Her Louisville link is inextricable but Emina Ekić also got the homecoming glow this summer while 5,000 miles from the Derby City, and the attacking talent’s eardrums are still ringing.
It has been near enough obligatory in Emina Ekić’s early career to accompany mentions of the neat-and-nimble number 13 with a nod to her hometown-player status at Racing Louisville. The detail has remained one of mutual pride for a club and player who began their professional story in unison, as NWSL newcomers in 2021.
In the league’s most global of squads, though, the former University of Louisville standout has taken to some continent hopping of her own. A loan with Australia’s Melbourne City had her on course to be among the A-League Women’s outstanding individual performers of last season, prior to injury.
Restored to fitness earlier this year, the ex-U.S. Under-23 has opted for a senior-international career with her parents’ native Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fitting into a new on-field system was only part of the assignment, with a head-ringing high dive into this pocket of Balkan culture provided free of charge.
“We drove from Bosnia to Hungary, and the whole eight or nine hours, (the team) played music, the entire time – I was surprised the speaker didn’t die,” she laughs. “I kind of wanted to take a nap!”
“They were like, ‘Do you know Bosnian music?’ ‘Yeah, I do; not as much as you guys, obviously, but I know a few songs here and there.’
“(Songs like) MC Yankoo – ‘Moje Zlato’ (with Milica Todorović). I hope they don’t remember when I come back but I have to do an initiation song; I’ve never sang in Bosnian before, this is gonna be so bad…”
Back in the ‘Ville, no such vocal test materialised when the club’s inaugural squad came together in 2021, with the sport’s widespread welcome ritual still yet to become a staple at Racing. The lavender locker room, however, is not complete without its backing track.
“We listen to everything. Everyone watched the Barbie movie, so we love the Barbie song (Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice – ‘Barbie World’).
“I’m a fan of Jack Harlow, I love to put on anything and everything Jack. A lot of Drake.
“Either Carson (Pickett) or Katie Lund are mostly on music – I feel like it’s typically Carson – but we have so many different people that will play it, so it’s really nice. It’s like a comfortable space to play your music.
“I’ll try to throw some things out there sometimes, like when I’m in warm-ups, lighten up the mood, but I’m not the best dancer.”
While the 24-year-old has already demonstrated both the curiosity and conviction to venture out, Louisville and its characterful, community feel will continue to spell home. At Racing, her name is secure in club history, with her first professional goal also the team’s very first in regular-season play, in what became NWSL win number one.
En route to a 2-0 at home to Washington Spirit in May 2021, Lynn Family Stadium on a Friday night witnessed the opening entry into a uniquely-impressive catalogue of early-career goals. Seizing on an attempted clearance to cut in from the right side of the box, she would chop on to her left foot before driving a shot into the far corner from 18 yards.
That was one memorable night on her first annual ‘No Place Like Home’ tour, and one ‘hometown hero’ later got to cross paths with another, as she received a video message last year from her aforementioned favourite artist.
“(The club) knew that I was a big Jack Harlow fan and they tried to reach out a couple times. I think he was supposed to come and we had a jersey for him, but something happened with his schedule, he got busy or had to leave, so in return to kind of apologise, he sent me a birthday video, and it was so cool.”
Racing then paid homage to the rapper’s ‘Jackman’ album this year by recreating the cover shot with Emina in The Highlands neighbourhood of Louisville, having become one of the first in the city to find the original location (aided by Google Maps). While communications manager Logan Agin and videographer/photographer Will Carlon were with her for photos at the spot in question, a car with Harlow inside was passing through, with the Grammy-nominated artist handing a CD of his album to Agin.
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) April 28, 2023
All eyes were on Eminawoman in another music/soccer crossover, when she stepped up to grasp a moment in the spotlight, down in Daytona Beach. Few players can say they were next on the bill after Chance the Rapper, though that was precisely the case for Racing Louisville and Orlando Pride at the inaugural DAYTONA Soccer Fest last July.
With Daytona International Speedway hosting the first NWSL game held outside of a stadium, Emina opened the scoring, controlling a cross at full stretch before slipping the finish through a defender’s legs, in what became a 2-2 draw. When not among the headline acts herself, live shows have been known to play a part in Emina and teammates’ downtime.
“A lot of the girls and me, we went to Forecastle, it’s a big music festival here in Louisville, everyone goes. We went and saw Billie Eilish, which was super cool, and we have these things called Waterfront Wednesday, where, by the walking bridge that connects to Indiana, they’ll have this whole set-up and food trucks, and people will come play music.
“It’s really low key, they’ll set up a stage, and we’ll go hang out at that.”
Given the golden ticket to see anyone from all-time perform, her unequivocal selection is Justin Bieber. Back before the Biebs, though, it was all about the beats (and the rhymes…) for this young Louisvillian.
“I feel like I had a lot of my dad’s music taste growing up, so we really liked listening to Eminem on the way to my club games. He’s a big techno guy, so he’d play like a ‘90s mix, the techno music, which sometimes our strength coach puts on in the gym, and it really just gets you going.”
Local pride was providing some of the pump-up even before she turned pro. Committing to the University of Louisville while a freshman at duPont Manual High School, her four years in Cardinal colours laid plenty of the groundwork for life at the top level.
The U of L number ten ended her collegiate career as ACC Offensive Player of the Year. It could be said, however, that only a select few were present when she gave her most crucial performance of all.
“In college, ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus, I think I had to sing that on the bus on an away trip.”
With headphones on, volume cranked, and a whole team falling silent to hear her channelling the spirit of Hannah Montana?
“Yeah, the silent disco/karaoke, whatever it’s called…”
On her ascent through the U.S. youth national teams, she would emerge as a captaincy contender, with a trip to Australia for the Under-18s one occasion in which she wore the armband. After returning Down Under five years later with Melbourne City, she could be found stepping forward to lead the way once again – before kick-off.
“I think I was DJ a lot, actually. The music was different, I think, to what they were used to, so it was a nice little spice-up for everyone!”
She just gets better every game 🔥
— Melbourne City FC (@MelbourneCity) December 10, 2022
The six-game, four-goal loan spell included another for the sumptuous goal collection, with a shift from left to right foot under pressure in the Western United box, before firing into the roof of the net. A-League Women fans were sadly denied the chance to see much more, with a fractured fibula soon after her match winner against Perth Glory ending her stint early.
She had, nevertheless, made an undeniable impression, for attacking ingenuity on the field and companionship off it. The latter was demonstrated in one collaboration with an Aussie international, as she describes when asked which of her career teammates she would choose to record a song cover with.
“Karly (Røstbakken), me and her really synchronised ‘Already Best Friends’ by Jack Harlow (featuring Chris Brown). We had the togetherness part, and we had the separate part, where he kind of does like a dialogue.
“I think we would crush it, actually.”
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) November 12, 2022
Those lighter moments during a season are arguably as meaningful as anything achieved on the field, particularly for those who have to look on from the outside at times. Missing her senior season in high school after an ACL rupture to her right knee, the same would occur on the left side, late in Emina’s freshman year of college.
Having known in vivid detail what emerging from an arduous, comeback road entails, she intends to apply her experiences by pursuing a future in physical therapy, working with athletes. The desire to reassure and encourage someone facing up to long-term injury is natural, though it is easy for even well-intentioned communication to inadvertently drain those affected at times.
Emina offers her take on how teams, or a player’s support system outside the sport, can possibly help in such a scenario.
“You want to feel included in the team. It’s tough, because at the beginning when I was rehabbing, I felt very welcomed back, I was in team meetings, I would go to PT and do my own thing, because that’s what I needed, but I was in the gym when the team was training, so I felt very isolated.
“But everything else, we did together, we had lunch together and all this stuff. It is nice when you don’t have ten different people coming up to you every day, ‘Oh, how does it feel today?’
“It’s just like…’It feels the same!’ People are just being helpful and being nice, but sometimes that just weighs down on you.”
Being separated from the ball for any significant period of time feels unnatural to her. Her technique-packed style is one she has credited often to repeatedly practicing dribbling growing up, kicking around with family or even alone in the basement (the free-kicks might have been honed outside…).
The decision to take her talents into senior international play was rubber-stamped recently, as she joined the Bosnian squad in July for friendlies with Hungary and Greece.
“It was a big decision I had to make, and I was thinking on it, honestly, for a couple of years, because I could have gone and played for Bosnia after I had gotten drafted out of college, but I was in with the U23s with the U.S. and I was still kind of holding out to see where that would go. But I also am very interested in the European game, and playing with Bosnia, I would potentially have the opportunity to play in the EUROs; ultimately, that’s what drew my decision, to be honest.
“I wanted to get over there and see what it would be like, and a lot of people say that my game resembles the European game and that I would enjoy it a lot. It was just something really cool to be able to see more of that side of myself and my family.
“Growing up in the U.S., I feel different here, because technically, my whole background is Bosnian. Then when I get there (to Bosnia), they call me ‘the American’ on the team, which is really funny.
“So, kind of like back and forth, but I really had so much fun those ten days, being able to see the country and the girls, and the culture, which I haven’t done before.”
Among the teams edging closer to a first qualification for a major tournament, it took extra-time for Wales to overcome them 1-0 in the first-round play-off for the 2023 World Cup. Emina is now with the squad again for UEFA Nations League games with Belarus and Slovenia.
Not the first NWSL player to represent the team, she follows the example of Sarajevo-born, American-raised goalkeeper DiDi Haračić (now of Angel City FC) in recent years. The current crop predominantly comprises home-based players, with others in nations including Turkey and Germany. Defender Gloria Slišković and forward Maja Jelčić (both teenagers), meanwhile, made summer moves to leading Italian sides Juventus and Inter, respectively.
For Emina, her father, Jasmin, comes from Bosanski Novi (now Novi Grad), and her mother, Melita, from Blagaj Japra. She explains how the trip for the July camp was made even more meaningful.
“My father still has his childhood home, and my grandparents on my mom’s side still live there, so while I was in camp, my parents were actually on vacation visiting. I got to see a bit of my grandparents’ house where my mom grew up, and then my dad is like 15 minutes down the road, I got to see his house and what he did.
“I got to be in that city for two or three days before I had to head into camp, which was really nice.”
Neither loud nor brash, her humility and sharp, understated humour have helped make her a popular teammate. While the sport’s true constant is change itself, she has treasured starting her career in her home city, and creating bonds with the likes of fellow Racing Louisville originals, defender Lauren Milliet and goalkeeper Katie Lund.
Their locker room is spectacularly cosmopolitan, with the recent Challenge Cup finalists the first club in NWSL history to feature players from six different continents on their roster. They may have lost the ever-willing, infectious dancer that was Swedish midfielder Freja Olofsson (to Real Madrid) last year, but the Nordic influence lives on through Finland’s Elli Pikkujämsä and Denmark’s Nadia Nadim.
Vastly-experienced forward Nadim’s story got the musical twist on here back in 2015, and the player whose alternative roles in life range from doctor to international TV pundit has already left a permanent impression on Emina.
“On and off the field, great person, love her; I feel like she’s really taken me under her wing, in a sense. She was here the first year, too, but she got here midway through.
“We’ve rehabbed together in the gym. Sometimes it’s just hard, you walk in and it’s the same thing every day, ‘Oh, we’re hitting arms again today,’ so we were there to help each other through that, hype each other up.
“I just think she’s such a smart player that she understands how everyone works, whether they want the ball to their feet, what their strengths are, their weaknesses. She just does such a good job of scanning, and that’s what makes her great.”
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) August 13, 2022
Another cherished thread of understanding comes from the faith they share.
“She’s really gotten close to my family; my family’s Muslim and she’s Muslim. When it’s Ramadan, we’re both fasting, which is difficult when you’re playing, so little things like that.
“She’s come over for dinner, she’s come over for those Muslim holidays. It’s really nice to be close outside of soccer, you know what I mean?
“We hang out and do things and soccer isn’t involved, which is nice sometimes.”
Having initially struggled post-college, as the sport suddenly became her life’s sole focus, Emina feels having alternative interests is essential to ensuring her identity does not rest solely on who she is on the field. That said, the ‘day job’ does manage to make a cameo in her downtime – virtually, at least.
“In my free time, I’ve picked up reading; I read a lot of Colleen Hoover. And ever since FIFA came out and we’re in it, a bunch of the girls bought gaming consoles, so I have a PS5 now.
“After all my rehab and PT, I’d go home – because I couldn’t do much, I was in a boot – and I would just game. It started with FIFA, and it just worked its way to Call of Duty.”
As alluded to, the NWSL finally became part of the FIFA series in March this year, and will be again in the soon-to-be-released EA Sports FC 24. So, what was Emina’s reaction to seeing a video-game version of herself that she didn’t even need to create?
“It was so cool, it was awesome. It’s crazy how specific the details are.
“I was playing as, obviously, Racing, and I get the ball, and they show replays, and they have my exact cleats with the exact colour scheme, like the ones that I’m wearing in training right now – that’s crazy. I don’t know how they know that, but that’s crazy!”
What twists the surreal life has in store next is all to be discovered. Her third professional season, though, is nearing its conclusion, with Racing (currently two points back in 9th) part of a sensational play-off race that has the league’s 12 teams all in contention with three games remaining.
To reach the post-season for the first time, and to play her part, is how she would choose it. For a player who is becoming accustomed to performing on different continents, branching out clearly holds little fear, but for a person so intertwined with one city, will life always eventually lead her back?
“I will definitely come back and visit, but I think it mainly just depends where my family is. I love the beach, so being somewhere close to the beach (is an option), or I could see myself living here.
“Louisville’s been home, it always will be home. When I leave and come back, it has that cosy vibe, kind of like a big hug.”
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