North Carolina Courage forward Diana Ordóñez has enjoyed a prolific rookie season in the NWSL. In August, she broke the previous NWSL record (7) for most goals scored in a rookie season. With four additional tallies since, the 21-year-old currently sits fourth in the Golden Boot standings behind Alex Morgan (15), Courage teammate Debinha (12), Sophia Smith (12).
Ahead of the end of the regular season, On Her Turf caught up with Ordóñez about her start in soccer, her transition to the NWSL, playing with the Mexican national team, and the meaning behind her sleeve of tattoos.
This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On Her Turf: I always describe myself as a timeline person so I’d love to begin with your start in soccer. I read that you’re the youngest of five siblings so I am especially curious about how your family influenced your early years in the sport?
Diana Ordóñez: So yes, I’m the youngest of five. I have two older brothers who played soccer for as long as I can remember. My dad played soccer his whole life, too, up until the semi pro level. And growing up, I just always wanted to be around my brothers and do what they were doing.
When I was about five years old, we moved to Dallas, Texas… I was super young so it wasn’t like (I was playing soccer) very seriously. But my parents kind of quickly realized that the soccer scene in Dallas is pretty serious and so they wanted to get me to the right place and the right team. We found FC Dallas, which was a huge blessing to me.
(Initially) I was playing for one team with a 2001 age cutoff, but then the cutoff dates were different for different divisions. And so when they moved from one division to another division, I wasn’t allowed to play with that team anymore. I was really upset about it, but I was also still really young. That’s when I met Matt Grubb, who ended up being my coach at FC Dallas for the next nine years, up until I went to college. He’s someone that I had a really, really great relationship with — and still do. I owe him a lot of credit for the player that he made me into and the team that he was able to build.
And then I went on to play at Virginia for three years and then I got drafted last December and now I’m here with the Courage.
On Her Turf: Given that women’s professional soccer in the U.S. hasn’t always existed during your lifetime, I’m curious when you 1) realized that there were women playing pro soccer and 2) that became a goal for you personally?
Ordóñez: When I was younger, because the (women’s) leagues weren’t so prominent, I didn’t really know that it was an option. I was always watching men’s games and looking up to a lot of male players. But it was just something I always said to myself anyway, like, ‘Oh, when I grow up, I want to be a professional soccer player.’ I just didn’t know how it was gonna work.
When I got into high school and started getting recruited, it seemed more possible. (The NWSL) started becoming more prominent and the U.S. national team was so dominant. That was a team I looked up to and watched a lot. So it’s been a dream for a while, but it became more of a reality once I got to high school and college.
On Her Turf: You obviously had a really successful collegiate career at Virginia. Could walk me through your decision to graduate after just three years and declare for the NWSL draft?
Ordóñez: Yeah, my time at UVA was incredible. I definitely feel like God led me there. It was really hard at first to move halfway across the country because I’m a really big homebody… It was just a leap of faith.
I actually graduated high school a semester early as well. And so I went to UVA in the spring, which is something that I think really helped me develop and have the time to make my way onto the team, get acquainted with everybody, and find my footing without having to jump right into the season… So even though it was really hard to go there — let alone when I was 17 and a semester early — it was definitely worth it and is something that I would highly recommend to anybody who’s thinking about it.
But yeah, my time at UVA felt really, really short and went by really quickly, especially with the pandemic. But it was still an incredible time for me… All of the coaches that were there were really really good to me. They’re really focused on the development of their players.
Making that decision to go from the college level to pro — especially at a young age — definitely wasn’t easy. It was something that took a lot of conversation and a lot of prayer with my family. I’m really appreciative that Steve (Swanson), UVA’s head coach, was very, very honest with me. He told me, ‘You know, there are parts of your game that aren’t ready to play at the professional level, but there are parts of your game that are.’ I listened to him, I considered all the things that he had to say, and I’m very appreciative of his honesty with me.
Getting my degree was something that was also really important to me. If I hadn’t been able to graduate (in three years), I wouldn’t have left early. So just being able to get my degree, feel like I was in a good place soccer-wise, it all just kind of lined up and felt like the best decision.
On Her Turf: Given that the NWSL season was already in full swing, were you able to attend your college graduation ceremony this spring?
Ordóñez: Yes, luckily I was able to go to my graduation. That was something I was super, super grateful to (Courage head coach) Sean (Nahas) for; he understood that it was a really big deal for me and something that deserved to be celebrated and experienced. We actually had a game the day after so I literally drove to Virginia from Raleigh, graduated, and came back and played a game the next day.
On Her Turf: It seems like you made the leap from college soccer to the NWSL pretty seamlessly! Is pro soccer what you expected or have there been a lot of surprises along the way?
Ordóñez: It’s little bit of everything, like you said. Some things went as expected, some things were definitely a surprise.
The goal for me when I got drafted was that I wanted to play. I’m not the type of player that’s, like, ‘Oh, I want to make the roster, I want to travel.’ The goal for me will always be to play, no matter what level I’m at. Something that helped me a lot is that the veterans really took me in and helped me out, as they did with a lot of the other rookies. I’m very grateful for that because, you know, it’s so easy to just write people off, especially rookies.
I’m also super grateful to Sean (Nahas) for just giving me a chance. I know there’s a lot of places that don’t really take a chance on their rookies and I think he made it a very fair opportunity for me to show what I can do and prove that I belong on the field… The team was also brand new, so I felt very lucky that they chose me to be a part of the group. I know it’s a rebuilding year — or at least that’s what people thought it was going to be considering how many people they lost from last season to this one.
Coming into the season and winning the Challenge Cup — when everyone thought we were just going to be rebuilding and not be very competitive team — was a really cool first experience in the league and lifting a trophy that was really nice. I know that’s not always the reality, but yeah, my transition here has been really, really smooth.
On Her Turf: I know there are a lot of NWSL playoff scenarios at this point and, honestly, my head hurts whenever I try to think through the different outcomes. Heading into the end of the regular season, what is the Courage focused on?
Ordóñez: We got ourselves out of a very, very tough position, one that we put ourselves in at the beginning of the season (going 2-4-6 in the first 12 games and being in last place in mid-August). I think the response from the team this half of the season has been nothing short of extremely impressive. Everyone’s really bought in and wants to give ourselves the best chance to make the playoffs… At this point, we’re just worried about controlling what we can control.
On Her Turf: I covered the NWSL Players’ Association when they were negotiating for the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) so it strikes me that, as a rookie, you never played in the league without a CBA. I’m curious what the CBA means to you? Or maybe you don’t have a great sense of that, given that you never experienced the NWSL without it?
Ordóñez: Yeah, I’m very lucky that I don’t know any different. I just give a huge round of applause and so much credit to the players and the people that make up the (Players Association). How much they just fought for what we deserve and what they have deserved for a long time. I mean, there are people that have been in this league 10 years, since when it first started, and the wages that they were making were not nearly enough to live a comfortable life. All at the expense of living out your dream, which is just so unfortunate.
So I feel very blessed to have come into the league at such a prominent time when it’s really just on the rise and players are speaking up for what they deserve. I didn’t really have to do much… I just kind of got drafted and there was a CBA. But that doesn’t mean what they’ve done has gone unnoticed. I’m just super grateful for the PA and the team representatives and the people who were truly not going to stop until they got what they wanted and deserved.
On Her Turf: I also wanted to get your thoughts on playing with the Mexican National team. I’m sure there was a lot of disappointment this summer (given the team’s performance at the Concacaf W Championship). Looking ahead, what are your goals on the international side of things?
Ordóñez: Yeah, like you said, it was very, very disappointing coming off the CONCACAF tournament this summer. Obviously the goal on any national team is to play in a World Cup, play in the Olympics, and you need to qualify to do those things. So yeah, there was a lot of disappointment.
But I also do believe that everything happens for a reason and I think a lot of change needed to take place. And I think without those results, that wouldn’t have happened… Mexico is kind of coming into a new age and we just needed something new to come in and change the dynamic of how we were functioning because clearly, with the results of that tournament, it wasn’t working.
I do believe there’s a lot of talented Mexican players. I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. I don’t think that’s our issue. I just think we just need to get the right people together. And this is a time for us to just rally and start from scratch and I think that’s kind of a blessing in disguise.
Next time around, we’ll be much more prepared and better suited to to really compete and hopefully go to a World Cup.
On Her Turf: Finally, I love the tattoos on your left arm. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about what they all represent?
Ordóñez: So starting at the top… The one on my shoulder is for my parents. It’s their birth years: 1967 and 77. I’ve always been really into tattoos, ever since I was little, and I always knew I wanted to get a tattoo for my parents. They’re really, really important to me.
Working your way down from there, I have a lot of tattoos that represent my faith. I’m a very religious person and very much trusting God and His plan. I believe that His strength is what helps me every day and it’s just what helped me get to this point to live out my dreams and everything. So I have a dove that’s representative of when Jesus was baptized. I have a Bible verse, I have a cross, and then above that I have ‘Run your race,’ which is something that I’ve been meditating on for a while. It’s from the Book of Hebrews and is (about) just staying in your lane. Focus on you and don’t get distracted by what other people have going on… Just knowing that your journey is not the same as anybody else’s.
And then I have a dahlia, which is the national flower of Mexico. That was something that I had wanted to get for a while, just to represent my heritage and where I come from. So yeah, that’s kind of a quick rundown… But I appreciate you asking about them, most people don’t really ask that.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC