For any player seeking to maximize their potential, finding the right environment is crucial.
That led two of the best young female players in the United States to what is traditionally a boys club. And the move came to pass pretty much by chance.
Sisters Alyssa and Gisele Thompson play for Total Futbol Academy of MLS Next, one of several prominent clubs in Southern California. That helped propel the duo to impressive levels on the field this year: Alyssa, 18, was a key player for the U.S. Under-20 team, and made her USWNT senior squad debut in September during a pair of European friendlies. Gisele, 16, was a regular for the U.S. Under-17 squad in 2022, playing at the Concacaf Women's U-17 Championship and the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in India.
A massive challenge
“The experience that we’ve had on the team from the start has been very good. The boys have been very welcoming and obviously, as time progressed, they trusted us more,” Alyssa Thompson told MLSsoccer.com. “They’ve really helped us become the players we are today.”
It’s not rare for top female players to train with boys teams. The Thompson sisters both played at Total Football Academy for a few years starting at the U-9 level and staying with the team for a few years. Eventually, the pair moved to Real So Cal to play in the Girls Development Academy.
The return to TFA spawned from simply looking for a training opportunity. After California started to relax COVID restrictions in 2020, the duo was looking for the right environment. They started training with TFA, taking part in the club’s tryouts. After impressing TFA technical director Mario Gonzalez, it was suggested that they could join the team.
“Is it just training? Or are you guys actually looking for a home?” Gonzalez recalled asking the Thompson family. “And then they said ‘Look, we weren't really looking for a home, but if you think they're good enough to play and you will consider both of them and treat them fair and equal, then we’ll consider.’
“And I said ‘Absolutely, you know. Why not? Let's do it.’ And we did.”
Bringing the Thompson sisters on the team was not without its challenges. It required an adjustment from everyone: Gonzalez, as the coach, had only managed boys. It was new for their teammates and opponents. But he said that along with being talented enough to thrive in the environment, both sisters were extremely coachable and hard workers.
Playing competitive games brought with it the need to adapt mentally. Gonzalez recalled hearing whispers from opposing players and parents about playing against girls. And according to the younger Thompson sister, it remains a challenge.
“One thing that is difficult about playing with boys is that you always have to prove yourself on the field because a lot of boys don’t think you can do it,” Gisele said. “A lot of parents see this and don’t think it’s possible or just think it’s crazy to see girls playing with boys at such an older age because a lot of them are men already or growing into that.”
Between the lines, it’s easy to see why the players stand out – no matter the opposition. Gisele features mainly as an outside back, usually on the right. Playing for the U16 team, she bombs up and down the field, locking down the opposing attacks. Their improvement has been rapid since joining TFA.
“In Gisele’s case [she’s improved] how she builds out, how she plays out of the back when she plays out of the back, functional movement, getting forward to create, overload or create numerical situations that favor us,” Gonzalez said.
Alyssa arrived at the club after mainly featuring as an out-and-out striker. She was dominant playing against peers in 2020-21, being named the Girls High School National Player of the Year by Gatorade after scoring 48 goals at Harvard-Westlake. Her speed and technical ability allowed her to get in behind or dust past defenders. She was regularly called up to full U.S. youth national team camps, and committed to collegiate powerhouse Stanford.
Joining TFA required a positional adaptation.
“I had to change her role from a nine to like a 7/11, like a wide player, mostly because of the physicality,” Gonzalez said. “So it was a bit of a transition for her. Again, she adapted and even though that year, she didn't score an official goal, I think she probably had five or six assists. To me, playing at that level against guys in MLS [NEXT], competing with the best, she demonstrated that she had that capacity. And this year right now, I think she already has two or three goals.”
According to Alyssa, the pace on the field helps her improve.
“It’s an amazing experience for us,” she said. “The speed of play is very fast [and] your first touch needs to be perfect."
TFA’s environment laid the platform for a very successful calendar year for both. First Alyssa helped the U.S. Under-20 side win the Concacaf Championship, securing qualification for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup. Before that tournament in August, she was called into the Under-23s, heading for a trip to Europe for a pair of friendlies. She eventually played with the U-20 World Cup team as well, where the U.S. didn't advance out of the group stage.
Gisele, after recovering from an injury earlier this year, was part of the Under-17 team that also won the Concacaf Championship. The outside back played at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in India, starting all four games.
In October, Alyssa earned her first call-up to the full team for a pair of friendlies against England and Spain. After doing well in training, she earned her first two caps off the bench, including playing in front of a crowd of 80,000 at Wembley Stadium.
“It was just surreal,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t really process it until I got back home and I was like I really played with those players that I’ve been watching my whole life. They have been what I have been trying to get to my whole life, and just being able to play with them was amazing and getting to learn from them and see what they do to recover, just what they eat, how they carry themselves as a leader and stuff like that.”
Alyssa is back with the USWNT for its final two games of the year, a pair of friendlies against Germany on Nov. 10 and 13. Once that is done, she will return to train with TFA, alongside Gisele, while resuming MLS NEXT play. The MLS NEXT Fest event in December looms.