The former Águilas del América midfielder forged a path as an immigrant, showing along the way that a Mexican woman can lead a soccer team and share the field with top international talent.
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Alexia Delgado pulled back her long, curly hair in a ponytail, took a deep breath and let the energy of the crowd flow over her.
She was ready, physically and mentally.
Wearing the spotless uniform of her club, the Águilas del América, Alexia walked down the long hallway that leads to the field at Estadio Azteca in México City. She prepared herself for pregame activities for a match against the México team from Morelia.
She was nervous.
It was 2017, a few years before she’d travel far from home for a chance to represent her country and her sport.
For the first time, Alexia was taking the field as a member of Liga MX Femenil, México’s top women’s soccer league. She was playing at the Coloso de Santa Úrsula, the most important stadium for Mexican soccer fans — a sports venue as beloved as New York City’s Yankee Stadium is for baseball fans.
She was barely 17. Her heart pounded, but deep down, Alexia understood the need to keep her emotions in check. She had been preparing for this moment since she was a little girl. Since she started loving soccer more than anything else.
Some 30,000 people chanted in unison. The bright lights dazzled her, but did not blind her focus on the match or her desire to run at full speed across the field and kick the ball with the precision of a pro.
Alexia and her team pulled off the longed-for victory on that sweltering August day, winning 5-0. The match was better than anything she had ever dreamed of, and she had been dreaming of being a professional soccer player since she was a little girl.
That moment was nearly five years ago. Alexia can still close her eyes and picture all the details she holds onto so she never forgets.
“The first time I played in front of so many people, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was in a bit of shock.
“I still remember when we were walking toward the field for the pregame protocol and honestly, what can I say, it was really an indescribable feeling. Hearing all the people, the cheers, seeing the many bright lights … It was something very beautiful and very special. The truth is I remember it like it happened yesterday.”
Today, at 22 years old, Alexia is convinced she’s made the right decisions. Her skills as a midfielder and technical soccer abilities have allowed her to transcend gender barriers and international borders.
Alexia did not have to cross deserts and rivers to emigrate to the U.S., like some immigrants from México do. For Alexia, the doors to Arizona opened in August 2018, thanks to a full college scholarship that allowed her to complete her bachelor’s degree in sports management. She’s now close to finishing her master’s degree in organizational leadership at Arizona State University.
Alexia says she’s the first athlete from México to serve as captain of the women’s Sun Devil Soccer team at ASU. On a team full of players of international caliber, she represents her beloved country.
Sitting under a golden desert sun in early 2022, Alexia, a fierce competitor, says that when she plays for ASU, she understands she’s a leader for the team and for the players she loves.
“I’m the only Mexican player on the team. I have the responsibility of being the captain. It’s something that makes me really proud,” says Alexia, with a smile so wide her brown eyes squint.
Led by Alexia, the women’s Sun Devil Soccer team can boast that the 2020-21 season was a memorable one. Historic victories, rankings that the program had not enjoyed in years and a trip to the NCAA College Cup Tournament.
A Mexican athlete shines on the soccer field and in college
One of the factors that fueled Alexia’s decision to cross the border to become a Sun Devil was ASU head soccer coach Graham Winkworth, known for his ability to recruit international talent.
In an interview with Cronkite News, Winkworth described Alexia as “technically excellent … (with) an incredible soccer brain.”
When Winkworth watched her performance as captain of México’s U-20 team, he could not help see her leadership abilities and recruit her. After visiting the school’s campus and talking with the coach, Alexia was sold and accepted the offer to attend ASU.
In 2019, Alexia was invited to join the Mexican Women’s National Team for the Cyprus Women’s Cup. She could not believe that she would be sharing the field with some of the best players from her country. Her ASU soccer coach was just as ecstatic as his young recruit.
“This is absolutely fantastic news,” Winkworth told ASU’s thesundevils.com.
“To be called up to represent your country at any time is a big deal, but to make the full national team is about as big as it gets. When we recruited Alexia, we made it very clear that we wanted to support and prepare her in her journey with the Mexican National Team. She aspires to play in the 2023 World Cup and we want to prepare her the best we can to help her achieve this goal. I am so happy for her as this could not happen to a nicer young lady.”
Obtaining an F1 visa like the one Alexia received to study at ASU is not a simple process. Approximately 1.5 million international students with active F1 and M1 visas enrolled in U.S. schools in 2019, according to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Of those visas, only 1.3%, or 19,517, were approved for students from México. F1 and M1 visas allow non-citizens to enter the U.S. as students enrolled at academic or vocational institutions.
China dominates the field, with nearly 475,000 of these types of visas. Next on the list is India, with 245,000, followed by South Korea, with about 84,000.
Immigration lawyer Hugo Larios explains that F1 visas are for international students attending universities in the U.S. Once accepted at an institution of higher learning, the students are issued what is known as a Form I-20.
“When students have this form, they visit the American consular abroad and request an F1 (visa),” says Larios. “Some 99% of these visas are granted. The key to obtaining this visa is to be admitted by a university.”
In 2019, ASU ranked seventh among U.S. schools that accepted the most international students with F1 visas.
Alexia’s talents on the soccer field and in the classroom earned her a place among the 14,034 international students ASU welcomed in 2019.
Putting her faith in American college soccer
More than three years ago, Alexia left behind her native Tepic, a small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit surrounded by lakes, waterfalls and beautiful scenery, to move to the Arizona desert with a full scholarship.
She left the big leagues in México to play college soccer in the U.S. It was a risk.
Alexia’s black hair is up in her signature ponytail. Wearing maroon and gold ASU soccer gear with her university’s pitchfork logo, she’s sitting in front of her apartment in Tempe, remembering her first days in Arizona.
“At first, it was really hard for me,” she says. “I came to a place where I didn’t know anyone. Obviously, the language is completely different. I was a player who had her resume. Here, the reality was no one knew who I was as a player. That part was hard, to come here and try to fit in.”
She knew she left behind one of the biggest achievements for a young athlete. Being part of Liga MX Femenil in México and wearing the uniform of one of the country’s most highly acclaimed teams was all she had worked and sacrificed for.
“I got to play at Estadio Azteca five or six times, which for me was a dream come true because, because I’m also a [Club] América fan. I’ve been rooting for them since I was a little girl,” she says, her smile turning into a grin, remembering what it felt like to finally compete for her favorite team.
During the first season she represented México as part of the U-15 national soccer team, she was part of a squad that won a bronze medal at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
Alexia was captain of the Mexican national team when she led her players to a fifth-place finish in the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. Those games in Jordan were historic, as they represented the first major women’s soccer tournament held in the Middle East.
Starting in 2017, Alexia was part of the founding of Liga MX Femenil and a player for Club América. As part of the U-20 team, Alexia helped her team win gold at the 2018 CONCACAF Championship in Trinidad and Tobago.
Alexia made a name for herself and earned respect in the world of Mexican soccer. In Arizona, everything was different.
“When I came, I noticed that many people had this idea of, ‘You’re going to play college ball. Why not keep playing professionally, if it’s a better rhythm, a higher level?’ I think because of the simple fact that one’s collegiate and the other is professional, that automatically led people to assume that college (soccer) was not played at a high level.”
Faced with questions, Alexia explained to her fans and friends back home the benefits of playing college soccer.
“In my conference, I face players who currently have offers from the U.S. national team, or who have offers from the British team, players who are the best in their own countries,” she says. “That, obviously, makes the level of competition a lot higher.”
Alexia did not miss out with her decision to play for ASU’s team. Now she’s considered capable of playing alongside Olympic athletes and on an international stage.
At 5-foot-4, Alexia met a different kind of player in Arizona compared to México. Female soccer players were taller and had more athletic physiques, she says. But she didn’t let that intimidate her.
She focused on proving, through her technical skills kicking the ball and her strategies on the field, that she was an excellent competitor. But that took time.
“In my first year, things didn’t go well for me on the field. I knew that in the U.S., soccer is much more physical, faster,” she says. “I stand out because of my technique as a player, but I’m not really strong.”
So, she had to learn to play American-style soccer.
“In my second year, I grew as a player and adapted,” she says. “Before the preseason began, they called me into a meeting and told me they had selected me as team captain.”
Discipline, the key to Alexia’s success
In addition to being captain of the Sun Devils, she was also part of the México women’s national soccer team.
The triumphs did not come easy.
Alexia gave up the outings with friends and parties and vacations that are common for people her age, in favor of hours of training, discipline and consistency.
At first glance, Alexia comes across as an easygoing woman who prefers workout clothes and is dedicated to her studies. When she’s not on the field, looking intently toward the goal, she is known for her enormous smile, her success as a scholar-athlete and for representing the colors of her team — green, white and red for México, maroon and gold for ASU.
In her four seasons with the Sun Devils, Alexia scored six goals and had 11 assists. The midfielder’s best season came in her third year, when she led the team with seven assists, which also tied for second place in the Pac-12 Conference.
That 2020 season, which was actually played in the spring of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sun Devil captain played in all 17 of her college’s matches and was named to the United Soccer Coaches All-Pacific Region First Team. She also earned Pac-12 All-Conference Second Team honors.
Thanks to her skills as a soccer player, Alexia can afford an apartment, food and expenses in Tempe with her education scholarship support. She would not have been able to do so in México, where the salary of a professional soccer player is 8,500 pesos a month, the equivalent of $425.
Her parents, Sonia Alvarado and Francisco Javier Delgado, are proud of what their daughter has accomplished.
“We’re truly very happy because she’s achieving everything she wanted. And above all, her dreams have come true, and all the dreams we had for her,” Sonia said. “I say we because one of my priorities is that she would get an education in the United States and that dream came true.”
Alexia’s mom always pushed her to seek an education and stand out in the U.S. After seeing what her daughter has accomplished at such a young age, Sonia’s convinced that anyone can achieve their goals.
“All dreams can come true as long as there’s discipline,” she said. “My daughter is a very dedicated young woman. She knows what she wants.”
Soccer over ballet and gymnastics
As a child, Alexia abandoned ballet and gymnastics and placed her bets on soccer.
Her brother played a role in the decision. They played soccer together in their neighborhood. Although her parents were initially opposed to their daughter becoming a soccer player, her skills on the field with a ball made them change their minds and support Alexia’s pursuit of her chosen sport.
“At about 9 years old, she started to show she might have skills for soccer, all due to my oldest son who started playing with her,” Alexia’s dad, Francisco Javier said. “My son would invite her and then we saw that excited her more than other activities.”
Francisco Javier remembers trying to convince Alexia to try sports that are stereotypically geared toward young girls.
“We tried to get her into more feminine activities, like gymnastics and ballet, and she went because she felt she had to, to please us,” he said. “But she quickly left it all. She already wanted to play soccer.”
Alexia’s home in Nayarit did not offer any specialized training, so the teenager was limited to playing games with male athletes or players twice her age. Her parents decided to support her as a soccer player, and despite geographic obstacles, they sent their 14-year-old daughter to a soccer trainer center in the city of Guadalajara.
After arduous training, career ascents and moves across borders, Alexia has forged an impeccable soccer career at such a young age. She’s also developed her academic studies focused on sports management and organizational leadership.
“A few days ago, I spoke with the former technical director for (Club) América, Leonardo Cuellar. We established a good friendship when she played for América,” Francisco Javier said. “I told him about the title of her college degree and he immediately said, ‘That doesn’t surprise me, because Alexia is a very disciplined young woman, devoted and dedicated.’ She’s excellent, and that’s why she gets results.”
Alexia’s family came to Arizona in May to watch the ceremony at ASU for players celebrating their final season.
“She has succeeded in soccer, because she’s played in various world events, went to the Youth Olympic Games, she already has real experience,” Sonia said, quick to mention with a sure nod, “And she’s a very good student.”
That little girl who traded gymnastics and ballet for soccer, who had to convince her parents, start her training with male players because there weren’t teams for women, and travel far from her home and family in order to reach the professional ranks, shares the secret to her success.
“We tend to think of success as a straight line, but it isn’t,” Alexia says. “You are going to have very difficult days, when you don’t think you are making any progress or moving forward, but that’s part of the process.”
The athlete has some advice to share.
“Sometimes, to get better you have to take two steps back and gain more momentum to go on,” she says. “The consistency and the dedication to what you do is what will make you different from other people.”
Alexia has adjusted to her new life in Arizona, and in December, when she finishes her Master’s degree, her plan is to travel to Europe. Her dream is to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, the most prestigious European soccer tournament.
The midfielder is now competing with the Mexican national team to qualify for the 2023 World Cup. Playing soccer in the U.S., she only misses one thing about her country, and it’s not the tacos or her mother’s cooking.
Alexia misses the passion that Mexican soccer fans show in their cheers.
Here in the U.S., she’s never going to hear:
¡Chiquitibum ala bim bom ba
chiquitibum ala bim bom ba
ala bio ala bao ala bim bom ba
México México ra ra ra!
Translation by Nathalie Alonso