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How Emily Fox became one of the USWNT’s most reliable players

Six years after making her USWNT debut, Emily Fox is a key starter for the team at the 2023 World Cup. (John Todd/USSF/Getty Images).

For the best in the world, thousands of small decisions go into the final product we see on the field. And for U.S. women’s national team defender Emily Fox, the work beneath the surface begins at her very foundation.

For years, women’s soccer players have had to work overtime to get cleats made for men to fit their feet. Fox has gone down a size, she’s double- and triple-socked a size above her own, and she’s even tried toe socks to get the feel right.

“With the sizing and the fit, [you’re] making sure that you don’t feel like the cleat is like going to slip or it’s too tight and you feel like you can’t move your ankle,” Fox tells Just Women’s Sports on behalf of Under Armour, who will soon release their Magnetico Elite 3 FG Soccer Cleats with women athletes’ feet in mind.

Tinkering to perfect the feel of a cleat for the best first touch could serve as a metaphor for Fox’s career. She’s grown from a college student thrown in the deep end, to sink-or-swim in her first USWNT minutes, to steady starter as the team heads to Australia and New Zealand to compete for a third-straight World Cup title.

(Courtesy of Under Armour)

Fox is only 25 years old and entering her first World Cup, but on the field she often plays like a longtime veteran of the USWNT. She played her first minutes with the team in 2018, when she was just in her second year at the University of North Carolina, and even earned a start as the team tested the player pool in anticipation of the 2019 World Cup.

Fans will most likely remember Fox’s one cap from 2019, when she started at outside back against France in the USWNT’s first game of the year. In that 3-1 loss, the U.S. took some knocks that became the springboard for necessary growth, paving the way for the team to defeat the host country in Paris in the World Cup quarterfinals later that year.

For Fox, that game was a trial by fire, as she earned crucial international minutes against a team operating on all cylinders.

“I think everyone always talks about, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have ups and downs.’ And then everyone’s like, ‘OK, I’m gonna have ups and downs,’ but then it happens,” she says. “And you’re like, oh, it is really tough. So I think looking back, it was a really good thing for me.”

She went back to work outside the USWNT ranks, captaining the Tar Heels and finishing with two College Cup finals appearances during her NCAA career. She went from there to the NWSL, as the No. 1 pick of Racing Louisville FC in 2021. But Fox’s dream has always been to take her hard-earned experience to the biggest of international stages.

“I remember the last World Cup, watching and really being like, I want to be there next time,” she says.

She’s since returned to her college region, playing for the North Carolina Courage and honing a host of skills that have shaped her into a versatile and reliable defender for club and country. With Louisville, Fox would appear to take on a number of different positions at once — she’d line up at outside-back, but also dip into the midfield, make attacking runs and sub into the central defense when they needed greater numbers.

Fox has settled into an inverted left-back role for North Carolina, where she is encouraged to strategically cut into the middle to join the midfield. She believes some of her skills lend themselves to the No. 6 defensive midfield position.

“I love to cut inside and dribble, whether I’m on the left or right,” she said at USWNT World Cup media day. “Just being able to combine with people and kind of sit in good pockets to change the point of attack.”

The modern outside back has to be able to do many things, playing attacker, midfielder and defender all in an instant depending on the flow of play. Fox relishes the opportunity to take care of business on both sides of the ball.

“With [the U.S.], we have teams that are playing in a low block, and so it is the outside back, it is the No. 6 making a run that the No. 10 would normally make that opens and breaks people up,” she says.

Fox takes to heart the greater responsibility of starting for the USWNT, which requires her to get “high and wide” when switching from left back to right back to allow room for Crystal Dunn on the left. Training with Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn and a few other U.S. players during the 2023 offseason helped the 25-year-old settle into a defense that she’d been rotating in and out of previously.

“It was really nice being able to train with them because I only see them at camp,” she says. “So seeing them out of camp, it was nice to see that they kind of have the same struggles and stress as I did.”

The World Cup is a stressful process, but it’s also an opportunity for Fox to cement her role as a starter for the No. 1-ranked team in the world by proving her versatility and consistency.

“I think a lot of it has to do with not expecting anything and not taking anything for granted,” she says. “I think having that mentality of always wanting more, and wanting to challenge yourself and not just thinking about success.”

The USWNT has also relied on Fox to carry heavy minutes, something she says has taken time to get accustomed to. It’s difficult to replicate the grueling schedule of a World Cup group stage, but head coach Vlatko Andonovski attempted to mimic it at this year’s SheBelieves Cup.

“I really think this past SheBelieves, playing in all three of those games and the back-to-back-to-back, after that I was like, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,” she says.

(Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

The U.S. is going to rely on Fox as a player who can both carry the ball forward and make the necessary recovery run against international opponents stacked with winger talent.

“It is just another challenge. And obviously, it’s at the world stage, so it’s going to be more intense, it’s going to be loud,” she says. “But I think just doing my role and locking down my side, and no matter who I’m playing against, how can I lock down my side but also make them chase and defend?”

When Fox steps out on the field in New Zealand starting next week, she’ll be capitalizing on six years of work within the U.S. first team, and living out a dream that started much earlier.

“My parents are coming,” she says with a smile. “So I think it’ll be pretty surreal when I get to see them in the crowd, and obviously it’s such a trek to get there, and they’ve made so many sacrifices for me to be here. So, I think that is probably a moment when I’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.