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Why California native Ali Riley is playing for New Zealand at the World Cup

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

California native Ali Riley grew up dreaming of the U.S. women’s national team, but she will lead the New Zealand squad into the 2023 World Cup.

The captain of the Football Ferns (and of the NWSL’s Angel City FC), Riley is thankful for the doors opened to her by her dual citizenship, she said on the latest episode of Snacks.

Her dad is from Christchurch, New Zealand, but moved to the United States after college, where he met Riley’s mom. The family opted to live in Los Angeles while Riley grew up, but that didn’t stop the family from spending “a lot of time” in New Zealand.

“Now with the national team, I’ve probably been there at least once a year for my entire life,” she said. “But never in the capacity of hosting a World Cup. So that will be new.”

As a child in California, Riley imagined playing for the USWNT and “wanted to be Briana Scurry.” While the dream of becoming a star goalkeeper “died pretty early,” she instead aspired to be a star scorer, following in the footsteps of Mia Hamm. But a USWNT call-up wasn’t in the cards.

“I didn’t know about the New Zealand national team,” she said. “So I grew up dreaming of playing for the U.S., but that didn’t seem to be a possibility.”

When New Zealand began to invest in their U-20 team during the first U-20 World Cup, Riley’s eyes were opened to the possibility of the Football Ferns.

In 2006, Riley sent in a DVD of highlights to shoot her shot for the U-20 World Cup team. She eventually got invited to train with the squad and “just fell in love.”

“There was no choice. I was never choosing between two teams, I was choosing if I wanted to play for a national team or not at the time,” she said. “And then of course, in retrospect, it’s so easy to say, what if. And I’m honored that people even think that there could be a what if or to think about things that could have been different.”

The defender went from playing in the U-20 World Cup in 2006 to playing for the senior team at the 2007 World Cup. The 35-year-old has played in every World Cup since then (2011, 2015, 2019) and has continued to fight for resources for the New Zealand team.

“It’s a challenge,” she said. “The resources are definitely limited. And when I — playing in the U.S., playing for Chelsea, playing for Bayern Munich — see the resources, yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s also very motivating and what I get from playing here, especially from Angel City, what I learned, and the fuel it gives me to then fight for more and fight for better for my New Zealand teammates and being a part of FIFPRO.

“I just think it’s really shaped me to be the person I am and the player I am to start playing for the national team so young. So that’s kind of how it happened. But I still haven’t spent enough time to get that Kiwi accent. And they always want me to try but then are just offended. So I don’t know why they keep asking me.”

The 2023 World Cup, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia, could be game-changing for women’s soccer and for the Football Ferns. The tournament could be the most-attended in the history of the women’s game, which would bring more eyeballs to the national teams’ fight for more.

“It’s a huge opportunity to do so many things,” Riley said. “And it also comes with a lot of pressure to try to make a big impact to kick start something, thinking about what the ’99 World Cup did — of course, the U.S. won that World Cup.”

While the goal is always to win the World Cup, New Zealand is aiming to win its first World Cup match. Getting that on home soil, Riley says, would bring “chills.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to win a game and to actually have a good World Cup. So that’s our goal,” she said. “And I know if we do that, so many little girls want to take up soccer and it will help our program have a successful future, which is so important to me on the back end of my career, having played for the team now since 2007.

“There’s so many things that I want to happen after this World Cup and it starts to feel like a lot. But I know that if one little girl is inspired to pick up sport that it will improve her life and have her experience some of the amazing lessons that I’ve learned and how much sport has helped me, whether she becomes a professional player or a national team player or not.”