TEMPE – Alexia Delgado has finally found a place that feels like home.
Since moving away from her family’s house in Mexico as a 13-year-old to pursue her dream of becoming a soccer player, the Arizona State captain has developed lasting relationships with her teammates, forming a second family.
“This has been the best three and a half years of my life,” Delgado said. “I’m so happy I made the decision to come. I’m probably going to cry so much when I’m done here.”
Soccer south of the border
Delgado was born in Tepic, the capital of the Mexican state of Nayarit, and sports have always been a big part of her family.
Her mother was a gymnast. Her father and uncle played soccer, and the uncle was good enough to play professionally.
Coming from such an athletic background, Delgado was thrust into sports at a young age.
She started gymnastics with her sister at around 6, but it only took a few months before Delgado realized it wasn’t for her.
A few years later, her older brother began playing soccer, and Delgado got the itch to give the sport a shot.
“He started playing soccer for his school,” she said. “After classes, he would be like, ‘Hey, do you want to play soccer with me?’ I started playing with him, and I really liked it. I told my parents, ‘Hey, you know what? I would like to try to play soccer. Why not?’”
While Delgado, then 8, was eager to play the sport, her parents were hesitant.
“My mom, at the beginning, she was not very happy with that,” she said. “She was like, ‘No, not soccer. You can try something else, but not soccer.’ In the end, my dad was like, ‘You can just let her try. She’s probably not going to like it.’”
It’s safe to say Delgado liked it.
Since the city did not have many girls her age who played soccer, Delgado began playing with her brother’s team and took the challenge head on.
“I wouldn’t say I struggled,” she said. “I was young, so I just liked it and didn’t really care if they were just boys. It was kind of awkward for them at the beginning that it was just me, the only girl playing, but they didn’t even really care.”
Although initially not a problem, Delgado began to hear murmurs criticizing the fact that she was playing with the boys. Some boys – and even their parents – began to question why a girl was playing instead of them.
However, Delgado took it in stride as she began to fall in love with the sport, and her passion paid off.
Leonardo Cuéllar, then coach of the Mexico women’s national team, went scouting in the Tepic area to see if any girls had the potential to play for the squad in the future.
Delgado impressed the scouts and was one step closer to her dream of playing professionally.
Now, the only thing hurting Delgado’s chances was travel.
The process required Delgado to train in Guadalajara twice every two weeks in order for the staff to send developmental reports to the national team. As a result, she would have to embark on a three-hour bus ride from her home just to get to the facility.
“My dad would go with me,” she said. “We would take the bus from Tepic, and then we would go to Guadalajara. I would train, then after that I would take another bus going back home. So we would be home around 1 in the morning. The next day, I would go to school, and then they would have to take me out of school early. I would take the bus again, go there, train, take the bus back, and I was doing that two days every two weeks.”
The laborious trips to Guadalajara were a lot for Delgado and her parents to handle, but an opportunity arose when Delgado’s father met the family of another athlete training there.
The family asked Delgado’s father if he was interested in allowing her to live with them so she could study and train without the hassle of traveling.
After careful consideration, Delgado and her family decided it was the right move.
However, Delgado was just 13 at the time, and she faced some difficulties living away from her family.
“The hardest part was just getting used to it,” she said. “Getting used to not having my family there, my siblings or even just eating my mom’s food. It was hard, the transition, I’m not going to lie. I was still a kid.”
Despite the initial difficulties, Delgado was excited to have the chance to go to school and practice every day.
It was a sacrifice that gave Delgado the best chance at reaching the Mexican national team, and after months of hard work her dream came to fruition.
In 2014, Delgado received her first national team call-up with the Mexican Football Federation’s inaugural women’s under-15 squad, helping the team win bronze at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
Delgado would continue the process, moving up the ranks to the under-17 and under-20 teams.
She played under Christopher Cuéllar, Leonardo’s son, and was named captain at the start of her stint with the under-17 team.
The younger Cuéllar also coached the under-20 squad, giving Delgado the opportunity to hold the captain’s armband during her four years at both levels.
Leonardo was named as coach of Club América heading into Liga MX Femenil’s inaugural season, and he personally called Delgado to inform her of his interest in bringing her on.
After going to Mexico City to discuss the possibility, Delgado agreed to join the club before the 2017 season.
One of the perks of joining Club América is having the opportunity to play at the historic Estadio Azteca, home of the Mexican national team.
“It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Delgado said. “When you’re down there playing, it looks so big. If you’re there as a spectator, of course it still looks really big. But when you’re down there playing, it’s something different. It was a really special moment for me.”
Despite playing in a world-class stadium for one of Mexico’s biggest clubs, Delgado noticed that the league faced a few bumps during its first season.
“It was something new for everyone,” she said. “It was hard at the beginning because we were a professional team, but we haven’t earned that place yet. We would have some issues even just with fields sometimes.
“ We would have to share the weight room with the underages – the under-20s, under-17s. We would have to find the time when the first team was not training so we could train. It was kind of hard to find that balance or even that time for us.”
Becoming a Sun Devil
With her career progressing, Delgado had several options regarding where to take it next, but one stood out for her and her family: the NCAA.
“That was something I had already in mind before (Liga MX Femenil) opened or existed,” Delgado said. “It was something me and my family talked about when I started playing soccer. For us, it was kind of the goal to be here to get a scholarship in the U.S., coming here to get my bachelor’s and play here. It was like a dream when I was a kid. Of course, that kind of changed a little when Liga MX was created, but I would say since I started playing soccer this was the goal or what I was aiming to be.”
Before she could take the next step, she needed to part ways with Club América.
“It was a hard process,” Delgado said. “They didn’t want me to come. They wanted me to stay there and sign a professional contract. I had to talk to them and tell them I’m thinking about going to the U.S., getting a scholarship, play college over there, so I can’t sign a professional contract.”
The club was cooperative and modified Delgado’s contract to a more developmental one, meaning she would not be paid and would remain eligible to compete at the collegiate level.
However, when the contract ended after six months, Delgado began to get cold feet.
Club América offered her a full professional contract along with schooling options – albeit limited.
With this in mind, Delgado told her parents she was not entirely sure she still wanted to go to the U.S., but her mother told her to visit ASU as they planned and to at least hear what the school had to offer.
After seeing Tempe for herself, Delgado became increasingly open to joining the Sun Devils.
“I was honestly really happy I came,” she said. “I think it was going to be a really big mistake if I would have said no. Coming here was a crucial part for me to actually decide to come. Before that, I was almost a hundred percent sure I didn’t want to come anymore. (Club America) were kind of offering me school, but it was hard because I was going to have to study something I didn’t really want to.
“We only had like two career options, so I would have to pick one of those, and school was really far away from where I was living. Things were just not working and fitting. It was really hard coming here in the end.”
The final factor that pushed Delgado toward becoming a Sun Devil was ASU coach Graham Winkworth.
Winkworth is no stranger to international recruits, and Delgado caught his attention even before meeting in person.
“She’s technically excellent,” Winkworth said. “One of the best players you’re going to find, technically. On top of that, an incredible soccer brain. She understands the game, movements, where she should be and how to organize. Watching her captain the Mexican under-20s, I saw some leadership qualities. You don’t get selected captain for these teams unless you’ve got some good quality leadership in you.”
After visiting campus and speaking with Winkworth, Delgado was sold on the program.
“He’s really good at recruiting, I’m not going to lie,” Delgado said. “He just told me everything about the program. He helped me visualize how every year was going to be for me soccerwise. That was something I liked. He told me about all the international players that were coming and all of their experience as internationals because a lot of them played with national teams.”
One of those international players is Netherlands native Eva van Deursen.
Van Deursen was part of the same recruiting class as Delgado, and the two arrived in Tempe later than the rest of the team after competing in the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France.
The future teammates began communicating with each other before arriving on campus.
“We did have some contact during the World Cup,” van Deursen said. “That’s also the first time that we saw each other, but it was more from a distance. We were going to play, and the Mexico team were watching a part of our game. We were mainly texting each other back and forth because we were figuring out all the stuff with the visas and for school we had to fill out some forms, so that was the main thing we were talking about at that time.”
Although the two felt isolated after being thrown into a completely new environment, Delgado and van Deursen were able to find comfort in each other.
“It helped me a lot in the way that you’re not alone in that situation,” van Deursen said. “You’re not figuring out everything for the first time by yourself. Schoolwise and soccerwise, everything is so different from both of our cultures compared to the United States. It helped us a lot having each other and helping each other through stuff.”
Despite coming from different ends of the world, it became clear that Delgado and van Deursen would soon become inseparable.
“To be honest, we talk about that a lot,” van Deursen said. “We’re very similar people in a way and also very different, but we clicked so well. It’s pretty crazy that someone from such a different culture – different languages, different backgrounds – we share one passion, and that’s soccer.”
That chemistry can be seen on the pitch.
In the spring 2021 season, the Sun Devils upset No. 3 UCLA en route to qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament since 2014, and the pair played a huge part in a successful campaign.
“They dominated games together,” Winkworth. “It was fun to watch because they’re also very versatile in where we play them in the midfield. UCLA, for example, that game was really special from our midfield, and those two led the way.”
Home away from home
While Delgado has certainly had some memorable moments on the field, her most memorable experiences have been away from soccer.
She is currently roommates with van Deursen and fellow Sun Devil Soccer teammates Lieske Carleer and Cori Sullivan.
During their time at ASU, the group has formed about as close of a bond as possible.
“Having people you actually can rely on and you’re very close to is crucial,” Delgado said. “You just have some bad days, bad weeks that you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I just want to go back home. I don’t even want to be here. I’m just having a rough time.’ Having them is definitely very important, so I’m really happy I have them. I really feel like I can trust them. I can go and tell them everything I’m going through, and we can cry on each other’s arms.”
It has reached the point where they become somewhat homesick for the Valley after leaving campus during breaks.
“The four of us have our second home here,” Delgado said. “Everyone loves going back home with parents and with siblings. Nothing is better than home. Going where you were born, going with your siblings, with your parents is always super nice, but we’re always super excited to come back. We know we’re going to see each other, and we have a really nice apartment that we actually try to make feel like home.”
After jumping from home to home at a young age to further her athletic career, Delgado is now surrounded by a tight-knit group that she will consider family even after her time as a Sun Devil is up.
“I have friends here that are going to be for life,” she said. “The main takeaways I’m going to have from here are not things, but people and experiences. Everything we’ve been through – good things, bad things or even just experiences with the team – everything has shaped me as a person. I’m going to take a lot of things out of these 3 1/2 years.”