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Thompson sisters’ unbreakable bond leads to national team dreams

Alyssa and Gisele Thompson have risen through the U.S. youth system. (Photo courtesy of A&V Sports)

Alyssa Thompson needed to speak with her younger sister. It didn’t matter that Gisele was asleep halfway across the globe. Alyssa had learned she was about to live out a dream — a dream she and her sister, Gisele, cultivated and worked toward for years — and this news could not wait.

At 17 years old, Alyssa had been called up to the U.S women’s senior national team, the youngest player to earn a call-up in five years. The two sisters, teammates most of their lives, have relied on each other throughout their soccer journey, and Gisele knew as well as anyone the sacrifice and work that led to this point.

That path has included playing with and against girls four or five years older — the sisters were underclassmen in high school when they played on the same team as then-college stars Ashley Sanchez and Savannah DeMelo — and being the only girls on the field when competing against some of the top boys talent in MLS Next matches.

Alyssa and Gisele have been together through it all, balancing school work, soccer and a social life. When they knew no one else on the team, they could talk to each other. Away from the field, they shared a room and imagined playing for the U.S.

They just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

“It was definitely a dream come true,” 16-year-old Gisele said recently from Dubai, where she was training with her U.S. teammates for the U-17 World Cup. “We talked about this stuff a lot, especially doing it together. That was both of our dreams.

“Having both of us accomplish these big dreams is such an amazing thing.”

Gisele thought her father, Mario, was joking — his reputation for playing tricks didn’t help — when she awoke to texts and calls from him and Alyssa.

“Alyssa and I felt that this time was going to come,” Mario said about the call-up. “It was more of when. It’s sooner than we all expected.”

Being ahead of schedule is nothing new for the Thompson sisters, who have quickly risen through the U.S. youth system. This past summer, Alyssa was the only high school player on the U-20 World Cup roster, and she scored a goal in the opener.

Alyssa Thompson celebrates after scoring against Ghana in the Women's U-20 World Cup. (Ezequiel Becerra/AFP via Getty Images)

“There are times when I sit back and watch her play,” said their mother, Karen, “and I’m always struck by even for how young she is, how much she can compose herself on the ball and how patient and how skillful she can be.”

Alyssa and Gisele are pioneers off the field, too, becoming the first high school athletes to sign Name, Image and Likeness deals with Nike, putting pen to paper this May.

Mario and Karen have focused on making sure Alyssa and Gisele live a balanced lifestyle. They attend Harvard-Westlake School, where they dominated in soccer two years ago and also run track. They find time to attend Friday night football games and hang out with friends, playing board games, Twister or just relaxing outside.

“It’s a priority for us to make sure the girls get to appreciate and experience life,” Karen said.

‘I always envision Gisele being there with me’

Getting a teenager to admit they miss their younger sibling is often a fruitless task. But as Alyssa lounged about her Southern California home one August afternoon, she needed no prodding. She felt a little lonely with Gisele in Spain, playing on the U-17 national team.

“I always have someone with me, and that’s Gisele,” Alyssa said. “When she’s gone, it’s kind of weird.”

Born 13 months apart, the Thompson sisters were separated by grade level but did pretty much everything else together. Gisele could have played with girls her own age, but it was easier for Mario and Karen to drive their kids to the same games and practices instead of ferrying them back and forth between separate games.

“I really liked it because it was a built-in friend,” Gisele said. “Whenever we would play soccer at different clubs, it was easier because she was there.”

It helped that Gisele’s silky-smooth passing and defensive ability perfectly complemented Alyssa’s nose for the goal, and the two often preferred playing on the right side of the field.

“It’s so much easier to play with her,” said Gisele, now primarily a right back. “We’re sort of like twins, so we know what our next move is.”

“She was always giving me the final pass or through-ball,” Alyssa added.

When Gisele and Alyssa weren’t playing basketball and volleyball or competing in gymnastics and track, they were usually together, whether on a family beach trip or a park picnic.

“We could say, ‘Hey, go in the backyard and go play with each other,’ and we knew they were entertaining each other,” Mario said.

That bond remains strong even as they see less of one another due to different national team commitments. Next year, Alyssa plans to attend Stanford while Gisele finishes high school. Gisele’s college of choice? Stanford.

“Any team I’m on, I always envision Gisele being there with me,” Alyssa said. “I love having her as a teammate.”

In a league of their own

The sisters thought their time playing against boys was over.

In 2020, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on youth soccer in southern California, the Thompson sisters were left in limbo. Their club teammates for the last several years had moved on to college. But they were still in middle and high school and had few training opportunities.

So Mario reached out to Paul Walker, director of Total Futbol Academy, which does not field girls teams. Gisele and Alyssa had played with TFA for several years, starting at 8 and 9 years old when Walker recognized their talent at a training session. Unlike most youth soccer clubs in the U.S., TFA does not rely on the pay-to-play model, providing Walker flexibility to bring in the Thompsons without ruffling feathers.

Mario credits that experience with improving his daughters’ all-around game.

But that was years ago, and the boys were now much faster and much stronger.

“You could get hurt because they’re really big and basically men now,” Alyssa said.

Alyssa and Gisele were accustomed to competing against bigger players. They played up four and five years, respectively, with their club team Real So Cal, and starting in eighth grade, Alyssa and then Gisele joined Santa Clarita Blue Heat of the second-division United Women’s Soccer League.

They faced off against college stars, like current U.S. international Taylor Kornieck. And the sisters were deemed good enough to share the field with teammates like Sanchez and DeMelo, who joined Alyssa on the U.S. roster for this international break.

Harvard-Westlake’s Gisele Thompson dribbles the ball down the field during a match against Villa Park. (Photo provided by Eric Dearborn)

“The only two players that were in high school were Alyssa and Gisele,” Santa Clarita Blue Heat sporting director Carlos Marroquin said. “I had never had high school players before. I didn’t want them.”

It didn’t take long for Walker to extend an offer for the Thompsons to join TFA’s MLS Next teams, a chance to compete against some of the top boys talent in the country.

Mario just had one question for his daughters: Did they want this? The answer: a resounding yes. It was a challenge they relished.

“I have had a parent ask me, ‘Why are they playing in MLS Next?’” Karen said. “It’s what they thought they needed to work on and what they thought they were capable of and confident in doing.”

Alyssa and Gisele credit the last few years with improving their first touch and decision-making.

“The speed of play is very different,” Walker said. “Being able to execute your thought and your decision, with or without the ball.”

When Alyssa was young, she sometimes struggled to fit in at TFA. Used to being the primary goal-scorer, she had to learn other roles. In her second stint at the club, she has been embraced by teammates.

When she scored her first goal after rejoining TFA, she was nonchalantly jogging back to midfield when her teammates called her over to the corner flag. They all wanted to celebrate with her.

“They are competing and now being impact players on their current team,” Mario said. “When they don’t show, their coach is like ‘Hey, where are they? We need them.’”

Alyssa Thompson shows off the crest on her jersey ahead of the Women’s U-20 World Cup in August. (Tim Nwachukwu/FIFA via Getty Images)

United for the next challenge

On Tuesday, the same day Alyssa and the U.S. women’s national team face Spain in an international friendly, Gisele will be in India for the Americans’ opening game of the U-17 World Cup.

But they still lean on each other. That’s why Gisele was the first person Alyssa thought to call when she got off the phone with Mario, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski and general manager Kate Markgraf.

“Everyone used to say they’re like twins,” Mario said. “They relate to what they’re going through. There’s very few friends that can relate to their experiences.”

When Gisele and Alyssa connected, Gisele’s message was simple: You belong. Now show everyone what you can do.

She plans to watch Friday’s game against England on the plane ride to India. But Alyssa will have some familiar faces in London. Both Mario and Marroquin plan to be there.

“For her first call-up, I have to make it,” Mario said.

Alyssa and Gisele Thompson pose for a photo donning their Harvard-Westlake jerseys. (Rayne Athletics Creative Studio)

When Mario and Karen signed their daughters up for soccer, this was not the plan. Even when Gisele and Alyssa turned heads as youngsters, the family viewed soccer as a fun hobby, perhaps an avenue to a college scholarship.

It took Marroquin just a few minutes to realize the Thompsons were elite players as middle schoolers. Walker immediately recognized that talent when they were 8 and 9 years old. Years later, so did scouts for the Mexican boys’ youth teams.

Now, the Thompson sisters will look to impress on the world stage.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Is Alyssa ready for the women’s national team,’” Mario said. “Yeah, she’s ready. … Alyssa and Gisele are training with 17- and 18-year-old (boys) on a daily and weekly basis. I know how difficult it is.

“I know when they do play with women at a high level, they’ll be fine.”

Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.