Maricarmen Reyes interview: Mari mentality – Tigres’ 24K campeona

Photo: Tigres UANL

Maricarmen Reyes’ storybook sign-off at UCLA set the bar stupendously high for dramatic success in her career. Her professional beginnings, though, have already gleamed with glory, indicating that even with a new band and a retouched sound, a little school spirit plays on.

It is less than 18 months since a national championship for UCLA came courtesy of Maricarmen Reyes’ right foot. As the Bruins midfielder pounced in the 107th minute to slide home a rebound from an ever-tightening angle, it was not just the final piece in a sensational turnaround from 2-0 down against North Carolina, but her very-last kick in college soccer.

If that crowning moment was a masterclass in opportunistic flexibility, she was back in the routine last year in Mexico, as the departure of Tigres UANL teammate (and one-time UCLA counterpart) Mia Fishel threw open the door for her to star in an entirely-unfamiliar role.

“Mia had left for Chelsea, so my coach (Mila Martínez) was like, ‘We need a nine,’” the Mexico international recalls. “And I’m just like, ‘All right…who’s it gonna be?!’”

“So, then she kind of told me, ‘You gotta take on this role.’ I’m like, ‘All right, whatever’s gonna help the team, I’m there.’”

It was a decision that paid off with interest. Just as Mia Fishel had topped the scoring chart on Tigres’ way to lifting the 2022 Apertura (the first of Liga MX Femenil’s half-season tournaments), ‘Mari’ took the regular-season Golden Boot honours (alongside Guadalajara’s Alicia Cervantes, with 15). The team would be Apertura winners again in November 2023.

“I obviously understood that it’s not easy, I’d never played the nine before, but I did watch film, I kind of studied the position in my own way. I think it was a testimony to my team how many goals I scored, because I couldn’t have done it without my team, and it kind of just flowed.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know that I could be the Golden Boot winner, I just was having fun with my team.”

Even over a year and 1500+ miles removed from UCLA, plenty remains eerily similar for the Santa Ana, California native. She may have celebrated turning 24 last week, but those digits were adopted as her preferred playing number long ago, in honour of late Los Angeles Lakers and NBA icon Kobe Bryant.

From UCLA Blue and Gold, she runs now with Las Auriazules (the golden-blue ones), while the silverware has also yet to cease (July 2023’s two-legged victory over América also made them Campeón de Campeones). For her first professional club, it could barely have been a more absorbing one.

In a league that began play seven years ago, the devoted fandom that has accompanied Tigres’ men’s team for decades has been proudly and raucously represented for its women’s side. Maricarmen now finds herself on the inner circle of ‘la banda de San Nicolás.’

The rhythmic passion of the ‘Incomparables’ in the stands can always be counted on, and as anyone who has seen the social-media snippets will know, the team’s energy is also rarely below bouncing in the locker room. Maricarmen provides her firsthand perspective on how the Amazonas do it, with one Colombian colossus in particular keeping it simmering at El Volcán (Estadio Universitario).

“Some of the girls actually went to see Karol G, she’s a huge artist right now, so some of the girls are playing her in the locker room a bunch, especially her new songs. I like her a lot.

“Bad Bunny, obviously, he’s always on in the locker room. We have Jacquie (Ovalle), she sometimes puts her music on, which is like all the Spanish music, reggaetón, all that stuff, and then sometimes it’s some of the American girls; Anika (Rodríguez), sometimes she goes on the aux.

“It’s a variety of music that we hear, and with a lot of culture and different nationalities on the team now, we get to hear everybody’s preferences, so it’s pretty cool to see.”

Having triumphed in the first half of the season, Tigres are currently embroiled in the chase for Clausura success, sitting 1st in the standings with one game remaining before the decisive Liguilla. Maricarmen’s aforementioned positional switch – although she has reverted to midfield of late – is not all that she has acquired in Mexico.

There is the nickname that fans have been affectionately referring to her by – ‘Barbie Malibú’ (no translation necessary…). This Barbie prefers a side of volume with her live-action shimmer on a game day.

“Sometimes I’m in the zone where I just want to listen to my own stuff, but sometimes it gets fun in the locker room because everyone’s dancing and people are high in spirits, so sometimes I’ll dance or sing, too. I listen a lot to, obviously, Spanish music, but from home, I listen to r&b, hip-hop, rap that I grew up with; I have two older brothers that would listen to Akon, T-Pain, or 2Pac, Kendrick (Lamar), stuff like that.

“So, I’ll listen to that, but when it’s getting ready for me to go to a game, I like to listen to more upbeat music, or sometimes I listen to sad songs; it just depends on what my mood is.”

The Spanglish audio track to her life owes chiefly to her bilingual childhood, with her parents having moved to the U.S. in the ‘90s. With Maricarmen the youngest of three, her brothers have their own on-field stories: Jorge played at UC Irvine (winning two Big West Championships) before time in Hungary with Kaposvári Rákóczi, while Oscar reached the College Cup with UCLA in 2011.

For her part in the Bruins’ 2022 glory, Maricarmen was honoured by her home city, and Santa Ana spells community to her.

“I have 100+ family members that live in Santa Ana, so that was very beautiful to grow up with, because my mom and dad spoke Spanish to me first before I even learned English; when I went to kindergarten, that’s where I learned English. I was raised in a predominantly-Latino community, and that’s where I learned how to be proud of my roots, because I was around it all the time.

“Especially playing in the U.S., where it’s a system where you kind of have to pay to play, I was the only Latino on my team, I was the only Hispanic girl. I looked different from everybody else, so I used that as my strength, and that’s how I got a scholarship to go to school.

“I kind of got into my own style of play; I knew I could touch and move, and be very skilful, so I did stand out in that way.”

Being willing to stand out certainly comes in handy when running the gauntlet of an initiation-song performance.

“I remember my first national-team camp, I was in Japan, and I had to sing like a banda song. Oh my God, I was so nervous, because I was one of the youngest girls, so I was like, ‘Everyone’s looking at me, I have to sing this song – how embarrassing,’ but you get over it.

“At UCLA, we were on a trip and I sang a Chris Brown song, ‘With You,’ on the bus.”

After her 2023 Apertura scoring run, she saved a show-stopper for the Gran Final. In the first leg with América at the Azteca, a cushioned touch on the edge of the penalty area set her up for a perfectly-dipping half-volley into the corner. Tigres returned home 3-0 winners, before 38,493 saw a goalless second leg seal the deal, putting Las Amazonas further out in front as six-time campeonas.

That grand-scale glory came little under a year after her golden goodbye at UCLA, albeit with the drama a whole lot steadier (aside from a brief wait while VAR confirmed her goal!). It would be understandable, though, if her heart is still racing from that College Cup comeback against UNC – the first time that a team has overturned a two-goal deficit in the final.

In coach Margueritte Aozasa’s debut season, their first national championship since 2013 had been 17 seconds away from not happening at all, until a flying Reilyn Turner found the roof of the net to equalise. Maricarmen’s double-overtime winner played out in front of almost 10,000 in Cary, North Carolina, with the tears and confetti falling in unison after the final whistle.

Asked of the soundtrack reminders to her Bruins team, the emotion at the very mention almost stops her in her tracks.

“Dang! That team…I have a team full of best friends, after winning the natty (national championship) especially.

“We had Maddi Desiano, she was always on aux, and we would have some of the freshmen go on aux. Especially during the natty, the Final Four, when we got back to the hotel from winning, the entire lobby was dancing, everybody was celebrating the win.

“Yeah, I think…oh my God, that’s very nostalgic for me! It was one of the best days ever.”

Tigres are among those to have qualified for the inaugural Concacaf W Champions Cup, set to begin in August with clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean. In addition, the newly-created NWSL x Liga MX Femenil Summer Cup has seen them drawn alongside Pachuca, Houston Dash and Kansas City Current in the group stage.

The latter of those match-ups offers a possible reunion for Maricarmen with ex-UCLA teammate and U.S. international Hailie Mace. Progression in the tournament could also lead to another chance to play against long-time friend Ashley Sanchez, now of North Carolina Courage.

While the 25-year-old midfielder has made her name with the U.S. Women’s National Team, the Californian has roots in Jalisco. In July 2022, she and Maricarmen met in the final group game of the Mexican-hosted Concacaf W Championship, with the United States’ 1-0 win ultimately ending Mexico’s World Cup qualification hopes.

With Maricarmen playing at what is now her home stadium, her tearful, post-match embrace with her fellow Bruin, as the two wore one another’s jerseys, was captured on camera.

“She is a lifelong friend and I’m very fortunate for our friendship. I got to UCLA, and in the beginning, I didn’t know that we were going to be friends like that!

“Because we played national team against each other, stuff like that. We started hanging out and then we just became super close.

“I’m obviously really grateful to have her in my life, but also so super proud of her.”

Despite Mexico’s time away from the global-tournament stage in the women’s game (since 2015’s World Cup), there is increasing indication that they are on the ascent again, underpinned by the strengthening stature of Liga MX Femenil. A headline marker in La Tri’s new era arrived in February’s Concacaf W Gold Cup, with a 2-0 win over the U.S. in Carson, California sending them through to the knockout phase as group winners – the ‘dos a cero’ scoreline especially befitting of this particular sporting rivalry.

In what was just their second victory in 43 games against their near neighbours, the first goal came from one of the competition’s standout players – Tigres’ Jacqueline Ovalle. Maricarmen describes her connection with the electric 24-year-old wide player, who recently celebrated 100 goals for the club.

“I’ve played with Jacquie since I was like 15, so I’ve known her for a long time, and she’s a player who is super special. She has that mentality that she just wants to win; that’s something that I love.

“Especially coming from UCLA, I’ve been surrounded by players like that, so to have her on my team, I’m super happy that I could share the field with her again.”

As well as her impactful creativity on the pitch, Ovalle is also typically on hand to help engineer an atmosphere with the national team.

“I think it’s a very similar environment (to Tigres), because some of the American girls put music on, but also, the girls that are born in Mexico, so it really just depends on who has aux that day, which is cool to see, because you can see everyone’s taste in music. As far as DJ, I think Jacquie Ovalle goes on aux a lot, especially at Tigres.

“If I think of a dancer, I think of Charlyn (Corral); you can always count on her to do something funny in the locker room.”

Appearing at a FIFA World Cup (for Mexico’s Under-20s in France in 2018) set up a touch of sibling synergy for Maricarmen and her brother Oscar, who did so for the U.S. at the 2019 FIFA Beach Soccer edition in Paraguay. He and the aforementioned Jorge can claim some hand-me-down influence on their sister’s listening choices.

With Maricarmen born in April 2000, her response to the question of whether she has ever bought a CD probably comes as little surprise…even if it will bring an avalanche of sadness to older generations everywhere.

“I mean…I downloaded to my Apple music!” she laughs. “When I was younger, I would listen to the music that my brothers would listen to, because my brother was at UCLA and the other was at UCI, so I had their iPod.”

The locker-room party, meanwhile, was not the only bumping backdrop to her UCLA years.

“I saw The Weeknd, I saw Drake, Travis Scott, Lupe Fiasco; those are the ones that I remember off the top of my head. All were in college; super awesome.”

Given her chance to hop the turnstiles of time, guaranteeing herself a ticket for any artist of any era, she would be keeping it Cali…with one possible exception.

“Kendrick Lamar, and 2Pac…and maybe Michael Jackson; that’d be kind of cool.”

Should she ever want to bless a track of her own with some Santanera style, her College Cup co-stars will also be summoned to the studio for this cover feature.

“I think I would have to go back to college, and kind of do like a T.I. ‘Whatever You Like,’ take it back to like the natty, to the Final Four, in the locker room. That would be my pick, so I could feel that moment again.”

Following the euphoria of that national championship, December 2022 also brought the announcement of her turning pro with Tigres. She recalls the thought process behind opting to forgo the NWSL Draft, at a time when her stock would have been understandably high.

“After winning the natty, I was kind of like, ‘Okay, I have to make a decision now,’ because the tournament ran until December 5th, and the league (in Mexico) was starting right away. I did get some opportunities here in Mexico, and in the NWSL, but I kind of felt like at that moment, Tigres was right for me.

“I kind of just went with it, and now, I look back and I think I made a great decision, especially after last season and coming into this one. I think after we played Barça and (Real) Madrid, Bayern Munich, we saw how we could compete with huge teams.

“Especially now that we get to play the tournament with the NWSL, that’s something that I didn’t know would happen in the beginning. Coming to Tigres was something that I look back at and I’m like, ‘Wow, this has been an amazing experience,’ and I love my team and my teammates, and I love the city.

“I remember trying to make that decision, leaving college and kind of not knowing what I was going to do until I actually got here, and now, it makes more sense.”

It was Maricarmen who put Tigres ahead in last August’s friendly with Real Madrid (a 3-1 loss), stretching to score on the half-volley from the far side of the box. Alongside increasing opportunities to face such opposition, Liga MX Femenil has steadily been evolving into a destination league in its own right for global talent, alongside its foundation of homegrown and dual-national Mexican players.

For all of its uniquely-intriguing promise, a competition that is only seven years old has obvious areas to iron out, with greater parity in player salaries perhaps chief among them. Its widening appeal, nevertheless, was headlined by the arrival of Barcelona and Spain great Jenni Hermoso (to Pachuca) in 2022, with the 2023 World Cup winner then signing for Tigres in January this year.

Maricarmen has been keenly aware of the gold-plated learning opportunity it represents for her.

“I think it was last week, I kind of told Jenni, ‘Hey, Jenni, if you see anything that I could do differently, just let me know.’ She’s super awesome to share the field with but she’s also a cool person.

“To have that on your team, you obviously can pick her brain; that’s something I let her know that I’m going to do. I’m grateful that she’s here and we can talk to her about her experiences.”

Recent months have also brought South Africa star Thembi Kgatlana to Tigres, a player whose dancing feet have so far ventured to four continents at club level, as well as producing historic World Cup moments for her country. For Maricarmen, it means more global know-how to absorb, and on-field flavour to feed off.

Self-motivation has never been an attribute she lacks, but at this juncture, which coaching approach does she feel most compatible with?

“I like being challenged. I like being, honestly, in positions where I’m uncomfortable; that’s where I feel like I grow the most.

“Especially coming from UCLA, I’ve been in environments where I’ve been injured and I had to learn how to walk again, stuff like that. Nothing’s really been given to me easy, so I like when things are sometimes not as simple, because in times where I feel like everything’s been hard, I’ve somehow managed to understand that life is not sunshine and rainbows; you gotta go after it and work hard for it.”

Together with her family, though, she sees her responsibility as far more than finding a way through opposing teams.

“I do want to see change in my city. I have started going back and giving back to my community in any ways that I can, and that’s through the program that my family is currently working on: the La Academia soccer program, non-profit.

“Hopefully, one day, when I am done with my career, I can go back there and see in any ways that I can inspire the youth, especially young girls that look like me that don’t really have an opportunity and can’t really afford club soccer. The way that so much talent goes unnoticed because their parents can’t afford to take them to training, or they can’t afford the club fees, I grew up seeing that.

“I don’t want others to let go of their opportunities because of those things.”

As well as community-soccer camps, their efforts have included bringing 60 students from Santa Ana to visit UCLA, showcasing in living colour something that need not be unattainable. Maricarmen’s own once-bold dream, meanwhile, continues to unfold – in frighteningly-lifelike definition.

Alongside the grace in her game, the evident grit that took her this far, when the odds were hardly stacked in her favour, is its own homage to where she comes from. As for life now in Monterrey, it is every bit the ‘Incomparable’ experience.

“It’s such a soccer-loving city that everybody is involved with it – you’re either a Rayados fan or Tigres fan. Here, there’s literally no in between, so you can go to a grocery store and people know who you are, you can go get a coffee and people know who you are.

“But I think the beauty of it is how much people are invested in women’s soccer; that’s not something that’s very common. Seeing it here firsthand and living it for a year is something that I’m like, ‘Dang, this is crazy how much people really care about women’s soccer and how much it’s growing.’

“To be part of that growth is super awesome for me.”

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