Amirah Ali of San Diego Wave and Voorhees, New Jersey heads home for NWSL game against Gotham FC

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If you’re going to start a professional football career more than 2,000 miles from home, it might as well be somewhere with perfect weather pretty much every day.

Perhaps also for a manager who led the Manchester United women’s team and who, as a player, had been a pillar of England for 17 years. With a team president who coached American women to back-to-back World Cup titles.

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Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice to have Alex Morgan as a teammate?

Yes, Amirah Ali of Voorhees is pretty well placed for her first season with the San Diego Wave of the NWSL. Now the 23-year-old is ready for her first professional game in her native New Jersey: San Diego at Gotham FC on Sunday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison.

The 4 p.m. kickoff is the first NWSL game of the regular season on the CBS 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 Waves hold the No. 1 spot in the NWSL rankings.

The aforementioned manager, Casey Stoney, and President Jill Ellis form one of the most formidable leadership tandems the NWSL has ever seen. But they’re not intimidating, Ali said — in fact, they’re quite the opposite.

“They are very good coaches, but they are also very good people, and they really look after each of us for anything that is not football related,” Ali said. “On and off the pitch, they are there for us. I think it also shows a testament to their characters: they’re not just all footballers, they’re also there to help us grow as individuals.

One could also easily be intimidated working with Morgan, the biggest star in American football. But beyond the pitch, Morgan is warm and engaging, and Ali could see that.

“She is truly a role model both on and off the pitch,” Ali said. “But she’s also able to have a good time and laugh with us, and just be herself. … On cameras you always see the tough, very focused version of her, but she can be a good time and fun to be around.

Ali was on the radar of football scouts long before he hit the pros. She was the 2015 and 2016 South Jersey Women’s Soccer Player of the Year by The Inquirer at Eastern High, and in 2017 the United Soccer Coaches National Women’s Player of the Year. She also played for a youth club, the Winslow Tigers, which was coached by the father of another South Jersey NWSL pro, Tziarra King of Sicklerville.

“I really attribute a lot of my foot skills, the movement, the awareness, the football IQ that I have off the ball to him alone teaching us 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 the NCAA offered amid the pandemic, earned a fourth honor all-American and led the Scarlet Knights to their second Final Four in team history.

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But meanwhile, the Thorns traded Ali’s rights to San Diego. She called the moment “bittersweet,” but says she has no regrets about it or staying at Rutgers.

“No hard feelings towards anything,” she said. “I’m just looking to keep growing, no matter where I was.

Ali has played 14 games for the Wave this year, but has only spent 372 minutes in the field. A minor knee injury suffered just over a month ago hasn’t helped but Ali also knows his place on the depth chart. In addition to Morganthe wave has a veteran of the english national team Jodie Taylor and the faithful Swede Sofia Jakobsson.

Still, Ali left a mark in the playing time she got. She scored her first professional goal on April 2 in a win over Angel City FC and 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 God, I want to be like her one day and I want to play like her,’ and you feel like that’s never gonna happen. But to be able to walk on that pitch and play it with her, that’s a lot for a player in every way.

Ali said that Morgan is “always behind us, always helping us, always giving us advice”, and Taylor “talks to me all the time, kind of puts me under her wing.”

They are, says Ali, “normal human beings[s] like everyone else, and getting to know them is pretty amazing – and playing with them is amazing too.

And now Ali is South Jersey’s latest professional soccer player to turn heads, just months after the most famous left the pitch.

“Carli Lloyd is one of those names that you look at and you’re like, ‘She’s someone who put everything she could into making it happen,'” Ali said. “Now that she’s retired, I think it’s just time for us to step in and show the same courage and mentality that she had. We’re working towards that, and I think we’ll be certainly able to represent South Jersey as she has.

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