March 23, 2016
Alli Murphy’s body picked the worst time to have the flu.
The December 2015 graduate and former Texas Tech University soccer player had been in bed for a few days in January when her phone rang. Soccer coach Tom Stone, who coached her for four years as a Red Raider, had two pieces of news for her. One, the Washington Spirit, a member of the National Women’s Soccer League, called just a few days before the draft to inquire about her.
Then he asked if she was fit, in shape and able to play. Well, she answered, she was until the virus sidelined her.
“He said, ‘The Irish national team is coming to San Diego, and I’m going to get you a tryout,’” Murphy said. “I was like, ‘If you get me a tryout I’ll be there. I don’t know what kind of shape or performance I’ll put on, but I’m obviously going to go. I can’t pass it up.’”
Flu or no, Murphy put on the Irish practice gear and practiced with the team in the week leading up to the friendly match against the United States on Jan. 23. It wasn’t exactly a tryout, more an opportunity for her to see how she competed with the international level of play and introduce the Irish coaching staff to this American who’d learned to love soccer playing on the makeshift pitches of the Irish town where her grandparents still live.
“It was good to see her in green, white and gold,” said her father, Stephen Murphy, who years after coming to the United States has just a hint of the Irish lilt when he talks. That is, after all, the team he has cheered for all his life.
It’s been a big three months for Murphy; she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, was drafted by the Spirit, practiced with and then watched the Irish team play the U.S. and moved outside of Texas for the first time to start her career as a professional athlete.
For a woman who wanted to play professional soccer since she was 5 years old, who told people she wanted to be a pro soccer player a decade before there was a league for women, it is literally a dream come true.
“People were telling my mom, ‘Hey, you need to let her know she needs a realistic goal,’” Murphy said. “My mom said, ‘No, she’s gonna do it.’ I remember the moment when I got drafted and got to call my mom and tell her. It was so surreal – everything I’d worked toward, all the hours I put in, all the things I’ve missed for soccer – it made it all worth it.
“Now I’m actually living the dream. Sometimes I still sit here and think, ‘I’m really going to do this. I’m really going to play soccer and do nothing else all day.’”
Kim Daniels doesn’t remember a time before her daughter wanted to be a soccer player.
“It started when she was 4. She was begging to play soccer and I told her she wasn’t old enough, she had to wait until she was 5,” Daniels said. “On the day of her fifth birthday we were out celebrating, and she jumped up and said, ‘I get to play soccer now!’ She thought she was going to play soccer right then.”
Murphy’s love for soccer started before she could walk. Daniels’ brother was a semi-pro soccer player and would come over and “coach” her.
“When she was a baby he would show her a soccer ball and say, ‘This is a soccer ball,” she said “He would dribble around her and say, ‘This is what we do with a soccer ball.’ We would all laugh, but he was trying to teach her how to play before she was standing up.”
The laughter continued during her first season. Soccer at that age is a bunch of children chasing each other and the ball around the field. Handballs are commonplace. Goals are frequently accidental. Strategy centers around having fun and not getting hurt.
Ergo, it’s typical for spectators to laugh. What was so funny to Murphy’s family, however, was when she got the ball, she dribbled around the pack and scored – 17 times in her first game.
Another time Murphy got the ball and dribbled toward her own goal. When the game was over, Daniels asked her why. Five-year-old Alli explained if she dribbled that way, all the players would follow her, then she could turn around quickly and since all the players were behind her, she had an open field to the goal.
“She was the only person on the field with any idea of what you were supposed to do,” Daniels said. “I was flabbergasted that she actually really did understand how to play this game. It was in her. She understood.”
Some of Murphy’s love for the beautiful game came from her father’s side. She didn’t grow up watching Major League Soccer; instead, Murphy donned the jerseys of the Barclays Premier League and cheered for the Europeans. They’d take a boat to England to watch games. She walked around in all green – socks to hat – and sang the Irish national anthem before games.
“I think going there and having that heritage is what led to my absolute love of soccer,” Murphy said. “You go to Ireland, and we were staying in these little cottages by a beach, and in the middle of these cottages they have a soccer field and goals. Every morning all the kids wake up and you just run out to the field and you just play, play the day away.”
By the time she was 13, Murphy was on a competitive team that traveled internationally. Despite struggling with dyslexia and being a late reader, she found her place in math class and was recruited to Texas Tech. In 2012, the year she arrived in Lubbock as a freshman, the National Women’s Soccer League was created.
Murphy graduated in December, earning her degree in three and a half years, but stayed in Lubbock so she could train with Stone and utilize the Texas Tech trainers. He thought she had a good chance of going pro, but no one was sure if she’d be drafted. Murphy thought it was more likely she’d be invited to a camp after the draft. Stone was optimistic, but expected her name to be called later in the draft.
Murphy didn’t think much of making the dead-zone-filled drive from Dallas to Lubbock on Jan. 15, the day of the NWSL college draft. She was getting gas in Seymour when Stone texted her from an airplane – she’d just gone, as the 20th pick, to the Washington Spirit.
“I was on the side of the road on the way to Lubbock at a gas station when I got drafted,” Murphy said. “It was kind of a crazy experience. One second I walked into the gas station just a normal person, then I walked out a professional soccer player.”
She ran out to the gas pump and yelled at her friend, “I just got drafted!” The two started dancing and jumping around in the parking lot.
Stone also yelled when he found out. He was in the back of the plane talking to the flight attendants, using the plane’s WiFi to follow the draft.
“All of a sudden I looked down at my phone and it said, ‘Alli Murphy, drafted No. 20 by the Washington Spirit,’” he said. “I literally scared everyone because I shrieked, and that’s not a smart thing to do on an airplane.”
Murphy is a great fit for the Spirit’s needs, which is why they nabbed her so early, he said. That she can keep up at the professional and international levels was no surprise.
“Her range of play and fitness is at a very high level,” Stone said. “Alli can go full tilt for an entire 90 minutes and therefore be really impactful as an influencer for the game as a whole.”
There was plenty of hollering to go around. Gabbie and Gwennie Puente, freshman twins who were on the Texas Tech team with Murphy last fall, were at home in Fort Worth watching the draft when they heard Murphy’s name.
“We yelled at the TV – ‘oh my gosh, no way!’” Gabbie Puente said. “We were tweeting at her. We were just so happy. It was crazy.”
Stephen Murphy knew his daughter was good enough to go pro but still wasn’t sure about the draft.
“When her name was called – ecstatic was probably the best way to describe it,” he said.
Murphy’s was the second Texas Tech name to be called; forward Janine Beckie was drafted eighth by the Houston Dash. She, however, was not a surprise. Beckie, who was Murphy’s roommate their final two years at Texas Tech, was practicing with Houston during the draft. Stone texted Beckie, who called Murphy as soon as she could.
“It’s going to be awesome,” she said of suiting up against her former teammate. “It’ll be really interesting playing against her after all these years of playing together.”
It’s not just against each other. Murphy and Beckie will be on the field with some of the best soccer players in the world – women they’ve watched win the World Cup and the Olympics.
“Can you imagine if you steal the ball from Alex Morgan?” Daniels said. “All these kids – Alli, Janine, Caity Heap – they are going to be playing with and against people who have kind of been their idols and who they’ve looked up to for all these years.”
Murphy has difficulty imagining that.
“I’ll just walk up to them and be like, ‘I watch you on TV. Please pass me the ball, or don’t kill me,’” she said with a laugh. “Or I’ll look up and Alex Morgan is running by me and I’m standing still and it’s like, ‘OK, bye.’”
In the midst of Murphy getting a shot at achieving her lifelong dream, Stone was making other phone calls on her behalf. International play would help Murphy as a professional athlete, he said, but thousands of women play soccer in the United States, and the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has relatively few spots.
The rules of international soccer allow players with a clear connection to another country to play for a team other than their nation of citizenship. Although what constitutes a clear collection is left vague, Stone, an advanced scout for the USWNT who has developed numerous international contacts, called the Irish coach about Murphy’s clear connection.
Stephen Murphy came to Texas from Limerick, Ireland, when he was 18 on a track scholarship to the University of North Texas. While he stayed in Texas, all of his family remained in Ireland, so trips to the Emerald Isle were frequent. He wanted his children to understand all of their Irish heritage – the good, the bad and the person walking down the street with a cow, as happens in Irish villages from time to time.
Alli Murphy said she remembered walking along the green paths with her mother and they’d go around a bend or over a hill and there’s a beautiful old stone castle right in front of them, a sight she never had in Dallas. She also remembered how quiet Limerick got at tea time. Everything shut down as people went inside for tea. She found it calming. She played soccer with her cousins and watched soccer with her grandfather.
All of those memories came back to her in San Diego.
“It was weird putting on their practice stuff,” she said. “It had the seal and all the braiding going down the shorts. It was kind of a cool experience.”
Then, she said with a laugh, Dad swooped in and the cool was gone.
“When I got back my dad’s like, ‘Stop, let me take a picture,’” Murphy said. “‘I’m like, Dad, I’m 21 years old! I’m trying to look cool. Don’t do this to me right now.’”
Stephen Murphy got his picture, and he’s hopeful it won’t be the last photo of his oldest child in Irish colors.
“For me it was great; that’s the team I support,” he said. “It was always, hey, if you want to play, you can always fall back on your heritage. The Irish team gives her the opportunity to continue internationally if they pick her up.”
Practicing with Ireland wasn’t her best soccer, Murphy admitted; the vestiges of the flu left her a little more sluggish than she would have otherwise been. But she got a feel for the team, they got a sense of what she could do and now the coaches know her name and know she got drafted.
“They’re basically going to see how this year goes in the pros,” Murphy said. “It could possibly lead to something. It was kind of to get on their radar.”
Murphy is looking forward to what’s next, but she’s bittersweet about leaving Texas Tech. She described her best moments here as a “Friday Night Lights” experience, playing soccer with her closest friends under the lights of the John Walker Soccer Complex. Her last two years on the team were the best in Texas Tech soccer history, culminating with appearances at the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, the last home game was the first round of the tournament; they played North Texas, her parents’ alma mater. The game came up quickly; they found out the schedule on Monday and played on Friday. Despite the short notice and the four other athletics events happening that weekend, the stands were full.
Included in the stands were a number of young girls who attend soccer camp at Texas Tech during the summer and got to know the players. Murphy said her mom, wearing a No. 8 jersey, was talking to another mother at the game that night when the other woman saw Murphy’s number.
“Is your daughter Alli Murphy?” the woman asked. When Daniels said yes, the woman continued, “Oh, my girls just love her. My daughter canceled her birthday party because she found out Texas Tech was going to be playing in an NCAA game and it was going to be at home, so she canceled her birthday party and now all the girls are here.”
Murphy talked about the younger children who lined up along the path from the locker room to the field who stuck out their hands for high fives and the camaraderie that existed among the women on the team during the thrill of a big win or the pain of losing.
The friendships were more than pitch deep as well, as Beckie and Murphy found after a couple of years of being teammates.
“We just realized that we were very similar in a lot of ways and very different in a lot of ways and we had a lot of fun together,” Beckie said.
Murphy also picked up an unusual nickname during her senior year. The team’s 14 freshmen found her to be a comfortable, welcoming figure who would always listen and give advice both on and off the field, so they started calling her Mom. She loved it.
“One of the other freshmen first called her that as a joke,” Gwennie Puente said. She and Gabbie met Murphy at summer soccer camp and again when Murphy helped them move into the residence hall last year. “But then it actually turned out to be a real thing.”
“She would always tell us specifically what we needed to work on,” Gabbie Puente said. “It came from experience. She knew what she was talking about. And whenever we had problems not related to soccer she always gave the best advice. She really showed she loved us and acted like our mom.”
She managed her classes and being everyone’s friend while being a top-notch soccer player.
Gwennie called Murphy one of the best players with whom she’s played. Her position was attacking midfielder while Murphy was the holding midfielder, so they worked with each other often.
“She would call for the ball, and sometimes I didn’t even see her,” Gwennie Puente said. “I would just pass it because I knew she would be there.”
Murphy acknowledges how cliché it is to say she wishes she’d known how good her college years would be four years ago and she would have slowed down and appreciated them more. Cliché or not, she stands by it.
“My heart was completely invested in it,” she said. “I’ll always be a Red Raider. The memories you make with your teammates – I wouldn’t trade those four years for anything, and if I could I’d hold off being a pro and have four more years here. As cool as it sounds to play pro soccer, Texas Tech soccer meant that much to me.”
Murphy has not ruled out civil engineering as a career path – she chose it because she enjoys math and likes the work associated with engineering – and she passed the qualifying tests. She also likes to teach and helped out in Daniels’ classroom when she returned to Plano on breaks. She may teach in the future. She may coach soccer. She may dust off her engineering chops.
“I did civil engineering knowing that I could still do all those other things and potentially be an engineer,” Murphy said. “I joke with everybody – I was making the most out of my money.”
Daniels, who encouraged her daughter to finish her degree before she joined the draft, isn’t surprised by Murphy’s thoughts of teaching and coaching. It fits right in with her personality.
“Alli just kind of always had this real, pure, genuine heart toward helping others, serving others, supporting others and their dreams and building them up,” Daniels said.
For now, though, Murphy is all in with the career path she’s dreamed about for most of her life. For the moment she is living with a host family in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., as she transitions into life as a full-time, professional soccer player.
“It’s going to be a whole different life than it’s ever been before,” Murphy said. “There’s never really been a team you could walk out and get cut one day.”
Her family is making plans; for Valentine’s Day Daniels’ husband got her a Washington Spirit T-shirt in lieu of flowers or chocolate, and she’s already taken a vacation day on April 10, when the Spirit plays the Houston Dash in Houston. Daniels also asked her parents, who live in the Dallas area and drove an RV around the United States every Texas Tech soccer season to be at all of Murphy’s games, what they planned to do now.
“They’d already calculated how far it is to Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I guess they’re getting set.”
Stephen Murphy, who works out of an office in Pennsylvania, is actually closer to Maryland on a regular basis than he is to Lubbock, so he’ll have an easier time getting to games. He will, though, miss the Friday-Sunday doubleheaders at Texas Tech, as he knows his daughter will as well.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds for her in Washington,” he said. “She’s hopefully got a little bit of the luck of the Irish with her, you know?”
March is Irish American Heritage Month, an opportunity to recognize the role Irish immigrants and their descendants have played in building the United States. It has been recognized by the U.S. president every year since 1991.