Kansas City Current defender Alex Loera has enjoyed a stellar rookie season in the NWSL, highlighted by her game winner - and game saver - in KC's 2-0 semifinal win.
Head coach Matt Potter says Loera should have been a rookie of the year candidate, an award that ultimately went to Naomi Girma of the San Diego Wave.
"We're obviously blessed to see her (play) every day. I'm just pleased that she's starting to show those qualities on the biggest stages, too," Potter said. "I think her best days are still ahead of her."
Ahead of the 2022 NWSL Championship on Saturday, On Her Turf caught up with Loera about her journey to the Kansas City Current, when she decided she wanted to play pro soccer, and what she's most excited about in the NWSL final.
On Her Turf: I've heard your last name pronounced a lot of ways. How do you pronounce it?
A lot of people actually mess it up… It's loo-ERR-uh (with rolled Rs)… For people who can't roll their tongue, I always say it's like loo-ed-uh.
On Her Turf: How would you summarize your rookie season in the NWSL?
Loera: I honestly didn't expect it to go this well. I don't even know what I was expecting when I came into the league, but I have been very blessed with how well my journey has gone so far.
It's definitely helpful when you have such inspiring vets on your team. Desi(ree) Scott, especially, has been in my corner. Taylor Leach too. Just letting me know that they have confidence in me.
The coaching staff, as well, has been great at letting me know that they trust me and that they know what I can do.
That environment makes it really easy to express yourself, both on and off the field. So we all just have the best time playing, which I'm sure you can see.
On Her Turf: How have you been adapting to life in Kansas City? Had you ever spent any time in that part of the country before moving there this season?
Loera: I had spent a little time in St. Louis because I have some family there, but I'd never been to Kansas City before this year. And it is very different from California… so that's been a little difficult. But they both have their perks. The people here, the fans, everybody is so kind. It's starting to feel like home.
I just started nannying because I love being around kids. So it's been really nice to build that lifestyle here. And I do have a couple friends outside of soccer.
The city is beautiful, especially at night. But even on the drive to work in the morning, just the sun and the skyscrapers, it's really beautiful.
On Her Turf: I love that you said 'on the drive to work.' What was it like to make the mental shift that playing soccer is now your job?
Loera: It's actually really funny because when I talk to my family or friends back home, I say 'work.' I'm like, 'I have to work today.'
It's hard, changing it from 'I have to train today'… But it's actually my job now. I have this epiphany every week that's like, 'Wow, I actually get to do what I love and get paid to play soccer.' It's incredible. I'm very thankful for that.
On Her Turf: That's related to something else I wanted to ask you. It's your first season, but it's also the first season the NWSL has a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which has helped institute workplace protections. What have your initial impressions of the CBA been?
Loera: I was just full of emotion when the CBA came out. It was all kinds of emotion. I was sad that people had had a workplace where they didn't have (a CBA) in place. I was like, they deserve this. We all deserve this. I just felt so incredibly grateful to those who have - day-in and day-out - fought for these basic workplace rights that (didn't exist) before.
Just to see all these women come together in this league and demand more, it was incredible to see it finally put in place.
On Her Turf: Looking back in time… I'd love to go back to your early years in Thornton, Colorado. What was it like growing up there and what did your start in soccer look like?
Loera: It's one of my favorite places, it's just beautiful. I started playing soccer when I was three years old. My parents put us in all sports. (Eventually) we had to choose one because it was too difficult with travel and everything.
I had to choose between soccer or softball. I loved softball, but I was not very good at it. I couldn't see the ball when I was trying to hit it so that's how I chose soccer.
From then on, I just knew that I wanted to play soccer professionally. After school, I would drive an hour to practice and an hour home. It was difficult (to miss out on) activities like basketball games or football games… But I knew that in order to get where I wanted, it had to come with sacrifices.
(Eventually), I had to make a decision to change teams. That was really difficult, but I knew that in order to do what I wanted, I needed to be on one of the best teams in the state. So I started playing with Colorado Storm.
After practices, I would drive home and do (more training) with a men's team in the area. One of those coaches, Jeff Carroll, I would not be where I am today without him. Every day, I would go and train with his team after my own team's training. I just loved training with boys because they were faster… their touches were a lot sharper than mine, at the time.
I just put myself in a situation to fail so I could grow… You have to surround yourself with people who are better than you. In the moment it sucks, for sure. I was embarrassed at those practices when I'd lose the ball every single time I touched it. But as I as I kept going, I could see myself (improving).
So my journey has been crazy. And if there weren't for the sacrifices that my parents made, that my family members made, I would not be here. So I'm very thankful.
On Her Turf: And then you went to Santa Clara University. Attending college in the pandemic was obviously such a tough experience. Can you tell me what that experience was like and how you decided to take that extra NCAA COVID year?
Loera: Yeah, playing during the global pandemic was terrible because we didn't even know if we were gonna have a season. If you had asked me at the beginning of my senior year, I would have been like, 'We are not going to get our season.'
But we ended up playing. We only played seven games before the (conference) tournament… which put us in the (NCAA) tournament. It was crazy because we went from not even knowing if we were going to play to being in the Final Four and then winning the whole thing. It was just a whirlwind of emotions, from not being sure if we were playing to winning the championship.
And then it was kind of a no-brainer for me to take my fifth year because Santa Clara was going to pay for me to get a master's degree. My parents have always been super keen that education comes first so… it was like, 'Sorry, Current. I gotta do this real quick and then I'll come join you guys.'
On Her Turf: So when you got called in the 2021 NWSL Draft, that was that weird situation where some players declared for the draft, but teams could draft anyone, right?
Loera: It was funny because my (college) coach had been telling some of the (NWSL) coaches, like, 'She's not going to come if you draft her. Like, don't bank on her coming and use that pick if you want her to come now.'
But thankfully Kansas City was like, 'No, we're taking her.' So I ended up in such a great place.
On Her Turf: You ended up going a little later in the NWSL Draft (36th overall)… Were you surprised when you heard your name?
Loera: I was not expecting to get called (based on) what my coach had been telling me. And then I got a phone call from my coach, like, 'It might be you. Or it might be someone else.'
I was like, 'This is nuts.' Then I heard my name and it was crazy. I don't know how else to say it, I just started crying. My family was there, my (college) team was there. My mom and sister and grandma all flew out just in case (I got drafted). So I was very lucky to be surrounded by all my friends and family when it did happen.
On Her Turf: Given that you had this year in between getting drafted by Kansas City and joining them, were you worried at all given that the team struggled in 2021? Like, 'Uh, what am I getting into to going to play with the last-place team?'
Loera: I think I took it more like, 'What can I do to help when I get there?' So I just tried to go in with an open mind. This is a brand new team. This is a brand new season, a clean slate… So I think just focusing on the clean slate really helped.
On Her Turf: What are you most looking forward to heading into the 2022 NWSL Championship?
Loera: I am so excited. And I'm just so excited for my teammates, too, because there are people who haven't ever the NWSL playoffs. So just to contribute to getting them this experience, that's kind of my favorite part.
Just the way that Desi Scott pours her heart into this club, this program, and our teammates… The smile on her face when we beat Houston in the quarterfinals (when she had a red card), she got to live to see another day in the playoffs. And to actually see her play in that next game, I can't tell you how happy that made me.
So I think that's my favorite part: just getting to see my teammates, their facial expressions, their reactions.
On Her Turf: In Kansas City's two games vs. the Portland Thorns this season, you lost one and tied one. What is the team's focus heading into Saturday night's NWSL championship game?
Loera: I don't think we're too focused on past performances. The last times we played (Portland), we had a lot of room to grow. We are a different team now than we were then… I think our coaching staff has really just set us up for success… I also really applaud our game changers (substitutes) that act as the other team in training. They do such a great job - week-in and week-out - of really nailing what the other team does, their tendencies, their patterns.
I think the whole group is just like, 'Why not us? Why can't we be the ones to win it all? We're here.' I think everyone knows we have such a great opportunity in front of us.
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Q+A: Alex Loera on journey to Kansas City, 2022 NWSL Championship originally appeared on NBCSports.com