August 29, 2012

Santa Clara's Huerta shines on the biggest stage

We're playing at a World Cup. If I have to injure myself to do something that helps my team, I'll take the risk.
Sofia Huerta, Mexico forward.



Sofia Huerta certainly wasted no time making an impact at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Japan 2012. The forward scored after coming off the bench in Mexico's opening match, before earning a starting role and finding the net in both of her subsequent outings.

Huerta's form is all the more remarkable given that she nearly missed out on the trip to Japan altogether. Indeed, she was called up to take part in a training camp with USA's U-20s in January this year, but ultimately failed to make the squad. Her omission, however, came much to the delight of the Mexico U-20s, who took advantage of her dual Mexican and American citizenship to offer her the same opportunity.   

"I live and play in the USA, but I felt very honoured when Mexico called me up," Huerta, whose father is from Puebla in Mexico, told FIFA.com after the convincing 4-0 victory over New Zealand that earned her side a quarter-final with Nigeria. "The coach and the players have made it very easy for me to integrate and adapt to the playing style. It's all happened naturally and I'm very happy to be representing Mexico."

Another episode that almost prevented Huerta from shining for El Tri at Japan 2012 was the fractured elbow she suffered three weeks before the tournament. "I didn't know if I was going to be part of the team, or if I would be ready," she said, explaining why she was named as a substitute for Mexico's 4-1 opening defeat by Japan. "It was a logical decision, but I knew that if the coach turned to me, I would try my best to make a difference."

Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar, for his part, is clearly delighted to have been able to take the Santa Clara University forward with him to Japan. "She only joined us a short time ago but she has become a very important player," the former midfielder told FIFA.com. "Her personality and quality as a footballer have helped the team a great deal. She's a player who works hard and works well. She's very committed."

So committed, in fact, that she is even prepared to risk her health to help her teammates. "Even though it's very recent, I don't give a second's thought to my injury when I'm playing," she said, untroubled by the ice pack strapped to her elbow. "Once, out of the dozens of times I've been in contact situations, I may have said to myself: 'Go easy. Be careful'."

"But I prefer not to think about it," Huerta continued. "We're playing at a World Cup. If I have to injure myself to do something that helps my team, I'll take the risk. Although it's probably not a great idea!"

Huerta has been scoring regularly for several years at university level, but playing for a national team is still a novel experience. Now, though, just a few weeks after her call-up, she finds herself representing El Tri at a FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup. "It's been natural [progress], but nobody can say it's been easy adapting to life at the top level, and to the demands of a national team," said Huerta, a keen admirer of Lionel Messi.

"Everything he [Messi] does is effective," she said. "It may not always be spectacular but it always results in a goal, and that's all that matters when you're a forward."     

As Huerta explained, goals scored at world finals always feel extra-special. "I know it's a cliché, but it really is an indescribable feeling," said the forward, who has three goals to her name so far at Japan 2012. "I've come here to do everything I can to represent my country well. Scoring important goals is the best way to do it. We're in the quarter-finals and I'm very happy to have contributed to that."

"She's part of a new generation of players that will help the senior side to progress. She has a great future," added coach Cuellar. And for Huerta, that future starts against Nigeria.