Three years later, Malia Berkely still vividly remembers that first call-up. The U.S. Soccer girls national team wanted her at its U-15 camp.
“I’m pretty sure I ran a lap around the house because I was so excited,” said Berkely, now a junior at Hamilton Badin High School who plays for Fairfield Optimist Soccer Club.
“It was always a dream of mine, but I didn’t know how it worked. Getting called into the first camp, I realized this is the start of a really cool journey.”
Berkely is scheduled to attend a week-long camp with the U-18 women’s national team, April 19, in Chula Vista, Calif. She is one of five local natives competing as part of the U.S. Soccer women’s national program, as Cincinnati continues to develop its reputation as a hotbed for youth soccer talent.
Rose Lavelle (Cincinnati United Premier) is a midfielder on the U-23 team. The Mount Notre Dame graduate is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, where she was a first-team All-Big-10 selection last fall.
MND senior Samantha Leshnak (Ohio Elite, Liberty Township) is a goaltender on the U-20 national team.
St. Ursula junior Mary Alice Vignola (Ohio Elite, Terrace Park) joins Berkely on the U-18 squad.
And then there’s Mason Middle School eighth-grade student Aliyah El-Naggar. She is where Berkely was a few years ago, savoring that first national call-up.
El-Naggar – a “dominant force as a defender,” according to her Cincinnati United Premier coach Bobby Puppione – caught the attention of the national coaches, playing with her U-14 CUP team in the U.S. Youth Soccer National League in November. She followed with a strong showing in a national Olympic Development Program camp, and the next thing she knew she was in California competing on the U-15 girls national team.
“I was nervous,” El-Naggar said. “But when I got to the hotel, all the girls were there and they were all really nice.”
Most kids growing up playing soccer dream about playing in the Olympics or maybe the World Cup. What’s remarkable is that these five Cincinnati soccer players have a legitimate chance at such ambitious goals.
“I just want to be on that team,” El-Naggar said. “That’s been my goal since I was young. I’ve always wanted to play on that team.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really know how that process worked. But now that I’ve learned, I want it even more.”
Berkely, meanwhile, has won nearly every award imaginable for her accomplishments at Badin – the Gatorade Ohio Girls Soccer Player of the Year honor, most recently. She makes sure to celebrate those national-team invites, though.
“I still get really excited getting called into camps because you never know,” Berkely said. “You gotta take each camp really seriously. It only gets harder as you go through the process.”
U-15 GNT: Aliyah El-Naggar, Mason, Cincinnati United
U-18 WNT: Malia Berkely, Liberty Township, Fairfield Optimist; Mary Alice Vignola, Terrace Park, Ohio Elite
U-20 WNT: Samantha Leshnak, Liberty Township, Ohio Elite
U-23 WNT: Rose Lavelle, Cincinnati, Cincinnati United