The United States and Mexico met for the last of two international friendlies in Houston this past weekend. Two Chicago Red Stars players lined up on opposite sides of the pitch— Cristina Murillo for Mexico, and Sofia Huerta for the USA.
Sofia Huerta is the veteran of the two players having been with the Red Stars since 2015 and a part of Chicago’s core players. Cristina Murillo is a new edition to the Red Stars organization, currently under contract and playing with Reserves. Both players saw time in Sunday’s match on the back line for USA and Mexico.
We caught up with them in Houston to talk about their experiences playing for club and countries.
After the USA’s 6-2 win over Mexico, Huerta reflected on the special significance of playing in the game and contributing to the win.
“I really didn’t know if I would be getting in today,” Huerta said. “My goal was just to keep possession and make sure I did my defensive responsibilities. I was really happy to get on the field today, especially since it [was] against Mexico. It kind of speaks to me a little bit and it means a lot to me. So, it was exciting to get on, and I’m glad I got [to] contribute a little bit to the win”
Always tremendously honored and humbled to play for the United States , but it was even more special to do so against Mexico . Amo a mis paises!— Sofia Huerta (@schuerta) April 8, 2018
During her time in Chicago and in the NWSL, Huerta has been known for her goalscoring prowess as a forward. She has spent time in US National Team camps since last July and has been listed as a defender in camps while learning a new position at outside back.
On her national team experience to date:
“You’re playing with the best players in the world, especially in [this] country. So, I’m always getting better. I’m learning from them in and through every aspect on and off the field. Since I have to learn a little bit of a new position, it’s helped me immensely because when I’m with the Red Stars I don’t play outside back. So, I have to really learn that when I’m here and on my own - like watching film and just learning from my mistakes. So, it’s obviously been a transition but they really make it easy.”
A Unique Position
Through the transition, Huerta has remained committed to learning a new position while playing the familiar roles asked of her in Chicago.
The competitive environment of National Team camps have allowed her to build confidence, something she’s taken back with her to Red Stars training.
“It’s a really tough environment to make and it’s a tough environment to be successful in but they really do help me be successful,” Huerta explained. “[The coaching staff] set you up as well as they possibly could. So, practicing with these girls day in and day out has been great and it does let me have a little more confidence when I go to my club team.”
The Red Stars only have a short preseason and two regular season games checked off the calendar at the moment, but Huerta acknowledges the difference in club coaching and is eager to get back into routine.
“I think anytime you add more people to a team it helps, because its new voices and other opinions and it’s better. It’s been great. They’ve really been a good contribution to the Red Stars and I’m excited to continue learning from them.”
The Chicago Red Stars find themselves facing challenges early in the season with multiple players out due to injuries and National Team duties. Regular starters Casey Short, Julie Ertz, and Vanessa DiBernardo (among others) have been listed with injuries over the last few weeks.
The predicament has seen Chicago experimenting with player rotations that will likely be changed up week to week until key players are back in form. In that respect, it’s not difficult to imagine that could include rotating player positions as well. We have already seen Arin Gilliland moved from the back line to the front as a forward option for Chicago against Portland.
While it remains to be seen if Huerta will find herself getting reps at outside back for Chicago, her commitment to the Red Stars during this challenging time with injuries and players on National Team duty is one that exemplifies a team first mentality.
“Right now [we’re] suffering from a lot of injuries and people need to go places that they’re not used to being, and that’s totally ok with me,” she elaborated, “The team means everything to me and I will play wherever the team needs me.”
The Long Way ‘Round
While Mexico walked away from these friendlies with two losses, Cristina Murillo is looking to build on these games and is eager to get started with the Red Stars Reserves.
A California native, Murillo has been with Mexico’s senior team since her college days with the University of Michigan. Along with being a member of the 2015 All Big Ten First Team, she has competed in the 2015 World Cup and is a Pan-American Bronze medalist.
Last fall, Murillo found herself in Lithuania competing in Champions League. However, she felt the environment wasn’t helping her reach the next level of her career, and was looking for a change.
“I was in Lithuania playing in the Champions League, I didn’t get the best training and I’ve always felt like as a player,” Murillo explained. “I’ve always been good technically but never quite had the speed of the top players. NWSL is probably one of the fastest leagues in the world and [with] Chicago I heard a lot of good things about Rory [Dames] and that he develops players.”
The former Michigan Wolverine went to Chicago for open tryouts with an open mind. Sometimes the best intentions don’t always play out, as Murillo came down with food poisoning right before her tryout session.
“I went to the open tryouts and actually got food poisoning during the tryouts. I got food poisoning on my birthday! I didn’t eat for three days. So, I didn’t eat during the tryouts. Rory talked to me - because obviously I wasn’t doing that well - but he was just like, ‘you can come to preseason, and see how you go’ So, obviously I was like this is an incredible opportunity and I get to train with some of the best players in the world.”
Murillo intends to make the best of her opportunity while in Chicago and is still keeping that open mind.
“In my end meeting, [Dames] ended up saying ‘you were a lot better than what we thought.’ There’s nothing better that you can hear from a coach, and he said, ‘we have complete support behind you,’ and I’m not expecting a roster spot anytime soon. But the fact that I can train with these players, like Sam Kerr, like Julie Ertz, that’s incredible.”
The short time Murillo has spent with the Red Stars has already added to her game, according to her and Mexico head coach Robert Medina.
“My coach here [Medina] has already seen a difference in the speed of play, it [NWSL training] helped,” Murillo said. “Normally, I’m not a good player to come on as a sub, but I came on as a sub [first] game, and I was able to keep up with the pace and I think that’s completely thanks to the Chicago Red Stars.”
Chicago’s first team is a difficult one to break into as they have cultivated and retained talent over the years. 16 players from the 2017 roster are back in 2018, but Murillo understands her role and the opportunity presented to her.
“I’m always ready to train or play with the first team in one of the games,” Murillo said. “If they ask me any time I’m going to sign and go that week. Hopefully, I’m crossing my fingers. Nothing is guaranteed. Again, just training with them, I know I keep saying it, but just, its been an incredible experience. All the girls have been so welcoming. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to train in.”