If you’re going to start a professional soccer career more than 2,000 miles from home, it might as well be in a place where the weather is perfect just about every day.
Perhaps, too, for a manager who used to lead Manchester United’s women’s team, and as a player was a 17-year England stalwart. With a team president who coached the U.S. women to back-to-back World Cup titles.
Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice to have Alex Morgan as a teammate?
Yes, Voorhees’ Amirah Ali is in a pretty good place in her first season with the NWSL’s San Diego Wave. Now the 23-year-old is set for her first pro game in her native New Jersey: San Diego at Gotham FC, Sunday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison.
The 4 p.m. kickoff is the first NWSL game of the regular season on CBS’s broadcast network, part of a day of women’s sports coverage that includes a Connecticut Sun-Washington Mystics WNBA game. And speaking of good places, the Wave are in first place in the NWSL standings.
The aforementioned manager, Casey Stoney, and president Jill Ellis form one of the most formidable leadership tandems the NWSL has ever seen. But they are not intimidating, Ali said — in fact, they are just the opposite.
“They are really good coaches, but they also are just really good people, and they really look after each and every one of us for everything outside of soccer,” Ali said. “On and off the field, they’re there for us. I think that also just shows a testament to their characters: they’re not just all soccer, they’re here to help us grow as individuals as well.”
One could also easily be intimidated by working with Morgan, the biggest American soccer star of all. But beyond the field, Morgan is warm and engaging, and Ali has gotten to see that.
“She truly is a role model both on and off the field,” Ali said. “But she also is able to have a good time and laugh with us, and just be her normal self. … On the cameras, you always see the tough and very focused version of her, but she can be a good time and be fun to be around.”
Ali was on soccer scouts’ radars well before she reached the pros. She was The Inquirer’s 2015 and 2016 South Jersey girls’ soccer player of the year at Eastern High, and in 2017 was the United Soccer Coaches’ national girls’ player of the year. She also played for a youth club, the Winslow Tigers, that was coached by the father of another South Jersey-bred NWSL pro, Sicklerville’s Tziarra King.
“I really credit a lot of the foot skills I have, the movement, the awareness, the soccer IQ I have off the ball to just him learning and teaching us,” Ali said of Ritch King. She and Tziarra, now of Seattle-based OL Reign, were friends as kids and remain close.
Ali went to college at Rutgers, and was drafted No. 22 overall by the Portland Thorns in 2021. She then took the extra year that the NCAA offered amid the pandemic, earned a program-record fourth all-American honor, and led the Scarlet Knights to their second Final Four in team history.
But during that time, the Thorns traded Ali’s rights to San Diego. She called the moment “bittersweet,” but says she has no regrets about that or staying at Rutgers.
“No hard feelings toward anything,” she said. “Just looking to continue to grow no matter where I was.
Ali has played in 14 games for the Wave this year, but has spent only 372 minutes on the field. A minor knee injury suffered just over a month ago didn’t help, but Ali also knows her place on the depth chart. In addition to Morgan, the Wave have English national team veteran Jodie Taylor and Swedish stalwart Sofia Jakobsson.
Still, Ali has left a mark in the playing time she has gotten. She scored her first professional goal on April 2 in a win over Angel City FC, and has learned a lot from the veterans.
“It’s honestly a dream,” Ali said. “I mean, you grow up hearing ‘Alex Morgan,’ you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be like her one day and I want to play like her,’ and you feel like it’s never going to happen. But being able to step on that field and be on there playing with her, it just does a lot for a player in every way.”
Ali said Morgan is “always behind us, always helping us, always giving us some advice,” and Taylor “talks to me all the time, kind of puts me under her wing.”
They are, Ali said, “normal human being[s] like everyone else, and to get to know them it’s pretty amazing — and playing with them is amazing as well.”
And now Ali is the latest South Jersey-bred women’s pro soccer player to turn heads, just a few months after the most famous one left the field.
“Carli Lloyd is one of those names that you just look at and you’re like, ‘That’s somebody who put everything that she could into being successful,’” Ali said. “Now that she’s retired, I think it’s just time for us to step up and also show that same amount of grit and mentality that she’s had. We’re working toward that, and I think we will definitely be able to represent South Jersey in the way that she has.”