When Amirah Ali was two years old, she decided she wanted to play soccer. She wanted to play so badly, that she took matters into her own hands and sprinted out onto the field during her older brother’s game. “That’s what sticks out to me, just wanting to be out on the field ever since I was two years old,” Ali told Jersey Sporting News. Her parents quickly ran out to catch the tiny pitch invader, but this tale eventually became Ali’s own personal soccer origin story.
Just a couple of years later, Ali started playing in her own games. It wasn’t until she was around eight years old that Ali realized she wanted to pursue soccer - and her first goal was playing collegiately. “At around eight or nine, I had a dream of playing college soccer,” she said. “I didn’t even think about the pros at the time!” Ali was able to realize her dreams of playing collegiate soccer at Rutgers University where she just completed her fifth year of eligibility.
A New Jersey Journey
To get her to this goal, Ali played as much soccer as she could. In addition to club soccer, she played all four years with Eastern Regional High School. When it got cold in the northeast, she would play futsal. The indoor sport allowed her to hone her skills with the ball at her feet. “Training with futsal definitely had a big impact on my game and my development,” Ali said, explaining how she was able to transfer the technical skills she used in futsal to her gameplay on the soccer pitch.
As a child, Ali played for the Winslow Tigers, a travel team in south Jersey. She credits much of her success to her experience with this club in particular. Coached by Ritch King, father of current NWSL player for OL Reign Tziarra King, Ali learned what it would take to achieve her goals. “That team was predominantly made up of young Black women, and it was really cool to play with people who looked like me,” Ali said. “Coach King put it in our heads that we could do anything we put our minds to, and I still have that same mindset today.”
Ali took this mindset with her when she joined Rutgers University as a freshman in 2017. For the Voorhees, New Jersey native, it was an easy decision to stay close to home for her college career. She wanted her family to come and see her play, and she felt confident in the coaching staff at the university. “They really care about their players,” she explained. “I also knew a lot of former players on my club team who went to Rutgers, and I felt like it was a perfect fit for me, too.”
In the 2021 NWSL College Draft, Ali was selected by the Portland Thorns as the 22nd overall pick. Ali did not register for the draft that year, but due to a rule change, all players who exhausted three years of intercollegiate soccer eligibility prior to the 2020-2021 academic year were automatically eligible to be selected even without registration.
I’m excited to be out there in San Diego, to help create an inclusive culture, and to keep pushing that culture forward.
Despite what she considered a great honor to be selected, even without declaring, Ali felt like her work with Rutgers was not finished. Along with her co-captain Gabby Provenzano, the pair made a pact to play out their fifth year of eligibility with their New Jersey school. “Coming into Rutgers with Gabby with five seasons together, we just wanted to end it together,” she said. “There was so much more the team could accomplish, and I felt like we had some unfinished business on the field.”
Ali truly made a name for herself at Rutgers, leading the career charts in matches played (100), matches started (99), game-winning goals (17), and golden goals (9). She was named a candidate for the MAC Hermann Trophy in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Together with Provenzano, she helped lead Rutgers to the 2021 Big Ten Conference Championship, earning the first Big Ten title in program and school history. They also led the program to the 2021 College Cup for the first time since 2015.
Co-captains Ali and Provenzano were the 8th and 9th Scarlet Knights to be drafted into the NWSL, demonstrating the growth of the program at Rutgers. “A lot of times, people doubt us,” Ali said. “They think we’re not skilled or not a good team, but this year we showed them that we’re so much more - we have the skills, the goal scorers, the defense. We tied it all together this past season and showed everyone what we had.”
For Ali, much of that success this year came down to the coaching. “They’re always helping us develop as players and as people, which is why we have so many players in the NWSL representing Rutgers,” she explained. “It’s an all-around great program.”
As she turns pro, Ali won’t forget what she learned during her five years as a Scarlet Knight. “At Rutgers, they never wanted to limit me,” she said. “I learned to never stop, that there are no ceilings, and just to always keep pushing myself.” In the past whenever she had a bad day, she used to get really down on herself, but she used that mentality she developed over her time in college to keep pushing forward. “In the NWSL, it’s the next level,” she said. “I hope to keep that confidence, even as a rookie”
Rutgers Head Coach Mike O'Neill has no doubts that Ali will have success as she enters her first year in the pros. "Throughout her time at Rutgers, Amirah developed a great deal of experience dominating on the pitch in a prestigious soccer conference," O'Neill told Jersey Sporting News. "Her ability to take defenders on, play with her back to goal and her speed to play in behind will benefit her as she enters this new chapter of her playing career. She will add to a front line her ability to score goals and create mayhem for the opponent's defense. We are looking forward to her competing and flourishing as a professional."
An East Coast Girl Goes West
In a flurry of trades preceding the NWSL Expansion Draft last year, Ali found herself traded from the Thorns to expansion side San Diego Wave FC. “It was a little nerve-wracking at the beginning,” Ali explained, noting that the coach who had drafted her to the Thorns the year prior has since left the organization. “I wondered if the new coach wanted to keep me since I was drafted by a different coach.” Ali focused her attention on her college team and decided to be prepared for whatever happened after.
We’ve acquired rights to Forward Amirah Ali from Portland Thorns. Amirah most recently played for Rutgers and starred in the 2021 Women’s College Cup. Welcome to Wave FC, @amirahali07! 🌊 pic.twitter.com/139iN6JjhE
— San Diego Wave FC (@sandiegowavefc) December 17, 2021
In conversations with Portland’s coaching staff, she truly felt like the move to trade her to San Diego was what was best for her as a player. “They told me I was a really good player, and that they fought with Casey Stoney on who would have me, which was nice to hear!” Ali said with a smile. “When one door closes another one opens - either team would have been great.”
Now, Ali prepares to leave home and move across the country - leaving New Jersey for the first time. No longer being able to drive home to see her family will definitely be a challenge, but one that Ali is excited to take on. She is also looking forward to exploring her new home on the west coast. “San Diego seems like a beautiful place, I can’t wait to be out there on the beach and play with veterans like Alex Morgan,” she said, “It’s a big move, but I’m ready for it.”
While she prepares for her cross-country move, Ali is excited to be joining a fresh new organization and to make her mark on NWSL history. “We don’t know where we may be in the standings, but it’s a great opportunity to just show everyone what we have,” she said. “I feel confident going into this new team and being part of the first roster - it’s pretty cool to be part of that!”
As excited as Ali is to join Wave FC, the club seems equally as ready to have this exceptional player join their organization for their inaugural year. "The acquisition of Amirah will be critical to our team’s success in year one," Wave FC Head Coach Casey Stoney told Jersey Sporting News. "She offers a threat going forward and has demonstrated throughout her collegiate career her ability to score and distribute. Beyond being an amazing athlete on the field she is a great person off it, which is something we look for as we build Wave FC into a championship-caliber team."
Being able to contribute to the success of her new team is paramount for Ali. Although her own development is important to her, Ali stressed her team-first mentality. “I want to give everything I can to the team,” she said. “I always want to put the team first and be successful together.” She has since had conversations with both Jill Ellis and Casey Stoney, who relayed how impressed they are with Ali’s tactical awareness, skills, and strength on the field. “I’m excited to get out there and show them exactly what I have and not hold back.”
— ECNL Girls (@ECNLgirls) November 8, 2021
As she begins her professional career, Ali is looking forward to setting an example for young Black women both on and off the field. “Keep excelling, keep chasing your dreams, because no one can hold you back if you put everything you have into it,” she said. “I’m excited to be out there in San Diego, to help create an inclusive culture, and to keep pushing that culture forward.”
With preseason starting in just two weeks, Ali wants her new teammates and fans to know that even as an east coast girl, she’s ready to embrace that west coast life. “I’m hoping San Diego will have a big community of fans and support, and I’m very excited to be out there and get to know everyone,” she said. “I’m ready to put on a show!”
The National Women's Soccer League returns to action this spring. For more information on how to watch Amirah Ali, visit San Diego Wave FC's website.