API players in U.S. soccer reflect on identity and belonging – The Athletic

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“How do I reach out?”

In the middle of an interview where I was asking the questions, Ali Riley turned the tables. We were speaking about her experiences as a Chinese American woman in professional soccer, and I had asked her if she would like to see some kind of affinity group created for Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander players in NWSL. Perhaps, I said, it could happen under the umbrella of the NWSL Players Association. 

“Yes, I think about it all the time,” she said. “But I don’t know how to go about – do I just put on Twitter like, calling all you to do…?”

She was joking a bit about it, but our interaction revealed the underlying truth; there simply aren’t that many players with Asian and/or Pacific Islander (API) background in NWSL. When you only consider players who have American ties, as opposed to international players, the pool in NWSL shrinks even more. The U.S. women’s national team pool has long dealt with a similar lack.

Personally, I’ve always wondered why I didn’t see more Asian and Pacific Islander players in American women’s soccer, particularly in the professional or national team tier. But as I spoke to several U.S. API players, none of them could really put their finger on why, either. Neither did their experiences fully overlap; the “API” label is broad, encompassing many different ethnic groups with different histories of immigration or diaspora that can’t always be treated as a single entity. The players I spoke to were from different geographical regions with different family stories. There is no one definitive experience of being API in this country, and that’s probably part of the difficulty in trying to answer any one question about API participation in women’s soccer.

Some of the scarcity is perhaps proportional; the United States census lists those who identify as Asian, native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander alone are about 6.1% of the population, compared to roughly 1.5-3% of NWSL players who self-identify as API (also not including international Asian players). Some of it is perhaps socioeconomic, as some API communities have higher-than-average poverty rates. In the U.S.’ pay-to-play system, access to increasingly elite tiers of youth soccer as a player progresses through age groups becomes more and more expensive, often easily crossing into thousands of dollars a year in expenses and fees.  

Some of it may be cultural; Riley talked about how her mother, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, emphasized education and its relatively more assured pathway to safety and security over sports. Ally Watt, who is Filipina, Black, and white, wondered if some Asian girls simply get guided or gravitate towards other sports.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Watt said. “You’re always different.” 


Caprice Dydasco, who was born in Hawaii but identifies as “mostly Asian,” not Native Hawaiian, said that growing up she didn’t really have many players to look up to, at least not at the highest levels. But both she and Riley said that former USWNT player Lorrie Fair Allen served as that aspirational image. 

“She looks like me and I was like ‘oh, she can do it. She’s small, kind of built like me, she’s playing at the highest level,’” said Dydasco. “The way I’m built, I had coaches be like, ‘oh, you’re never gonna make it because you’re too small’ or ‘you’re not strong enough’ and I just felt I had to use that as motivation but also be better at my craft.”

As her name kept coming up, I reached out to Fair Allen herself and asked what she thought about players across generations looking up to her.

“Obviously, the first time I’m hearing that,” Fair Allen said with a laugh. “I’m kind of shocked.” 

Fair Allen and twin sister Ronnie were born to a Chinese mother and white father; their mother was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong before moving to the United States with her family. Fair Allen herself amassed 120 caps for the USWNT from 1996 to 2005, and enjoyed a club career that spanned the United States, France, and England. She’s also now a founding investor of Angel City FC.

As we spoke more, Fair Allen reminisced about playing on the USWNT with Filipina American teammate Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak. “It didn’t even occur to me that we didn’t have anybody that looked like us,” she said. 

Part of it, according to Fair Allen, was that she simply saw herself as a soccer player. But another part of it was rooted, she thinks, in a self-rejection of her Asian identity due to her own complicated history growing up as Asian and white, and the different ways she was treated due to that history, by both white and Asian people. She would go to her local Chinese restaurant by herself or with her white father and, being read as white, would get seated in the back, but if she went with her Chinese mother, they’d get good seats in the front. On a childhood fishing trip, she met an older Asian man who turned cold when he found out she was of Chinese descent, as he was Korean. We spent nearly half an hour attempting to unpack all of that before we even got to talking about soccer; yet another illustration of the ways in which API lives and histories can be different. 

Roberts Sahaydak and Fair Allen celebrate in 1999 (J Brett Whitesell / ISI)

However, there are similarities too. Riley said, like Dydasco, she was called small. 

“I was tiny when I was younger,” she said, “And I tried out for the local club team three times and the first two times I didn’t make it. They kept saying she’s so small, but I was the fastest person. I think there are other politics involved, but that was like the easiest thing to say.”

And then there are cultural perceptions to battle against. Dydasco, for example, found that she often got put in a box thanks to her being from Hawaii. 

“Everyone’s shocked,” she said. “When I first came to the league or even college (people were) like ‘oh wow you’re way more aggressive than we thought.’ I think it’s just because off the field, we are very friendly and everyone’s like family and hospitality is very big in Hawaii so I think everyone’s treated like family and we do like our very caring personality. I think (other players) think that we don’t switch it on and off on the field so (they) think we’re going to be so passive and not aggressive on the field.” 

And there was outright racism. Watt said an incident that stuck out for her came when she was in college playing for Texas A&M. After a game against BYU, she got a Twitter DM from someone who called her “pug nose,” a reference to her Fillipine features. 

Riley has gotten comments on her eyes, stereotypes about her grades, and got called Mulan and Lucy Liu since those were the only well-known Asians the people around her could reference at the time. “It really cuts you down from an early age but you become so used to it and you laugh at the jokes,” Riley said. “I made jokes about being Asian. I made jokes to other Asians.”

Dydasco and Riley were both worried about violent attacks against API people in the United States. Dydasco wasn’t necessarily worried about her family in Hawaii, where there’s a large Asian community and a melting pot culture that she feels is not the same as the mainland, but was worried about Gotham FC teammates Sodam Lee and Nahomi Kawasumi, from Korea and Japan respectively. “Sodam barely knows English and she could be walking in the street, you know, or the grocery store, and something happening,” Dydasco said. She’s talked to her teammates about anti-API violence, and to Lee and Kawasumi about the American cultural dynamics at play that have given rise to increasing violence and prejudice. 

“It just breaks my heart knowing that people are so hateful to a certain community because of the way they look, and for no reason,” she said.


Just as each person I talked to had different experiences navigating the world of American soccer, each has also processed their own API identity a little differently. 

Fair Allen said in junior high, she resisted being asked to join the school’s Asian student union. “I hadn’t even explored my own identity,” she said. But these days she and her sister have been talking to each other more about their own history, particularly through AAPI Heritage Month in May. 

“I don’t really think we really reflected on our Asian identity as we should have in the past,” she said. “I think all of the social justice issues that are emerging and have emerged over the past few years, particularly, obviously, with the murder of George Floyd. Like, it just kicks off all these conversations about what it means to be an American, and how that’s defined and how it has been defined over time, and who it’s defined by and who it’s defined for.” 

There was relief, too, as the players talked about how soccer gave them a place to be accepted, and to accept others in turn. Watt, who grew up in Colorado, said there were often only a few other people of color on her teams. Reign teammate Sam Hiatt is the first Filipino teammate Watt can recall having. But soccer was common ground, the thing that made everyone feel the same, and that the desire to perform and to win can take priority over focusing on differences. “I think that having the same mindset is a huge thing,” Watt said, “And that’s a difference you can really determine from an elite athlete and a good athlete.” 

Like Dydasco, who has been in Olympic Development Program and youth national team camps, and Riley, who has played around the globe, Watt has been able to experience and share cultures through soccer. Her teammates, for example, would always clamor for her mother’s Filipino cooking, constantly asking after any extra lumpia (a kind of spring roll).

“I know that people had different experiences than I would have maybe, but I think I was very lucky with the teams I had growing up with the community I was in,” Watt acknowledged. “I didn’t see it as a negative thing. I’m unique, and I embraced it.”.

For Riley, she’s used recent years to come to terms with her own sense of power, starting to express that through her identities. 

“I think right now, to really identify as an Asian American and as a strong woman and as a soccer player and a female athlete that deserves to be valued and paid fairly and treated fairly – these are all kind of new identities for me.” she said. “But they’re ones that I’m proud of, and they’re ones that I want to speak about because I think that it can really help change the narrative.” 

Fair Allen was optimistic about that narrative change. 

“This generation of young people – and I mean this in the nicest way – are impatient,” she said. “They’re impatient for the change that we should have demanded more strongly to have.” 

By the same token, Fair Allen acknowledges, the players of the ‘99er era certainly fought tooth and nail for the world of women’s soccer we have today. “It was just we fought in a different set of circumstances in a different time. We didn’t have the language, tools, certainly didn’t have the digital tools,” she said. 

“That’s been the best thing I think about coming to (the Orlando Pride), coming back to this league, or coming back to this country and like posting about being Asian and getting messages back,” Riley said. “Well first, there’s some that are a little bit sad, like ‘if I had seen someone like you when I was younger, I would have probably played soccer,’ ‘I would have been more confident’ or whatever. But then there’s the little girls who are like, ‘this is so cool that there’s an Asian playing…in Orlando.’ You know, when I signed, a little girl wrote that to me in a letter and it’s so cool, it’s so powerful.”

Riley is part of a legacy now, sharing in the same feeling Fair Allen felt when I told her that she served as an inspiration to Dydasco and others. 

“When I reflect back now,” Fair Allen said, “And think like, oh my gosh, there are younger players that were looking up to me as an Asian player, then it almost makes me feel more proud now to claim that heritage as my own identity and be like, yeah I’m Asian American.”

(Top photo: Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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