How Alyssa Thompson became a World Cup star in the making

Alyssa Thompson stands in a hallway with her foot on a soccer ball.

Only 18, Angel City forward Alyssa Thompson is part of a new wave of soccer players looking to carry the torch of dominance for the U.S. women’s national team.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Mario Thompson knew his oldest daughter, Alyssa, was special before she started third grade.

During an orientation for new students at the private Wesley School in North Hollywood, the 8-year-old was matched in a race against the fastest boy in the school. The reason for the race has been lost to time, but not the result: Alyssa smoked the kid.

“The biggest thing I remember is being surprised by how fast she was,” said Marquis Gallegos, who lost the race but went on to become a highly recruited safety who will play football at USC this fall.

“We all knew,” added Alex Smith, a grade-school teammate of Gallegos, “that she was a great athlete and would do great things.”

But it was another 10 years before Thompson really understood the depth of his daughter’s gift and the unique path she would have to blaze if that talent was to be fully realized. It would eventually lead her to turn pro before she’d graduated high school and be named to a World Cup roster less than a month after her senior prom.

“I make this comparison, being very respectful about it,” he said. “But this is like a Kobe, LeBron type of athlete, right? She has the potential to be great. She has the potential to be the best.”

Actually Alyssa Thompson has proven even more precocious than either Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. While James didn’t sign his first endorsement deal until two weeks before graduating high school, Thompson and her sister Gisele, a right back with the U-20 national team, partnered with Nike at 17 and 16, respectively. While Bryant and James didn’t declare for the NBA draft until after high school, Thompson still had a semester to go when Angel City selected her with the No. 1 overall pick in last winter’s NWSL draft. And she was months younger than either Bryant or James when she made her professional debut, scoring five minutes into her first Angel City game.

Thompson beat Bryant and James to the national team as well and will suit up for a World Cup match at 18 when the U.S. opens play in the month-long tournament Friday against Vietnam in Auckland, New Zealand. Only one other woman in American soccer history played in a World Cup at that age.

“Alyssa is absolutely the next generation. And she’s proving that she can hang with this generation as well,” said Alex Morgan, who leads the national team in appearances and goals. “It’s a pretty incredible six months at the age of 18.”

Incredible, yet something for which the Thompsons have long planned. In grade school, Alyssa and Gisele pasted pictures of themselves onto a poster of the 2015 national team they kept in the bedroom of their Studio City home, imagining themselves part of the roster.

The reality came far sooner than expected though. Last fall she was called into a national team training camp, then made her senior international debut, subbing in for Megan Rapinoe, a player she’d long idolized, in the final minutes of a loss to England before a crowd of 77,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium.

“What a turn of events in the last nine months,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “In October, she was playing youth soccer and now in July she will be on the biggest stage.”

That fall training camp and the 23 minutes she played off the bench in two games didn’t only change Andonovski’s mind, however. It changed the Thompsons’ thinking as well.

“When she got called up to that camp, it did speed up the process,” Mario Thompson said. “In her mind it was like ‘I’m good enough. I know I can make this team.’ But she knew to have a chance to make the World Cup team, she had to perform against women.”

Alyssa Thompson controls the ball during a friendly match between the U.S. and Wales on July 9.

Alyssa Thompson controls the ball during a friendly match between the U.S. and Wales on July 9.

(Lachlan Cunningham / USSF via Getty Images)

So that became the next step in a meticulous plan Mario Thompson seemed to be making up as he went along. Which he was. Since there had never been another girl like Alyssa — or sisters like her and Gisele, best friends who share a bedroom and a dream of soccer stardom — there was no map for the family to follow.

The plan had been high school graduation, a scholarship to Stanford and then the pros. But Alyssa quickly outgrew that. As principal of an elementary school in the hills above Encino, Mario Thompson knew that special students need to be challenged if they are to thrive. Shouldn’t special athletes be treated the same way?

“As an educator, how do we meet everyone’s needs? Everyone’s needs are different,” Mario Thompson, clad in shorts and a T-shirt, said on an early summer’s day in his principal’s office, where there are no visible mementos to the athletic achievements of his two oldest daughters. “Like in the classroom, this kid in kindergarten is reading chapter books. I have some kindergarteners that don’t even know their letters. So how do I meet their needs?

“For my daughter, for Alyssa, how do I meet her needs? How do we maximize her potential?”

The answer: challenge her.

So before Thompson had entered high school, she was playing in a league against girls four years her senior. And after she notched 48 goals and 17 assists in 18 games in her sophomore season at the Harvard-Westlake School, winning Gatorade national player of the year honors, her father pulled her off the team and sent his daughters to play against boys at the L.A.-based Total Futbol Academy, becoming the first girls to do so.

“Playing with the boys, it definitely prepared me to play with the pros,” said Thompson who, at 5-foot-4 and 108 pounds, is the smallest player on the World Cup team. “They’re really physical with me and if I had a bad touch, they’d be on me and just push me off the ball.”

She spent her summers with the Santa Clarita Blue Heat, a semipro team where she played alongside current World Cup teammates Ashley Sanchez and Savannah DeMelo, who were both at least six years older and in college.

“She was amazing,” said Blue Heat owner Carlos Marroquin, a former Guatemalan youth international player whose team still includes Gisele. “She wasn’t the same player as everyone else. She was different.”

Seated between her sisters, Gisele, left, and Zoe, Alyssa Thompson waits with anticipation.

Seated between her sisters, Gisele, left, and Zoe, Alyssa Thompson waits with anticipation before being selected first overall by Angel City FC in the 2023 NWSL draft.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

One thing that made her different was her relationship with her sister, who is 13 months younger but has already drawn the attention of French superclub Paris Saint-Germain. (The girls have a younger sibling, Zoe, who is 11.) While Alyssa and Gisele competed on the field, they were also best friends off it and that relationship drove them on the many afternoons when soccer practice felt more a job than a joy.

“My daughter, she does not eat, sleep and breathe soccer,” said Mario Thompson, 44, who has maintained the 5-7, 180-pound frame he had when he ran track and played football and basketball at Occidental College.

“It’s a unique dynamic where Alyssa and Gisele had each other. It wasn’t just Alyssa by herself. She always had a partner.”

With the World Cup looming that wouldn’t be enough though, so the family began exploring other options. Mario Thompson is Black and Filipino and his wife, Karen, an occupational therapist, is Italian and Peruvian, giving Alyssa her choice of four national teams to try out for. But she wanted to play for the top-ranked U.S., the four-time World Cup champions.

Leaving high school and turning pro, allowing Thompson to prove herself against women twice her age, was a better idea. Europe was one possibility, but when Angel City committed two draft picks and $450,000 in allocation money to a three-team trade that allowed it to make Thompson the No. 1 overall selection in the NWSL draft, she signed a three-year contract to stay at home.

That quickly proved to be a wise decision for both the Thompsons and the team. Not only did Thompson score five minutes into her first pro game, a friendly with Mexico’s Club América, but she got another goal 11 minutes into her NWSL debut against NJ/NY Gotham FC three weeks later. Each score was met the same way: with a combination of joy and surprise washing over Thompson’s round, expressive face and a celebration that ended with an exuberant hug for the closest teammate.

National team player Naomi Girma, who has trained with Thompson and competed against her in the NWSL, said Thompson, who plays primarily on the left wing, poses multiple problems because she’s an outstanding dribbler who isn’t afraid to shoot from tough angles. And then there’s her speed: Last year she clocked 11.69 seconds over 100 meters, making her the fourth-fastest girl in California — despite the fact she hated track.

“Alyssa Thompson is a very dynamic forward,” Girma said. “Something that stands out about her is her acceleration. So you don’t want to get to tight to be beat behind, but you also don’t want to stay too far back.”

Alyssa Thompson sprints with the ball during an international friendly against Wales on July 9.

Alyssa Thompson sprints with the ball during an international friendly against Wales on July 9.

(Lachlan Cunningham / USSF via Getty Images)

“She’s unpredictable,” Andonovski added. “Her creativity and the things that she does on the field are so hard to track because you never know what she’s going to do.”

Still a World Cup invitation seemed like a longshot until Mallory Swanson, the U.S. team’s leading scorer, tore the patella tendon in her left knee in an April friendly with Ireland. Thompson made her first start for the U.S. three days later. And while she feels for Swanson, who will miss the World Cup, she pushes back on the idea she backed onto the team.

“I am taking advantage of whatever comes my way,” she said. “I feel like I am good enough to be there.”

Carli Lloyd, a two-time world champion and two-time world player of the year who will be a studio analyst for Fox Sports at the World Cup, said Thompson’s skills and awareness belie her age.

“I have been super impressed with the variety of skillset and decision-making Alyssa has,” she said. “She has a high ceiling with her talent … but will she be able to block out all the noise and bounce back after challenges arise?”

United States midfielder Lindsey Horan, left, and Sophia Smith, center, celebrate.

2023 Women’s World Cup coverage

The biggest challenge could be public expectation, Lloyd warned.

“Let Alyssa be an 18-year-old pro player and enjoy her journey,” she said.

A unique journey charted by her father that, for the moment, has her speeding along the border separating childhood and adulthood, sometimes crossing the line on one side, sometimes careening back the other way. Thompson attended her high school prom, for example, but skipped graduation because her team had a game in Washington, D.C. And after being named to the World Cup roster, she pestered teammates about what she should pack, as if they were going to summer camp rather than on a business trip.

“Best phone call ever,” teammate Lindsay Horan, a World Cup veteran, said with a chuckle.

But it’s a journey she is drinking in. Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, an assistant coach with the World Cup team, said Thompson is constantly tagging along with teammates to get coffee or hanging back in the meal room to ask questions or just visit with the other women. Sahaydak, the only other 18-year-old to make a U.S. women’s World Cup team, said that’s a much different experience than she had in 1995.

“I had pictures of Mia Hamm in my binder from People magazine. And the next thing you know, I’m being asked to go into a training camp with her and Michelle Akers,” she said. “Everything happened so fast. I had to pinch myself often to realize I’m surrounded by the best players in the world.”

Sahaydak, 46, said she hasn’t yet shared her experiences with Thompson and isn’t even sure she knows her story. But, Sahaydak noted, there is a big difference between then and now: When Sahaydak left the national team training camp after her first call-up at age 16, she returned to her high school team in Concord, Calif., because there was no professional league for women.

So the Thompsons’ decision to continually challenge Alyssa to play at a higher level was the right one, Sahaydak said.

“The fact that she is playing with pros, already playing with women on a daily basis in preparation for his first World Cup is such a great advantage for her,” she said.

Alyssa Thompson looks up at a soccer ball while standing on a field.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Morgan, who made her national team debut 14 years ago to far less fanfare at the age of 20, looks at Thompson as a precious gem, one that must be polished and protected but never restrained. After all, she’s been exceeding expectations since that first race in the third grade, so while put limits on her now?

“You have to make sure that she feels like she’s learning and growing at the right rate and not at 1,000 miles an hour,” said Morgan, 34. “Because if you thrust her into this spotlight at such a young age, a lot comes with that. What was just second nature for you before, now you’re second-guessing.

“So I think for Alyssa, as much as possible, it’s allowing her to just be her rather than trying to shape her into something that she’s not right now. She’s 18. She’s a teenager.”