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How the USWNT’s Mia Fishel is proving Vlatko Andonovski wrong

Mia Fishel scored in her debut for Chelsea on Sunday, a week after earning her first USWNT cap. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

When Mia Fishel scored the opening goal in her Chelsea debut, it felt like a Hollywood beginning. Fishel has been in the U.S. women’s national team conversation for months, she’s representative of a new wealth of club options for women’s soccer players in the U.S., and she is now proving herself on one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Fishel is a known goal-scorer. She can make connective passes and probing runs in behind the defense, and she can use her height to gain advantage in the air in front of her opponent’s goal. None of those assets are new now that she’s at Chelsea, but with a Women’s Super League contract and a first cap for the USWNT behind her, she appears to have unlocked another level in her game.

Even though she’s just 22 years old, Fishel’s ascension to international prominence has been a long time coming. She’s already played professionally in two leagues after a stellar college career at UCLA, and she has become a fan favorite among U.S. fans. But she’s also taken a path less traveled in the women’s soccer landscape, and it’s taken some time for decision-makers to catch up.

Drafted by her former UCLA coach, Amanda Cromwell, to the Orlando Pride in 2022, Fishel instead opted to join UANL Tigres in Liga MX Femenil. Liga MX Femenil began play in 2017 and has been rising in stature since its inception, but at the time was considered a developing league compared to the NWSL. Fishel dominated in Mexico, becoming the Liga MX Femenil’s top scorer with 47 goals in 64 games and the first foreign player to win the league’s Golden Boot. She won two league titles with Tigres and continued to develop as a young scorer, before making the leap to Chelsea.

“What I did was historic,” she told in 2022. “You don’t see U.S. players coming to Mexico. This hasn’t been done yet. The rate at which the league has been growing was very appealing. They’ve only been here for five years or so, and the global media recognition, the passionate fans, playing in [large] stadiums, you just don’t get that in the U.S.”

Fishel’s jump to Liga MX Femenil was prescient, as other well-known internationals begin to follow suit. Spain star and World Cup champion Jenni Hermoso now plays for CF Pachuca, and former France national team player Kheira Hamraoui currently plays for Club America. Fishel’s decision to sign with Chelsea is perhaps an indication that the world of women’s soccer is bending toward the European game, but she’ll long be remembered as a trailblazer in choosing her own path.

Fishel landed at Chelsea this season as an expected backup to Australian superstar Sam Kerr, who missed the team’s WSL opening win over Tottenham on Sunday due to rest.

“For the team to be better, I needed to come in to help Sam Kerr when she doesn’t need to be in the game. That [means] a big role,” Fishel told the Evening Standard prior to the season’s start.

In some ways, it’s poetic that Fishel has joined a Chelsea team headlined by Kerr, whose journey to this point has parallels to that of her understudy.

Sam Kerr has led Chelesa to four straight Women's Super League titles since joining the team in 2020. (Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Getty Images)

Nowadays, it feels like Kerr was always destined to be beloved in London, a trophy winner many times over and a top scorer in a league that grows in prowess with each passing year. But when Kerr officially joined Chelsea at the end of 2019, questions plagued the forward who started her career in Australia and North America, winning the NWSL Golden Boot more than once but failing to walk away from the NWSL with a Shield or a championship win.

Assumptions about athleticism trumping technical ability and how she would fit in with the biggest stars in Europe pervaded the conversations about Kerr. The answer, of course, was that she did just fine, finding an immediate foothold in Emma Hayes’ lineup and now considered one of the best players in the world.

For Fishel, that push for acceptance was delayed when former USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski declined to bring her into senior team camp in the run-up to the 2023 World Cup. While it’s impossible to know how a player would have performed within an unfamiliar environment, Andonovski’s decision was even more baffling because Fishel seems like exactly the type of player who would have thrived in his system.

Fishel has the ability to play target forward, and her first goal for Chelsea came courtesy of a towering header. But she can also slip back into the attacking midfield, and her ability to contribute to build-up play is the type of skill set Andonovski seemed to want out of Chelsea teammate Catarina Macario and U.S. veteran Alex Morgan. When it became clear that Macario would miss the World Cup due to injury, Andonovski’s stubbornness toward Fishel felt more like coaching dysfunction than objective evaluation of what she could possibly bring to the team.

After the USWNT parted ways with Andonovski following a disappointing World Cup result, Fishel was one of the first players brought into the fold for their September friendlies, earning her first cap in Megan Rapinoe’s final match. While the U.S. won’t have a new permanent manager until December, Fishel’s call-up could be perceived as a quick direction shift from Andonovski’s vision, rewarding the patience of a player who has done everything possible to earn an opportunity.

The next question for Fishel is how many minutes she’ll get for Chelsea consistently once Kerr returns to the starting lineup, but in just one appearance, she’s made herself difficult to drop. As long as she keeps performing at the highest levels, her time on the periphery of the USWNT should finally be over.

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