Southern Utah University soccer player Natalia Sepulveda grew up in Tucson, Arizona to parents who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. She just finished her freshman year as a defender for the Thunderbirds but also has the opportunity for something much greater.
Both of her parents were born in Guadalajara, Jalisco. Her father played professional soccer in Mexico before moving to the U.S. Once he moved and started a family, he became a coach and passed on the skills he had learned.
When she was in fourth grade, Sepulveda decided she wanted to play soccer like her three older siblings, so she joined one of the boys teams that her father coached. She stuck with those teams until about eighth grade when she joined her first club team.
After she graduated from Mountain View High School, she came to Southern Utah University to play soccer at the NCAA Division I level. As a true freshman in the fall 2021 season, she appeared in 16 of the team’s 17 games. Although she was primarily a defender, Sepulveda tied for the team high with two goals.
Sepulveda enjoyed her freshman fall season including her relationships with Head Coach Kai Edwards and her teammates. The team began practicing in early 2022 to prepare for the spring season. Then, one day in January, she got a text from a scout that offered her the opportunity of a lifetime.
The scout was from the Mexican Women’s National Team, and she wanted Sepulveda to call her back. She was invited to a training camp with the U-20 team with an opportunity to make the team’s World Cup roster. To top off the camp, the team played against Costa Rica’s U-20 team.
“I did not know how to feel,” said Sepulveda. “I kept asking myself if this was real. My parents too. They could not believe it.”
Sepulveda attended the camp in Mexico City from April 2-12, 2022. This camp was an opportunity for Sepulveda to work out with the U-20 team and showcase her skills in front of the team’s coaches. Based on player performances throughout this camp, the staff will select its roster for the U-20 World Cup.
It was daunting at first for her to be surrounded by so many other great players. About 30 players attended the camp, and many of them had already played professionally in Mexico in some capacity.
Compare that to Sepulveda who hails from a small university in southern Utah. Her resume may not stack up to some of the other players’ but she had the support of everyone in her life.
“Coming from Tucson, I feel like I have that whole town on my back,” said Sepulveda. “Going into this camp, I was representing a lot of places. Tucson, my youth team, Cedar City, SUU, myself and my family. I had so much support going over there.”
Attending the camp allowed Sepulveda the chance to play for something greater than herself. Although she was born and raised in Arizona, Sepulveda very much identified as a Mexican-American which allowed her to embrace that culture.
“This is a part of me. Yeah I’m American, but my main identity is Mexican,” said Sepulveda. “My parents are everything to me and I get to represent them as well. Obviously if I got this same call for a USA camp, I would be honored. But it would not hit me as hard.”
Although she was overwhelmed at first, Sepulveda quickly made friends and got close with a lot of the staff and other players at the camp. She did so in what little time she had with her day being packed with soccer from the moment she woke up to the moment she went to bed.
Being immersed in that environment allowed Sepulveda the chance to learn a lot about herself as a player and a person. The team’s culture was a lot different compared to teams in the United States. With every player there representing the country of Mexico, the emotions were high.
“In the warmups and huddles before the game, they hug everyone before they go out to play,” said Sepulveda. “It was like I was sending them off to war, but instead they’re going to go play a game. It is so much more than a game though.”
Playing around so many great players and under great coaches gave Sepulveda the chance to learn more about the sport of soccer as well. She came back to the U.S. with a better understanding of her position and the game itself.
“It is such an honor,” said Sepulveda. “It makes me feel so proud of who I am. I want to get closer to my culture and kind of dive into that aspect. I am proud to be a part of this Latino community. I take an insane amount of pride in that.”
Unfortunately, Sepulveda was not able to participate in the team’s game against Costa Rica as she did not yet have Mexican citizenship. After going through all the paperwork to apply for her Mexican passport, Sepulveda is set to obtain hers in early May. This would allow her to participate in the Mexican National Team’s next camp that is unofficially scheduled for June in France if she is again invited. This camp will be similar to the one in Mexico City as the staff works to select its World Cup roster from this pool of players. It will be the last opportunity for players to showcase themselves before the U-20 World Cup begins in August.
Until then, Sepulveda is just focused on training with her teammates at Southern Utah.
“I learned a lot in Mexico,” said Sepulveda. “I feel like a lot of athletes struggle with confidence. But being over there, I was reminded that I can have fun playing soccer. My first spring game back here, I was a completely different player.”
Last fall, SUU’s squad fought hard to a 2-13-2 record. The team struggled with injuries but also inexperience as Sepulveda was among 10 other freshmen on the roster. Expect Sepulveda to be a leader on next year’s team as Coach Edwards continues his rebuild of SUU soccer.
Article By: Christian Esparza
Photos Courtesy of SUU Athletics