beginning.
I was there with a friend, and I distinctly remember turning to him at one point and asking: “Am I going to die?”
When my friend paused before answering, I started to get really scared.
Then someone opens the curtain to the area where I was being treated and I see my coach, the surgeon from our team, our AD, and … the dean of the school.
Ultimately the doctors ended up determining that I had developed pulmonary embolisms that could’ve killed me. Because I was taking certain medications — and because I had had a serious surgery and had flown to a few different places over semester break — I’d developed blood clots in my leg. Without me even knowing it, they had moved up to my lungs, and then to my heart.
I’ll never forget the doctors telling me that if I hadn’t come in, and instead had gone to bed and slept through the night, I probably wouldn’t have woken up.
Lying around in that hospital bed for the next week, I had lots of time to worry about everything. And to doubt myself.
I started thinking that maybe life as I knew it would never be the same. I wondered if I’d ever be able to play soccer at a high level again.
But the experience really instilled within me a new level of focus. And after I left the hospital, I promised myself that I was going to cherish every single moment on the field — every game, every training session, every gym session. And I’ve worked hard to keep that promise ever since.
It wasn’t my last major injury. There’s been a torn ACL and MCL in my knee, some extremely serious concussions, a second MCL injury, and a bunch of other physical issues that I’ve had to battle through.
But I always come back.
After learning I was no longer on a USWNT contract, I did get one more call-up, to camp for the Tournament of Nations in July 2017. But I didn’t get any minutes, and after that I didn’t hear back.
Instead of drowning in despair, lashing out in anger or disappointment, or making any career-changing decisions … I took some time for myself. I was going to do what would make me a better, stronger person.
I knew I had the support of my now fiancée, Ashlyn Harris, through this process, and I also wanted to support her as she continued with the USWNT. We added a puppy to our family — Logan. She is a beautiful source of joy in my life, and I love her so much.
My brother — who I absolutely adore, and who is my best friend and one of the main reasons why I started playing soccer as a kid — would check in on me every day. And my parents were a constant source of love.
I worked to be the best leader and teammate I could be for the Orlando Pride. Just months after learning I was no longer on the USWNT, I went out and had the best year of my NWSL career in 2017. The Pride made it to the semifinals that season, and I got first-team NWSL and first-team CONCACAF.
I had the chance to attend events and see family and friends I had often missed over the last nine years. They’ve always encouraged me and it was wonderful to be able to see them a bit more often.
I also started focusing more on my company, AKFC — on camps and clinics to help the next generation of soccer players. I even held sessions for adult players. I earned my coaching license and coached a boys team. I hung banners, carried equipment, did my (actual) homework, spent time with coaches and parents and kids in each community we visited. It’s been a little humbling at times, but it is so rewarding to take on a completely new challenge, have a vision and see it grow. It has also helped remind me how much I love this sport and that it will always be my future, no matter what.
In the off-seasons, I never stopped training.
I trained on my own. I trained with others when I could. I did yoga, cycled, and just kept grinding.
I did everything in my power to focus on what I needed to do to improve my game, and on trying to grow with the sport rather than stagnate.
When Ash would come home from camp, we’d work out together. I would go to her sessions, and she would come to mine. We would push each other.
And I studied the game. I didn’t miss watching a single USWNT match.
I actually started analyzing each game, charting players, and keeping stats. And I really tried to stay involved and support the team from a distance as much as I could.
I was never going to turn my back on them, or stop paying attention, or stop learning.
Many people said I was out of the USWNT picture completely.
But I knew I could fight my way back. I always believed. Those closest to me always believed, too. Their support drove me.
Then, this past March, I’m in between training sessions with Orlando, doing preseason work, and I see a text pop up from USWNT head coach Jill Ellis.
I’m not gonna lie: My heart immediately skipped a beat. The text was something like:
Hey! How are you? Just wanted to see if you had time later today to have a conversation.
I hadn’t really talked to Jill in about two years. Both Ashlyn and our Pride and USWNT teammate Alex Morgan were so excited about that text. I was trying to be calm and not get anyone’s hopes up. But I was on pins and needles before reaching back out.
On the way home from our second training session of the day, I gave Jill a call, and she just came right out with it.
“I’ve been thinking about it for the past week, and I want you to come in for our next camp.”
She was silent for a second after that. I didn’t say anything.
“And not as a training player. I want you to come in as a full player on our team.”
It was such a wonderful moment, such a special thing to hear. And it just felt like validation for all the work I’d put in — on the field for sure, but also, even more so, for all the work I did to become more grounded, and to fight through one of the toughest periods of my life.
I just remember saying thank you several times, and then I told Jill that I was ready to do whatever she needed of me, that I’d give my all to help the team win.
And soon as I hung up, I celebrated with Ash in the car.
After that, I called my brother and told him the news. He immediately started screaming with joy. He has always been so supportive, and is such a fan of women’s soccer. He was beyond excited for me.
Then I called my mom and she was screaming. And then my dad, and he just couldn’t stop crying tears of joy.
When I arrived at camp in late March, Jill told me she wasn’t expecting perfection. All she wanted was for me to be confident and play my best.
She also brought up 2017, and offered to talk about what had happened back when I got taken off the team. But after thinking about it for a few moments, I just shook my head no and told Jill that I didn’t want to talk about the past.
“I’m in a really good place at this point,” I said. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. All I want to do is continue moving forward and thriving.”
At that moment it was like….
“I’m good right now.”
So rather than dwell on the past, I decided to do something else.
I chose to get to work.
Fast-forward a few months and, well … you saw what we just did.
This team — all of us, together, as one — went out and showed everyone what the USWNT is all about.
The whole world saw something special happen for us over in France. It was one of the most thrilling and gratifying experiences of my life.
I was actually the last player in the tournament to touch the ball before the final whistle blew, and in that moment I felt so grateful, so … rewarded.
I love this sport so much.
I love this team so much. I’d do anything for these women. I’d run through a brick wall if I needed to. And celebrating with this team — this family! — after we secured that World Cup trophy is something I’ll remember for as long as I live.
All that champagne in the locker room was incredible, of course, but it really did end up being one huge, weeklong celebration. The party never seemed to slow down — whether it was the on the flight back to the U.S., the parade in New York, or being honored with Best Team at the ESPYs … it was all an amazing whirlwind.
Again, I am just filled with joy and appreciation right now.
I could not be more proud to be a part of this incredible team that brought home another World Cup for the United States. It wasn’t an easy path for me, and for a while it looked like I might not make it back to this spot, but I never gave up.
Not on the sport that I love, and definitely not on myself.