UCLA forward Mia Fishel fell to fifth in Saturday's college draft. (Andy Bao/Getty Images)

Mia Fishel’s soccer career reached a crossroads during the U-20 CONCACAF championship in March of last year.

Playing alongside 2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman and third overall pick Brianna Pinto, Fishel scored twice in the United States’ 4-1 championship victory over Mexico in the 2020 tournament. Winning the Golden Ball, she also set a new U.S. women’s national team all-ages record in a qualifying tournament with 13 goals.

When the 2020 U.S. Young Female Soccer Player of the Year finalist returned to UCLA in the fall of her sophomore year with the Bruins, she felt that momentum grind to a halt. The speed of play at the NCAA level wasn’t what she had become accustomed to in international soccer.

“I was kind of at the same spot, and I just don’t like that,” Fishel says. “As a player, I want to be challenged.”

The thought of playing professionally crept into her mind, sparking conversations with her club coaches, the national team program and her family. With the goal of making the U.S. senior team guiding her decision-making, Fishel’s best option became clear in between her sophomore and junior years: She would forgo her senior season and turn pro. On Saturday, UCLA’s leading scorer is projected to be a top-three pick in the 2022 NWSL College Draft.

Fishel announced her decision publicly on Instagram just before the start of her junior season. The forward led UCLA to an undefeated regular season and a second consecutive Pac-12 championship before the team lost 1-0 to UC Irvine in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“It was hard to leave UCLA with an amazing team, an amazing staff that supported me, that’s helped me grow development-wise in soccer,” Fishel says. “I think I just kind of hit a wall with my development here at UCLA and I think the college level, it was just something that didn’t push me. I think this next step will be important to maximize what I can do as a player.”

Fishel intentionally announced her plans before the start of the season so pro teams would have the opportunity to evaluate her skills. And she didn’t disappoint them, proving herself as a versatile nine who doesn’t just wait for balls to be lobbed over the top. With impressive speed and athleticism, she can check back into the midfield, create and finish dangerous plays, and complement the outside forwards.

Fishel finished her college career in UCLA’s all-time top 10 for career goals with 32, making it hard to believe she didn’t play forward until she put on a Bruins uniform. When Fishel came to UCLA in 2019, the team was so stacked that there wasn’t room for her in the attacking midfield, where she had played her whole life. So, the coaching staff made her a nine.

“It comes with a whole lot of development, a whole other set of lenses to the game in soccer, and I think that definitely pushed me to be more of a versatile player and a more cutthroat, dangerous player,” Fishel says.

The adjustment didn’t take long: She finished her freshman season ranked third in the nation with 14 goals.

“As a chill player, I think that they pushed me to be like, ‘Hey, you can do this. You can score goals, you can help this team out in multiple ways: assists, goals, creating, being unpredictable,’” she says. “And so they brought out more of a confidence in me that I can do things.”

That assurance led to 16 career game-winning goals and a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team in 2021 for the second straight year.

Whichever NWSL team takes Fishel on Saturday can expect a player with an eye for goal. But former UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell says the 20-year-old is also a natural leader on and off the field.

“Mia leads by example and put the team on her back on multiple occasions,” says Cromwell, who was named head coach of the Orlando Pride on Dec. 7. “She scored big-time goals for us, but it’s what she brought to the process that inspired those around her.”

“I fully expect her to play in the league and get more call-ups to the national team, and for Mia to have a long, successful career internationally.”

Fishel received her first call-up to the senior national team in October 2020, intent on absorbing as much information from the coaches and veterans as possible.

“To put things into perspective, I’m like, OK, this is where the level’s at and I’m somewhere in their line, so I was just trying to see where I’m at compared to them and even outside of camp now, what I can do to get to that level,” Fishel says. “I think there’s a huge advantage to know what that level was like and how they train and play, but now I can go outside of it and train as if I was with them.”

To prepare herself for such a competitive environment, Fishel says she’s focusing on executing every pass, tackle and play with 100 percent effort and consistency.

“Being in the zone constantly — I think that will help me get there at some point,” she says.

Fishel's ultimate goal is to make and start for the U.S. women's senior national team. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The national team is the main reason Fishel plans to compete in the NWSL and not go overseas, at least for now.

“If national team players are in this league and I want to be on the national team, then I most likely should be here and training and trying to compete for a starting position,” she says. “Then hopefully becoming one of the top players in the league to potentially go to the U.S. women’s national team, so that’s kind of my thought process. But Europe is also an option as well, if anything goes south.”

The only south Fishel will likely go is back to her hometown in San Diego, where she likes to fish when she’s not playing soccer. She learned from her father, who used to take her out on the water every morning at 5 a.m. since she turned 3 years old. Fishel fell in love with the peace fishing brings, and it gave her an appreciation for respecting the ocean.

Fishel channeled those lessons into a new project this past summer, a brand she’s building called Big Fishel Energy. Through it, Fishel hopes to enable more minorities to get involved in sport fishing, as well as organize beach cleanups and soccer camps for young players.

More than anything, Fishel wants the brand to represent and champion empowerment.

“Growing up, I had role models, but the role models were just soccer players and I wanted to embody the person and player,” she says. “Strength, confidence, empowerment, anything you can do in life and to follow your dreams.

“I strive to be a person that anyone could look at and say, ‘Hey, she knows what she wants to do.’”

Between her NWSL rookie season and future with the USWNT, Fishel’s intentions are clear, and she doesn’t plan to waste any time in fulfilling them.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.