From a small country town in New South Wales to one of America’s biggest colleges, Eliza Ammendolia is one of the few Australians left playing football in the United States after the mass exodus of Matildas to Europe. But, according to the former Wanderers midfielder, it’s exactly where she wants to be.
We had this thing in school, in year six, where we’d make a ‘life story’, where you go through all your years and you write down something nice about each year,” Ammendolia told The World Game.
“One of them was a dream capsule, and you open it when you’re 21. I turned 21 a few months ago, so I opened it and inside it said, ‘I want to play in the NWSL in America.’
“Opening that and being like, ‘I’m kind of doing that now. I’m playing in America. I’m here.’ That was a big one. At 12 years old, in my little dream-catcher with all my secrets, it was all about playing in the USA.”
As women’s football at the top level continues to grow, attention is increasingly turning towards the pathways available to help young players get there.
For Australian women, one of the traditional routes towards a professional football career over the past decade has been on the other side of the world: the US college system.
But for a teenager from Griffith, two hours west of Wagga Wagga, the idea of going to a US college to play football wasn’t even conceivable – that is, until Ammendolia got scouted while playing for the Australian Schoolgirls team in 2018.
“We went over to America to play in two tournaments and did fairly well: we won the first and made the finals in the second,” she said.
“There were a lot of scouts. But because I was young, they couldn’t contact me – they had to contact my mum – so she was getting flooded with emails from all these universities.
“My family doesn’t play soccer and it wasn’t a big thing in Griffith when I was younger, so my mum was like, ‘why are these colleges messaging me and offering us things? I don’t get it.’ I didn’t get it either; I didn’t know the college league.
“Most of the offers expired – you only have a short window to accept them – but Rachel Doyle, who was the assistant coach at the University of Hawaii, and an Australian, kept pestering me.
"She had a friend in Australia talk to me, too, and she was like, 'Eliza, you need to go to America. Liz [O’Reilly] went to America, I went to America; we’ve all done it. You need to do it.’ So I just went, ‘why not? It’s Hawaii! It’s paradise!’ So that’s what I did.”
But having taken a gap year after finishing high school – where she played for Western Sydney Wanderers while completing her HSC – Ammendolia found that, if she wanted to attend college, she wasn’t allowed to play anywhere else for a year due to eligibility rules.
“That was probably the hardest thing, especially because the people I lived with [in Sydney] played soccer, so they’d go off to soccer and I’d be like, ‘but… I want to come! I want to play!’ I’m not the greatest person to sit on the sideline because I want to be out there,” she said.
“Getting fit is fine; you can get fit anywhere. But getting game-fit is completely different. That’s what I really struggled with when I got over there.
"My first day, I got off the plane – I didn’t sleep for 24 hours, I don’t sleep on flights and I was so nervous – and I basically got to Hawaii and had to do the beep test.
“I went from winter in my hometown, where it gets to two degrees, to Hawaii in 38 degrees and 100% humidity. I was dying; I nearly passed out at the end of the fitness test because you had to make a certain score to play.
"I got there - just. But then I passed out on the ground. A few days later, I had my first game and lasted just 15 minutes. My body couldn’t keep up.”
US college is a path well-travelled for dozens of Australians including current Young Matildas head coach Leah Blayney, former Matildas Lisa Casagrande and Danielle Small, and current Matildas Teagan Micah and Aivi Luik.
Not only did the elite, well-funded college environments allow them to develop their football, but many also received a world-class education in the process.
“With college, you’re studying and you’re playing; that’s the only thing you’re doing and it’s in the same environment,” Ammendolia said.
“Whereas in Australia, you go to uni and you play – it’s two separate entities. Incorporating them so it’s a bit easier on players [would help].
“I know when I was in year 12, when I was playing for the Wanderers, I found it so hard. I was waking up at four o’clock in the morning, driving to training, training, quickly rushing to have a shower, not even having breakfast, then driving straight to school and falling asleep in my first class because I was exhausted.
“A lot of girls [in Australia] have to choose between soccer or school. You shouldn’t have to choose, you should be able to do both, and I think Australia needs to adapt to have both of them working well together.
"That’s why the college league is great: I’m getting a degree while playing at the same time.”
For Ammendolia, who’s now studying to become a high school Biology teacher, the college sport environment is almost a different universe to what’s offered in Australia – especially after the passage of Title IX, which forced universities to fund men’s and women’s college sport equally.
“The comparable [playing] level would definitely be W-League, but the facilities are polar opposites,” she said.
“American facilities are incredible: recovery, weights, fields, gym, video, everything under the sun. Funding is a major thing because they put a lot of funding into their athlete departments.
“My school probably isn’t the best overall for facilities, but it’s still great compared to what I had in Australia. We have ice baths, hot and cold spas, all these recovery things… whereas in Australia, you just packed up and went home. You maybe got an ice bath in a wheelie bin, but that’s really it.
“When I played W-League, we didn’t have great fields. If the grass was cut, it was great. But in America, we get the grass cut and rolled every day.
"That’s probably one of the biggest differences: the women get treated exactly the same as the men.”
While the last year has seen every Australian player quit the W-League/NWSL cycle and head to Europe, Ammendolia still has her sights set on the dream her younger self wrote down in her time capsule almost a decade ago.
“Fingers crossed we make it to the Sweet Sixteen [best-of-the-best college tournament]; that’s the end-goal of being in Hawaii,” she said.
“But after Hawaii, I really want to get drafted into the NWSL.
“To play in the NWSL has been my goal since I was little. I followed the US quite closely because they were a great team and I had access to them. I looked up to Abby Wambach and saw her playing in America and I said, ‘I want to be her. I want to do that.’
“I know girls who have played there in the past – I’ve played with a fair few Americans or even Aussies who’ve gone over there – so I think, ‘if they can do it, surely I can do it too'.”