Q+A: Alex Loera on journey to Kansas City, 2022 NWSL Championship

Soccer player Alex Loera kicks the ball during a Kansas City Current NWSL game
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Q&A: Lo’eau LaBonta on KC’s success, iconic cellies and persevering through NWSL turmoil

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Li Li Leung talks USA Gymnastics’ cultural transformation, challenges still to come and embracing her AAPI heritage

Head of USA Gymnastics Li Li Leung.
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Li Li Leung joined USA Gymnastics as president and CEO in March 2019, when the organization was reeling from the fallout of Larry Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse and the subsequent revelations of larger cultural issues within the sport. Since then, Leung has seen USAG through an ongoing transformation, one that hinges on the work of the survivors and staff around her, whom she is quick to credit. That evolution, as she calls it, has included instituting new norms and standards at all levels of the sport, particularly in matters related to athlete safety.

Among the notable USAG initiatives that Leung has brought to fruition is the Athlete Bill of Rights, established in December 2020 as a tool “to unite the full gymnastics community around a shared vision of behavioral expectations.” At the same time, USAG instituted a protest policy for national team members aimed at supporting athletes who choose to use their voice on public platforms. Both initiatives were among the first of their kind in sport.

Prior to joining USAG, Leung served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building and managing key partner relationships around the world. She continues to use that experience in her roles as vice chair of the National Governing Bodies Council of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s Executive Committee.

Leung, who began competing in gymnastics at age 7, was a member of the U.S. junior national training team and represented the U.S. at the 1988 Junior Pan American Games. She was a four-year member of the four-time Big 10 champion University of Michigan gymnastics team and was an NCAA Championships participant.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, On Her Turf sat down with Leung to talk about her journey with USAG, the challenges still to come and how being a member of the AAPI community has shaped the person she is today.

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This Q+A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Let’s start by talking about your journey since joining USA Gymnastics in 2019. What have the last four years been like for you?

Li Li Leung: This was just an incredible opportunity to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. And I really mean that because I started in the sport when I was 7 years old and did it for 15 years. It’s taught me all of these different skills that I apply to my daily life, both professional and personal. It feels a little bit like I’ve come full circle, and honestly, never in a million years did I think I would find myself in this role. … I joined at a time when it was a tumultuous time for the organization. It’s been just a little a little over four years now, and it has been an incredible journey — and believe it or not, I have enjoyed it. While it hasn’t been easy, I actually have enjoyed it, because I’ve been able to make it not just me. One thing that’s important to note is that — I had even said on my first interview with the board — it will take a village to accomplish what we need to accomplish. This is not a one-person job. And I was lucky enough to be able to bring on a leadership team that has been incredible, and also retain the staff that we have retained, as well as hire other new staff members. And it’s because of them and some really key volunteers that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do.

OHT: Can you talk a little more about this cultural transformation that the organization has experienced and your approach to tackling this all-encompassing change?

Leung: When I was interviewing for the position, I actually met every single board member. It was really critical to both sides that they felt that I matched the role and their needs and also I had to be confident in the board believing in the ultimate mission of the organization and what we wanted to achieve. So that the culture really does stem from the well – from the top down and everything in between as well. And when I was looking for leadership team, … one of the characteristics I was really looking for was they couldn’t have an ego. The job couldn’t be about themselves or about what they would personally get out of the role. It had to be about them believing in the bigger picture and believing in what we collectively wanted to achieve. I knew that we would only be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish if people were willing to roll up their sleeves and just do whatever needed to be done, so that was one of the key things in terms of having no ego.

Since 2018, we’ve turned over more than 70 percent of our staff. We’ve been able to retain the really key members of our staff, who have been critical to our success, but also have been able to really bring in new thinking, new blood, new perspectives. Because the other thing I was looking for when I was hiring for the leadership team was diversity in perspectives. That was critical because I did not want to be surrounded by “yes people.” I wanted to be surrounded by people who would be willing to have really robust conversations and engage in difficult conversations, because ultimately, you end up in a better place because of that.

In 2020, we reset our mission to be about building a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, with athletes who thrive in sport and in life. So we were no longer about developing technically superior gymnasts who perform well in gym. We reset our focus to be about helping set our athletes up for success with the skill sets that you learn in gymnastics, and when we come to the office each day, that’s what we’re thinking about. …

The other piece is we also know from a community standpoint that our national team coaches are the most visible representation (of USAG), and a lot of coaches model them. So we’ve been working really hard in terms of working on educating our national team coaches. We work with Positive Coaching Alliance to do educational training with them as well. And we also have introduced training specifically for young coaches coming in, because we know when they come in and they’re new, that they’re eager to learn, and that’s when you can start training and moving them in a way. So our thinking is with this top-down and bottom-up strategy, eventually the middle will meet.

OHT: You noted how the coaches can be some of the most visible representatives of USAG. Regarding the addition of 2008 Olympic silver medalists Chellsie Memmel (USAG technical lead) and Alicia Sacramone Quinn (USAG strategic lead), how have those women impacted the program?

Leung: The addition of Chellsie and Alicia has been fantastic. They have been phenomenal to work with, and the fact that they have firsthand experience of having gone through it themselves – that also gives them a very good idea of what they would change and what they wouldn’t change, at the same time. It has been a phenomenal addition to be able to have this perspective of firsthand, high-level, high-performing athletes to be able to lead our high-performance team. And the athletes are saying it as well. They’re saying, “We trust them; we feel confident in their decisions; we can relate to them” — all of those things that historically haven’t really happened before.

Then in terms of the athletes who are going to college and coming back to compete with USA Gymnastics – there are so many aspects that I think are great about this. One: It’s showing a lengthened career in a sport that historically has not been very long because it’s so demanding on the body. So that means that our athletes are physically healthier, as well, that they can train and compete at a high level for a longer period of time. It also means that they’re enjoying it more because they’re staying in the sport. From an emotional standpoint, they’re finding a lot more joy in the sport, and they’re talking about it, too. And we love the fact that they’re talking about it. We want them to talk about it, and we want them to have voices and feel open and free about sharing what they’re thinking about. I have to say I’ve been really enjoying seeing almost like — I’m not sure if I can go as far as a new era in the sport maybe — but just this evolution of the sport and the athletes changing in front of my eyes.

OHT: What do you consider now to still be the biggest challenge or obstacle for USAG?

Leung: There are a couple of big initiatives on the list. One is we want to build a training and wellness center where all of our disciplines will train under one roof. This is a long-term project, obviously, but my vision around it is that it will be the heart and hub of gymnastics in America. And while this is where national team athletes will ultimately train to some extent, it is going to be a welcoming place for athletes of all different disciplines and all different levels. We want it to be a place where young athletes can come through and see their role models training. We want this to be a place of education for our community and judges. We want to be able to run clinics there for all different levels. We just want this to be a gathering place of gymnastics and to be able to celebrate the sport there at the same time.

We’re also going to reset our foundation. There’s been the National Gymnastics Foundation, but we are going to reset it and basically be much more proactive on fundraising and development to grow the sport and also to raise more money for athletes in their training.

OHT: Turning to AAPI Heritage Month and being named to the 2023 Gold House A100 List (the A100 is named each May honoring 100 Asian Pacific leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year). What did that honor mean to you?

Leung: It was such an incredible honor to be recognized by them, and my fellow honorees — when I read the list, I thought to myself, “I don’t belong.” There are some incredible names on that list. But again, I go back to what I said earlier: I owe this honor to a lot of the other people who work [at USAG]. I think the really important thing to recognize is that this was not done by just me. It was done by a lot of other people who are on staff and who aren’t getting the accolades or the recognition. But it was an incredible experience to be, and I’m very, very touched and honored to be on that list.

OHT: How do you identify within the Asian American Pacific Islander community? Did you embrace your heritage growing up and how has that shaped who you are today?

Leung: So I’ll tell you a story that I’ve mentioned to other people recently. I grew up in a town called Ridgewood in Bergen County, New Jersey, and most of my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. When I was growing up, I wanted the name “Nancy Smith,” and I wanted blue eyes. I wanted to fit in. As a kid, you always want to fit in. Then when you get older and wizen up a little bit, you realize that it’s okay and it’s good to be different, that you can use that to your advantage. And so upon growing up, I realized that it’s pretty special to be Asian American and there are benefits to being Asian American, and you should embrace the fact that you are different. In fact, I recently lectured to a women-in-sports-business class, and one of the questions they asked me was about impostor syndrome. I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now, which is absolutely embrace who you are. Absolutely embrace your differences, because those ultimately are embedded advantages to who you are and make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. So that’s my philosophy now.

OHT: Do you or your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Leung: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a tradition, but in the Chinese culture, food is really important. Food is what brings people together. It’s a sign of respect, and that is the ultimate unifying language in a way. So when we do get together as a family, it’s really important for us to get together around a meal, because that’s when we share our stories. That’s when we connect with one another.

OHT: You might have just answered my next question, but I want to ask: What brings you joy about your heritage and culture?

Leung: It’s funny, I was actually at a conference last week and you were supposed to find someone you didn’t know in the conference and share a secret talent that you have. I shared that I can eat a lot more than most people think. Food is a really important part of our culture and in my upbringing and family.

OHT: Lastly, I wanted to ask, as we’ve seen an increase in hate-filled actions toward the AAPI community, what does supporting the AAPI community look like for you?

Leung: Well, I think kind of going back to my other answer, it’s just about embracing who you are and embracing your differences. I think part of it is being unafraid of it at the same time, which I know is really difficult. But if you’re going to truly embrace it, and then you can’t be afraid about embracing it at the same time.

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2023 Mizuho Americas Open: How to watch, who’s playing in inaugural LPGA event at Liberty National GC

Pajaree Anannarukarn of Thailand tees off on the eleventh hole during Day One of the HSBC Women's World Championship.
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The Statue of Liberty is the backdrop for this week’s inaugural Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The tournament boasts a theme of mentorship and education, and includes a girls’ 72-hole, modified Stableford tournament featuring 24 juniors to go along with the 72-hole stroke-play event for 120 LPGA professionals.

The field is led by seven of the top 10 players on the Rolex Rankings including world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Lydia Ko, No. 4 Lilia Vu and No. 5 Minjee Lee. Also teeing it up this week are the finalists from Sunday’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play, where Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn captured her second LPGA title with a 3-and-1 victory over Japan’s Ayaka Furue.

Michelle Wie West is serving as the tournament host, and she’ll be on hand to welcome fellow Stanford alum Rose Zhang, who’s fresh off her second straight NCAA individual title and turned professional just last week. Zhang will have her first go at an LPGA prize purse, which tops out at $2.75 million this week with the winner taking home $412,500.

How to watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open

You can watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open on Golf Channel, Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, June 1: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Friday, June 2: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Saturday, June 3: 5-8 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Sunday, June 4: 4:30-5 p.m. ET (streaming only on Peacock); 5-7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock

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Who’s playing in the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open?

The 120-player field features seven of the top 10 players (and 16 of the top 25 player) on the Rolex Rankings:

  • No. 1 Jin Young Ko
  • No. 3 Lydia Ko
  • No. 4 Lilia Vu
  • No. 5 Minjee Lee
  • No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 8 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 9 Georgia Hall

Also in the field are 2023 winners Celine Boutier (LPGA Drive On Championship), Ruoning Yin (DIO Implant LA Open) and Grace Kim (LOTTE Championship), plus several sponsor exemptions including reigning NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang and her Stanford teammate Megha Ganne. Ganne, a native of Holmdel, N.J., finished T-21 at the recent NCAAs and is playing as an amateur. Joining them as an exemption is fellow Cardinal Mariah Stackhouse, who has conditional status on tour in 2023. Monday qualifiers include tour rookie Alexa Pano and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith.

Among the notable juniors expected to play are 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur winner Anna Davis, 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner Yana Wilson and 2022 U.S. Junior Girls’ runnerup Gianna Clemente. The 24 junior players were invited through their standings in the Rolex AJGA Rankings.

What’s the format for the Mizuho Americas Open?

The professionals will play a 72-hole stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 50 and ties after 36 holes. The 24 juniors will play a 72-hole, no-cut competition using the modified Stableford scoring format and a different yardage than the pros.

During the first two rounds, the AJGA players will all be paired together. During the final two rounds, one junior player will play with two LPGA pros with groupings based on scores. This unique format marks the first time the AJGA and LPGA have partnered to showcase junior and professional competitors playing together.

Stableford scoring refresher: “Stableford” is a scoring system that awards points for the number of strokes taken on each hole in relation to par, rather than simply counting strokes like in stroke play. Unlike in stroke play, where players want the lowest score, the goal in Stableford scoring is to have the highest score. Standard Stableford points values are:

  • 0 Points – Double bogey or worse (two strokes or more over par)
  • 1 Point – Bogey (one stroke over par)
  • 2 Points – Par
  • 3 Points – Birdie (one stroke under par)
  • 4 Points – Eagle (two strokes under par)
  • 5 Points – Albatross or double eagle (three strokes under par)
  • 6 Points – Condor (four strokes under par)

More about Liberty National Golf Club

Located on the shore of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, Liberty National Golf Club was designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite and officially opened on July 4, 2006. After the course received mixed reviews following the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust in 2009, the course underwent a renovation led by Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services. Of note, the course hosted an event during the PGA Tour Playoffs four times (2009, 2013, 2019 and 2021) as well as the 2017 Presidents Cup, where the U.S. defeated the Internationals 19-11 for the Americans’ seventh consecutive victory in the competition and its 10th straight win overall. For this week’s event, the course will play to a par of 72 with an unofficial scorecard yardage of 6,671 yards.

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