Quinley Quezada interview: The new style for the summer – Here come the Filipinas

Philippines’ historic FIFA Women’s World Cup qualification had to be mostly celebrated alone by Quinley Quezada-Keča on the night. Ordinarily, the attacking talent is right there in the mix, at a Pinay party that the wider world is on the guest list for this summer.

It is now less than four months until the Philippine women’s national team line up for the nation’s very first World Cup game, against Switzerland in Dunedin. The Filipinas punched their proverbial ticket for Australia/New Zealand on a night in Pune, India, all the way back in January last year.

Sarina Bolden’s inch-perfect penalty was the crowning moment of their decisive Asian Cup quarter-final win over Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), after Olivia McDaniel’s two shootout saves – and a successful spot-kick of her own while staring down elimination – had put them in touching distance. But for a stunning late equaliser (from Zhuo Li-ping), Quinley Quezada-Keča’s instinctive, 49th-minute finish inside the near post might have sealed it all much sooner.

“The night that we qualified, we all celebrated a little bit at dinner, but we couldn’t do anything crazy because we still had the semi-finals coming up,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until after the tournament was over that we let loose and celebrated more.”

“The night before we all flew out, a few of us stayed up and hung out in the dining room; we were just reminiscing, playing games, and eating snacks…some alcohol was involved! After the tourney, some of the girls went back to the Philippines to celebrate; unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had to get back to my club in Japan (JEF United Chiba, at the time), but I wanted to go so bad.”

The 25-year-old is one part of their considerable American-born contingent, representing her maternal heritage. A debutante in 2018, the player affectionately referred to as ‘Q’ has become firmly embedded in this ground-breaking modern chapter of the national team.

Their World Cup qualification came at an Asian Cup bearing the impact of COVID restrictions. If the biggest night of their sporting lives playing out in a crowd-less stadium wasn’t incongruous enough, how about having to return to the hotel alone, with euphoria still spinning among your teammates?

Despite playing the first 72 minutes on the evening, Quinley had only just joined back up with the group, after a seven-day isolation in her hotel room following a positive test between the first and second group games.

“I was still isolating from the team, so I had to go back in a private car by myself. As I was sitting there waiting to get driven back, I was just thinking ‘wow, we really qualified for the World Cup.’

“I definitely was tearing up and filled with so many emotions. I was so happy, but also feeling a sense of FOMO, because I just knew the girls were going wild on the bus, and I wish I was with them.

“But that lonely car-ride back really helped me process us qualifying; I remember sitting there by myself, tears in my eyes, and just thanking God for this whole experience. I also didn’t have phone signal, so I was anticipating the moment I got wi-fi and could speak with my family and hear what they thought.

“I still get chills thinking back to that day!”

While she did get to join the immediate elation of their shootout success, and the on-field celebration photos, it was certainly a jarring alternative to what she often enjoys. She describes how it typically goes down with the Filipinas: a scene filled with all the energy of a fresh kid on the major-tournament block.

“We have one song that we always play right before we go out for warm-up; it’s almost become a tradition to end on this song! It’s ‘Big Energy (Remix)’ – Latto, Mariah Carey, DJ Khaled.

“I must say, it’s a great environment in the locker room. You’ll have people doing their pre-game routines, some singing along to the lyrics while putting on their gear, some getting focused with their own headphones on, some breaking out in dance; it really is a mix of everything and it’s really fun to witness.

“Dom Randle is our DJ, she’ll ask for requests every camp, but a majority of the songs played are hip-hop, pop, r&b; basically, anything with a good beat to get everyone pumped up. We’ll play Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé.”

Representing the team has further opened up a proud half of her identity, but one she had never truly had the platform to celebrate in full before. Born in Pasadena, California and raised in nearby Rosemead, she tells how her maternal grandparents met in the Philippines after moving to Cebu for college, with her mother, Ruth, born in Bataan before the family moved to the U.S. eight years later.

Then there is her paternal heritage, with dad Raúl’s father hailing from Zacatecas, Mexico. Of four children, Quinley is the youngest (her sister Freesia the eldest, followed by brother Alessandro and sister Taymar).

Just as music is an irrepressible unifier when the Filipinas come together, it is an accessible reminder of the time, and company, she grew up in.

“Songs from Sade are meaningful to me because it reminds me of my dad and my childhood; ‘Is It a Crime?’ is one of my favourites. The first music that I downloaded was probably something from Taylor Swift.

“Now thinking back on my childhood, I remember these two songs because of my cousin and my sisters: ‘Bumble Bee’ – Bambee, and ‘Missing (Todd Terry Club Mix)’ – Everything but the Girl.”

The aforementioned Sarina Bolden is currently riding front seat with her on the road to new memories. Like her fellow Californian, her route to the cusp of the grandest stage has had more than a touch of the unconventional.

Both were on the list of registered hopefuls for the 2019 NWSL College Draft. From that year’s subsequently-undrafted crop, Bethany Balcer memorably went all the way to the league’s Rookie of the Year and the USWNT – and Q and Sarina are now World Cup bound.

The two had signed for Xinbei Hangyuan in Taiwan, only for a pandemic to decide otherwise, but via Japan, Quinley has found her way to Serbia, for the women’s team of the internationally-renowned Crvena zvezda (Red Star Belgrade). It is a move that links directly back to her time at University of California, Riverside, and her now-husband, Dusan Keča.

“He transferred into UCR at the beginning of my junior year; he was on the men’s team, so both of us were there early for pre-season…and yeah! (Before moving to Serbia) I was still in Japan, but I was looking for a new club.

“Since my husband is from Belgrade, he and his family knew someone affiliated with the club, and they got in connection with the women’s head coach and club president for me. So, basically, my husband doubled as my agent to get me to Red Star!”

The team are currently 2nd in the league, competing with perennial winners and subsequent Champions League regulars ŽFK Spartak Subotica (the previous club of Philippines defender Jessika Cowart). While the famous, firecracker intensity of Red Star’s support for the men’s team is not exactly replicated on the women’s side, the following they do have has made its impression on Quinley all the same.

“For my very first game, we were in Macedonia, and a huge crowd of supporters came out; they really were chanting at the top of their lungs for the whole game. They threw shredded paper onto the field while we were playing, and afterwards, they lit flares, and we went over to join the festivities.

“Later that day, one of the fans came to our hotel and gave all of us a small gift, and they gave me a bracelet with the word ‘Delije’ engraved on it, which is the name of the Red Star supporters. I’m very grateful that I got to experience that for my very first match.”

Typically a conventional forward, she has been deployed in more recent times as an attacking midfielder with the national team, shifting infield from the wing depending on the scenario. Early on with the team, the native players were teaching her some Tagalog, while her time with Red Star teammates could be considered equally educational!

“In Serbia, they are wild; even when we’re on the bus going to the stadiums, they are blasting Serbian music and singing at the top of their lungs. It’s quite an exhilarating sight to witness, especially for me when I don’t know any of these songs, and the girls aren’t just singing for one or two songs, they’re literally singing every single song that comes on.

“They also play it on this three-foot-tall stereo speaker that lights up, and that thing is powerful! They’ll play the music so loud you can’t hear your own music if you have headphones on – you might as well just join them, even if you don’t know the song!

“The only time the girls will stop the music in the locker room is if we have a meeting, or when they do the team’s pre game tradition. The tradition is one girl lighting an incense, we make a circle, and she goes around the circle holding it up to have each player bless themselves with the smoke from the incense.”

What was a predominantly-Japanese JEF United Chiba locker room, meanwhile, would have a mainstream American soundtrack, at moderate volume. Across her different clubs and at college, Quinley has so far escaped an initiation-song requirement, though that dubious honour caught up with her once she became an international.

“For the national team, you can choose whatever you want to do; some people will dance or do karaoke, or if you have a special talent, you can show that off. It also depends on who is new to the team along with you, so thankfully, there was a handful of us that were new when I joined.

“I did my initiation in a group of five, so we made up a dance; I don’t remember the song we used, because it feels like so long ago. There’s definitely a video of our dance routine out there, but hopefully it won’t ever reach the Internet!”

Impromptu moves were in full effect when she took a slow-motion (and thankfully, safe) tumble over the advertising board in the game with Wales at February’s Pinatar Cup in Spain – after a finely-timed tackle, no less. The first UC Riverside player to even appear in a World Cup qualifying game, the Highlander pride at her progress could be off the charts come July.

Besides getting to compete at Division I level, she also associates her time in blue and gold with some big beats going down in the Big West.

“When I think of UCR music, the artists that come to mind are: Drake, Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Post Malone. We would blast music in our locker room while my college teammates would break out in dance; some moves not PG, but it’s a good time!

“Thinking of UCR in terms of music also takes me back to our school concerts, where my teammates would spend time getting ready together. I vividly remember our spring concert my freshman year, when Trey Songz and Ty Dolla $ign were the big artists to perform.”

Despite the spot that different music holds in her affections, Quinley is still to attend her first concert (off campus, at least). This, though, is the website where dreams may not come true…but they get extra imaginative.

With the time machine fired up, Q is given the opportunity of seeing any act, living or dead, performing at their spectacular best.

“I’d go see Michael Jackson, obviously because he’s a legend, but I’d also like to see Marvin Gaye. I know a lot of his songs because my grandma would play a bunch of his music, so there’s just comfort when I hear Motown tunes; ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is one of my favs.”

If the TV cameras catch a pre-game, headphone-clad glimpse of her this summer, there is a chance she will be locked into one of the following.

“I like a variety of artists and genres but I do gravitate more towards artists/songs with that r&b feel. In no specific order: SZA, Maeta, H.E.R., Kiana Ledé, Giveon, Ambré.

“SZA’s new album has been on repeat whenever I drive to training. Some songs that I won’t skip anytime they come on are: ‘Joshua Tree’ – Rozzi, ‘Brooklyn’ – Emily James, ‘Frank For You’ – Maeta, ‘Reckless’ – Arin Ray, ‘9’ – WILLOW and SZA, ‘Beretta Lake’ – Teflon Sega and SAINt JHN… to name a few!”

Should she ever be under pressure to record a cover track with any current or former teammates (it could happen…), another classic cut would be on the menu.

“Oh, man, that’s a good question, because I can pick different songs to go with specific teammates, but I’d have to go with ‘Lovin’ You’ – Minnie Riperton; I’d cover that song with Allyssa Troy and Jessica Samano, my UCR teammates. There was a night in college where we tried hitting the high note in that song, so I just think it’s fitting that we complete a whole cover!

“If there was a music video of our cover, I’d have Sarina Bolden as our background dancer, because she always comes up with the most hilarious dance moves!”

Although her international career has already taken her thousands of miles away – Tajikistan shortly, for Olympic qualifiers – it had its genesis only 40 miles or so from home. With the team on the lookout for Filipino-eligible players in the U.S., Nat González, Quinley’s college coach and a friend of Philippines’ then-coach Richard Boon, alerted her to an upcoming try-out in Corona.

The Filipinas soon head into their debut World Cup under the guidance of the Australian who had a huge hand in driving his own national team on to the status they enjoy today as recognised world contenders. Chelsea star Sam Kerr is among the standout names to benefit substantially from Alen Stajcic’s input, and Quinley is unequivocal in her own endorsement.

“Alen is such a great coach and person. I had an interviewer ask me a few weeks ago about Alen and his coaching style, and I said something along the lines of, ‘I wish I had him as a coach growing up, because he has forced me to look at the game with a different perspective.’

“It’s these small details that I haven’t previously focused on that he has put emphasis on. Things such as body position when receiving the ball and even off the ball, scanning constantly, which way you face when you receive the ball, and for the position in the shape we play, I need to be cautious of my starting position.

“Off the field, he’s helped me understand the importance of recovery, especially with all the travel and matches, which is new to a lot of us. Overall, Alen has brought this professionalism aspect to the national team, and I’m so very grateful for him and the staff he’s brought along to help us in this journey.”

Earning bronze last May at the rearranged Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam, July then brought the golden feeling of tournament success. The Filipinas lifted the AFF Championship with a 3-0 win over Thailand at Manila’s Rizal Memorial Stadium, a competition Quinley had netted against Malaysia in, during the group phase.

The chance to wear the colours at the World Cup with millions watching on from around the globe is a prospect to send tingles down the spine. She considers how much they are also viewing it as a tournament to potentially alter the course of their respective, individual stories.

“It definitely is a platform to boost our lives and careers. I’ve heard some of my teammates talk about how it can bring all of us new opportunities in terms of clubs to play for, sponsorships etc. but this whole experience is new to all of us, so for me, I try not to think about all the outside stuff too much, especially because I tend to overthink a lot.

“I truly believe that God has a plan for me, and whatever course He chooses for my life/career, it’ll be the best. Another thing that I’ve taken from Alen is he always reminds us to not be so caught up in the media or the outside factors; since he’s been to a World Cup before and experienced all of it, I’m really trying to take his advice and live it out.”

It might be a little further than a road trip to the likes of Cal State Fullerton, but will she have her own cheering section to count on in New Zealand?

“Yes! A few weeks ago, my family told me they bought their flight tickets and are arranging their accommodations, and a group of my best friends made a group chat and had a Zoom meeting about planning their trip.

“Apparently, there has been some scramble trying to figure out all the logistics of the trip; my family and friends want to see all my games but also want to explore New Zealand and visit Australia.”

A further fillip came the Filipinas’ way a few days ago, when hitting an all-time high of 49th in the latest FIFA Women’s Ranking. Big or small, each new marker they lay down is a meaningful piece in what they are creating.

The most awe-inspiring reward so far for their efforts is around the corner, though there is still a slight wait before the tournament properly comes calling, so Q has time here to enter an ultra-exclusive facility. The Beats & Rhymes FC small-sided arena – so exclusive that it doesn’t really exist (the rent’s an absolute steal).

In keeping with the closing question through the years, Q is asked to place herself in the heat of a frenetic 5-a-side, with four current or former teammates required to complete her line-up. Instead of a ‘best’ selection, the theme is simply to suggest examples of the various players they would love to light it up alongside.

“Anne Bailey, UCR teammate: she’s a keeper and a great one at that. I’ve always said she’s a ninja; we’ve played small-sided together and she somehow turns into a natural forward!

“She’s been my roommate/housemate throughout college and she’s just the best. Since graduating, we constantly talk about how we can end up on the same team again in the future!

“Allyssa Troy, UCR teammate: my best friend. She’s more of a defensive player and she’s super competitive; we still die laughing at a video of us two years ago being on opposing teams and just going at it, no mercy!

“Sarina Bolden: she’ll be the one to pump up the team. We have this saying, ‘SSBD,’ meaning ‘same same but different’ – we’ve been in similar positions since 2018 and we just get each other, she’s my girl.

“Alex Chidiac, JEF Chiba teammate: obviously, she’s a baller, and she made my time in Japan ten times better. If I could, I’d add my husband to the roster; he was a great holding mid back in his day, so he’d find a way to get me the ball so I can score.

“Maybe he can be listed as an alternate or something!”

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