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"Be brave and stay patient"

A rising star in the international game and an ever growing presence in the US ranks. Alessia Russo is now a seasoned veteran entering her 'last dance' season with the University of North Carolina. Having had her junior year cut short due to recent events across the globe, Alessia gives us an insight into the life of a DI athlete, becoming an international star with England ladies & preparing for this upcoming season.

What was academy life like for you growing up in London?

I moved to Chelsea FC when I was eight years old, prior to that I was on the books of Charlton Athletic FC. In total I was on the books at Chelsea for just over ten years. I loved everything about the club, I felt like this is where the foundation of my game started to shape. The coaches were second to none and I had a great relationship with all my teammates, so for me it was the perfect environment to not only grow as a player but also as a person.

The other bonus for us was that we were training at the Cobham facility which is where the mens first team trains so we had every resource available to us to develop. I played for three seasons with the reserve team before making my full debut for the first team. I had to make a decision at this point in my career where I wanted to play senior level football before moving to the US, Chelsea had such an array of talent so I knew it would be difficult to secure a starting position with the team. I signed with Brighton & Hove Albion for one season knowing that I was moving to the US the following year. I enjoyed my time there immensely, I was very fortunate to have played with two world class clubs and it helped me to get to where I am today.

The University of North Carolina is arguably the best programme in the US for women's soccer. How did the move materialize?

From an early age I always knew that I wanted to move to America to play soccer. That was one of my goals! In particular for me I wanted to be a part of the UNC programme. Growing up I always kept up to date with how the team was doing. The most important thing for me was the amount of players that went pro after playing with the programme. Coach Dorrance was also a huge influence on why I decided to commit to the university.

The move came to fruition after the u17 World Cup in Jordan in 2016. I visited the campus and spoke with the coaches prior to committing. They way they spoke about the history of the programme and in particular their philosophy when it came to soccer was superb. I had several offers from DI programmes that to be honest were some of the best schools available. However, as I mentioned, I had a strong feeling about UNC from the very beginning so it was an easy decision.

Can you touch on your international career to date with England?

Yes, for me it's a huge honor representing my country no matter what the occasion. I've played in most of the underage tournaments with England, whether that be the World Cup, European Championships or international friendlies across multiple age groups. I was part of the u20 team that came third in the World Cup in France in 2018.

I made my senior debut in March against Spain in the 2020 SheBelieves cup. It's quite difficult really to put into words what it meant playing in that match. The amount of work that has been put in over the years to get to that point make it all feel worthwhile. The best thing for me was getting there, now I have to focus on staying there. With all the talented footballers that the English women's team have the hardest thing for me to accomplish now is a stake to be playing every match. So, really it was a taste of what can be but I know the time involved and commitment it takes to stake a claim with the team so that's what I'm focused on now.

Talk to us about what it is like playing in the National Championship?

In my sophomore year we played in the final four and then progressed to the final. Unfortunately, I missed out on the games because I had fractured my tibia a couple of months previous. We lost 1v0 to Florida State so it was devastating on the team but it also gave us a massive hunger to get back to that stage and perform again.

My junior year we managed to get back again to the final, but unfortunately lost out on penalties which is always a disappointing way to go out. The one thing that this has given me is the ability to enjoy moments like that more and not get caught up in the emotions of the game itself. The game itself was held in San Jose which is just down the road from Stanford University who we eventually lost out to. So, as you could imagine the crowd was egging Stanford on which I actually quite enjoyed.

I am going into my senior year and my hunger and drive to get back to the National Championship is there. The fact that the tournament is being held back on home soil in North Carolina gives us a chance of performing in front of a home crowd, which hopefully will provide that extra push needed to get us across the line. So, I'm very excited to get back out in Fall and to meet back up with the team.

What have you found challenging about your time in the US?

I would say the toughest thing about living in the US is obviously being away from your family. The one thing that this does though is make you grow up very quickly, be independent and honestly just figure life out on your own still knowing that your family will support the decisions you make along the line. The other plus to this is that my family have been out to North Carolina several times to watch me play, when they first came they realised exactly why I was there and felt very reassured.

Other than that there hasn't been too many downsides. I've met some of my best friends out there and when I was moving there was also another girl that had just committed from London (Lotte) so it made that transition easier for me.

What is your plans for your senior year ahead and then after graduation?

Right now I'm focusing on being in the best shape I can be for when we get back up and running hopefully in August. Like I said earlier, the team has so much fire and drive at the minute because of the last two National Championship tournaments that we've played in.

With regards to plans after graduation, I'm not 100% sure just yet. I haven't really decided what my next move is just yet because my goal is to win a National Championship but I'd also be lying if I said I wasn't excited about what comes next. The other goal I have is to keep playing with the senior England ladies. That's the biggest honour I'll ever have so I want to keep progressing with the team and growing as a person alongside of that.

I'm hoping to go pro whether that be in England, America or Europe I'm not sure but that would be the aim anyways once I've completed my education.

What advice would you give to people looking to go the US route?

The big thing for me is patience. Don't commit to your first offer unless you're advised to do so. Stay patient, other offers might role in. The other thing I would advise is to visit the school if it is an option. I was fortunate enough that I had the chance to visit UNC before finally committing to the programme. This helped me when making my final decision. So athletes might not be able go on a visit so it's very important that you're asking the right questions to the right people.

The other thing I would say is to focus on getting the right SAT score if it's needed, this will help with opening up more universities that might be willing to take a gamble on you.

Last thing I would say is, be brave and just do it! You're moving away from home yes but I know for me it's the best decision I've ever made and from speaking to other internationals they would say the same. So just be brave with your decision but also be patient during the process.



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