Washington Spirit attacker Tinaya Alexander has no plans of changing what she stands for as she embarks on her first season in the NWSL.
Before she went 14th overall to the Spirit in December’s NWSL Draft, Alexander played her fifth and final year at Louisiana State. After each of the nine goals she scored during the season, she lifted her jersey to reveal a white shirt underneath. The shirt read “Stop police brutality” as a tribute to her father, who was killed by a police officer when Alexander was 11 years old.
After consulting with Spirit head coach Kris Ward, Alexander will continue the routine in the NWSL.
“I don’t think I should change who I am as a person for anyone else,” she said. “I think that if you’re going to support me, and I’m scoring goals, then you support me as a person.”
Soccer carries much more meaning for Alexander than scoring goals and winning games. Her father introduced her to the sport after she tried ballet and tap dance and hated them both.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even be here, I wouldn’t be playing,” she said. “[The shirt] just takes me back to those moments where I’d look over and he’d be on the sideline when I scored.”
Alexander’s mother did her best to maintain a sense of normalcy for her children after their loss, balancing a job while raising two kids with busy sports schedules in Reading, England.
The memories from those years were still fresh when Alexander had the shirt made in 2020. She didn’t wear it until the 2021 season so people wouldn’t confuse it for a political statement following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in May 2020.
Around the same time, over a Zoom call, the 22-year-old shared her father’s story with her LSU team for the first time.
“It was such a powerful moment for the team,” said head coach Sian Hudson, who had supported the group’s contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
A year later, Alexander started displaying the shirt during her goal celebrations. She faced some immediate backlash, including from people who threatened to stop coming to games in protest.
Hudson encouraged Alexander to use her voice, and the school defended her with posts and a video on social media. Feeling like she shouldn’t have to explain herself, Alexander was hesitant at first to talk in the video, but she knew it was important for people to understand the backstory.
“I’m not saying it for Black people, I’m not saying it for white people — I’m literally saying it for everyone,” she said, adding that it was a Black officer who killed her father.
“This past year I just saw a lot of maturity, in terms of the way she grew as a person,” Hudson said. “And I think as a result of that, she was able to really express herself as a player on the field.”
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Tinaya Alexander (@tinayaalexander)
A post shared by Tinaya Alexander (@tinayaalexander)
The 2021 season was Alexander’s best yet. After earning All-SEC First Team honors and finishing her LSU career ranked second all-time with 22 assists, she decided to enter the NWSL Draft in December. Only one other LSU player, Alex Arlitt, had ever been drafted into the league, so Alexander wasn’t getting her hopes up.
To her surprise, the reigning NWSL champions selected her with the second pick of the second round.
During physicals on her first day with her new team, Alexander ran into Gaby Vincent, who was traded to Washington from Kansas City days after the draft. Alexander offered a handshake. The cameras were close, but not on them, so they laughed and said, “Let’s do it again!” Their reenactment turned into the photo the Spirit used for team materials.
“It’s just funny because we look back and we’re like, ‘That’s when we first met and we were already making jokes,’” said Vincent, who finds humor in Alexander’s mannerisms and the way her voice changes when she’s surprised.
Alexander went about preseason focused and calm, and her teammates usually saw her with her headphones on. So Vincent started poking her in the locker room.
“‘Hey, what are you listening to?’” she said she asked Alexander. “Which is probably super annoying, but I knew, like, hey, we’re going to be friends. We don’t need to do this awkward phase. We’re going to be cool. Let’s just get past that part.”
Now they sit in bean bag chairs for hours during their time off from training, watching “British Bake Off” and playing “Call of Duty.”
On the field, Alexander turns into an entertainer. Being a part of the league’s youngest team, measured by average age, has been one of the best sources of motivation. When Alexander sees one of her similarly aged teammates do something impressive, she wants to match it.
A dynamic player who’s very measured in how she sets up defenders, Alexander brings a different style to the field than the Spirit’s other strikers, notably Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez. She loves to drive at people on the dribble and deliver passes in behind the opposing defense.
“It was huge for her when she scored her first goal in training, and everyone was celebrating with her, for her, so we’re just trying to continue to push that forward and keep growing her confidence,” said Ward.
The seven U.S. women’s national team players on the Spirit’s roster demonstrate the value of quick reaction time and decision-making. When Alexander has the ball on the counter attack, she can hear them breathing after they’ve lost it.
It’s not easy to chase down an explosive player like Alexander, after all.
Vincent laughs thinking about the time her teammates admonished her in practice after Alexander danced right past her and two others.
“I told her after practice, ‘Girl, you got me in trouble! But good job,’” Vincent said.
The only 2022 draftee signed by the Spirit, Alexander has already seen lots of playing time in Washington’s first two matches of the Challenge Cup, including her first professional start on Friday against Gotham FC.
Ward plans to rotate her through the lineup as much as possible during the preseason tournament. From there, Alexander will look to make an impact as the Spirit contend for back-to-back NWSL championships — and, if all goes according to plan, to score a goal so she can honor her father and share his story with the world.
“I have no doubt she’ll pursue an unbelievable professional career,” Hudson said. “She wants to be the very best.”
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.