Authors’ note: Quotes in this article were edited slightly for clarity.
This is the first of five interviews featuring Racing Louisville’s international players that will be published during the off-season. These profiles are a collaboration between the Beautiful Game Network and Fleur de Lis FC. Michael Shaw of Fleur de Lis FC is a contributing author on this profile.
Long before she became a professional player, Emily Fox was widely considered to be one of the future faces of the United States Women’s National Team. A versatile defender known for her speed and ability to get forward, Fox is equally talented at playing on either side of the pitch and also excels as a midfielder.
After earning her first senior cap in 2018 as only a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, Fox spent much of her college career as the only collegiate player capped by the national team. An ACL tear in her junior year may have delayed her full integration into the first team, but she was never out of the picture.
Now, after a stellar rookie year at NWSL expansion side Racing Louisville FC and a standout performance during the USWNT’s recent friendlies against South Korea, Fox’s name is solidly in the forefront of conversations about the future of U.S. women’s soccer.
We sat down to talk with Fox in late October just a few days after the final USWNT friendly against South Korea while she and her Racing Louisville teammates prepared for the final match of their inaugural season. Through our conversation, we learned about Fox’s experiences overcoming injury, being capped while still in college, what it’s like being a rookie on an expansion team, and much more. We also discuss where she thinks Racing is headed as a club and where she feels she’s headed as a professional and international player.
An Outlet & A Passion
Like many kids, Fox began playing soccer when she was around four years old after her parents signed her up for a local team. Looking back, Fox says those years playing in local clubs up through middle school were when she fell in love with the game. Soccer was something she did for fun without any intense pressure to perform. This ability to play just for the joy of the game is something she worries is being lost in the younger generation.
“I feel like nowadays I always see younger kids on social media doing foot skills and training all the time and it does seem really intense and serious,” said Fox. “I feel lucky because I think for most of my childhood and middle school soccer was just fun and it was an outlet and my passion. And, for me, I think that helped me a lot to enjoy it and not take it as a job which is why I still feel like I love it today. It’s just so fun.”
Towards the end of middle school, Fox had to make a choice. In addition to playing soccer, she also competed in gymnastics. Both sports were becoming increasingly competitive and she needed to commit to one in order to advance further. It wasn’t an easy decision because moving to the next level of competition came with drawbacks.
“I think it wasn’t until 8th grade/freshman year of high school when I was like, ok, I want to play college,” said Fox. “I want to be good at this and I’m ready to commit to this and, you know, sacrifice my weekends, things like the typical high school football games and all that stuff.”
Fox joined the club FC Virginia, part of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), shortly before high school. It was at an ECNL showcase tournament in Phoenix that Anson Dorrance, head coach of the University of North Carolina, first saw Fox play. This led to her being recruited by UNC and, ultimately, verbally committing to the school as a sophomore.
Despite being talented enough to be recruited by several top schools and to be a regular in youth national team rosters, Fox had her doubts about whether she had what it took to succeed in such an elite college program.
“UNC was actually my last visit out of all the colleges I visited,” Fox admitted. “And after that visit, I just kind of knew that this was the place. I was the girl that had the UNC shirt from a camp and all that cool stuff, but I didn’t think I was good enough to go there.”
Instead of being dissuaded by her doubts, Fox chose to lean into them as a motivator to improve.
“UNC sets the bar so I was excited because I knew I was going to get pushed, I knew I was going to get better, and I knew it was going to be a really tough environment for me.”
Surgeries & Senior Caps
Fox’s career at UNC got off to a fast start. Despite only being a freshman, she started in all of the first 13 matches of the 2017 season and played the full 90 minutes in five of them.
Only 12 minutes into that 13th match against Boston College, however, disaster struck when Fox tore her ACL.
“Before that happened freshman year, I had never really had a major injury. So definitely it was new to me.”
Fox was out for the remainder of the season and had a long recovery ahead of her, but the specter of the 2018 U20 World Cup loomed large. She had already competed in the 2016 U20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea, and she was determined to get back on the roster again. This ended up being the motivator she needed to get healthy and get back to playing as soon as possible.
Her recovery went well, because not only did Fox make the U20 squad that summer, she got called onto the senior national team in November of 2018 for a couple of friendlies in Europe. She started both matches, receiving her first two senior caps while only a sophomore in college.
Did she have any idea she was being considered for the U.S. first team?
“I think I knew I was in the mix and that I was being watched,” said Fox of being called into her first senior camp. “The U23 coach was also in with the full national team so there was a lot of cohesion, so I knew something was happening but I didn’t know I’d be called up to play.
“It was really exciting and a motivator to know this is what it’s like, this is the level, this is the standard. So I think after I had that first cap and that training camp you’re just kind of there and you see the level and it was more motivating. And I was like, okay, this is what I need to work on, this is what I need to do. Get back home and get to work.”
Fox was capped once again in January of 2019 and was called into camp for the She Believes Cup in February and March. Although she didn’t make the 2019 World Cup roster, even being in the mix of players considered is a striking achievement for a college sophomore.
Fox’s junior year, once again, started strong. She not only had a team record 11 assists for the season, but she also scored her only two collegiate goals as a junior. Then, in a late November match against the University of Southern California, disaster struck again when Fox tore her other ACL.
While a second serious injury might seem earth-shattering to many, Fox took it surprisingly in stride.
“I think I learned a lot. Even though it’s not something you want to happen ever, looking back I feel like during both those injuries I learned so much off the field and on the field. And so, I look at them as something that helped me.”
Fox credits her teammates with helping her through the recovery from both ACL tears. Older players who had suffered similar injuries offered support and advice and helped manage expectations. Now, as a more experienced player herself, she’s eager to return the favor.
“There’s a girl on the UNC team who tore her ACL now and I feel lucky that I can try and help her and give her advice like the girls gave me.”
The Next Level
Just as Fox was healing from her second ACL tear, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the whole world to grind to a halt. Consequently, Fox’s whole senior year was thrown into question.
In 2020, the NCAA granted all collegiate athletes an additional year of eligibility to make up for time lost to the pandemic. This offer was tempting to many players, especially seniors who had had their final season decimated by the virus.
Fox says she did, in fact, consider staying at UNC for another year.
“I think it definitely crossed my mind once or twice,” admitted Fox.
She says head coach Anson Dorrance encouraged her to move to the pros and leave UNC behind.
“Not because he wanted to kick me out!” she adds with a laugh.
“I think he was really encouraging, like, ‘the next level is pro and you’ve got this’ and obviously I trust him so much. So I think he was a big help in that.
“It was sad,” she continued, “because I felt like I kind of missed a year and I love UNC and I love my teammates, so staying, it did sound so nice. And it was a crazy year with games and whatnot. But I think, ultimately, for the next level and the goals I wanted it made sense to take that leap regardless of what happened with COVID and the Fall season.”
And so, in January of 2021, while at a training camp with the USWNT in Florida, Emily Fox was chosen by Racing Louisville as the first pick of the NWSL College Draft. Racing was an expansion team for the upcoming 2021 season meaning much of what made Racing a team was still a big question mark. Most players hadn’t even met each other yet.
Prior to being drafted by Racing, Fox didn’t know much about the team, but she does say that what she did know impressed her.
“One thing that I thought was really well broadcast was the training facility and how its state of the art and how it was soccer-specific and that it was going to be even between the academy and the boys and the girls. So I think that was one thing that stuck out even before I got here just because that’s not something that I would say any other team has in the NWSL. So that was one thing that was really exciting whether I came here or not, just in general.”
Fox was lucky that former UNC teammates, including Taylor Otto, Julia Ashley, and Alexandra Kimball were with Racing when she arrived, so she had some familiar faces around her. (Kimball tore her ACL in the preseason while a non-roster invitee and left the team to recuperate.) Fox also considers herself lucky to be chosen as Louisville native Emina Ekic’s roommate because she had someone happy to show her around her new city.
Still, the transition from the revered, established culture of UNC to the great unknown that was Racing Louisville took some work.
“At UNC, there is so much history and so I feel like as a player when you get there, you adjust to the culture, the culture doesn’t adjust to you. But at Louisville, all the players that came there, we all influence and still are influencing the culture. And so that was a huge adjustment.”
Having the team trend young with the majority of players either rookies or second years did help the process, said Fox. The fact they were close to the same age meant they could relate to each other and develop relationships more easily. Even so, building an expansion team is a long, drawn-out process.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” admitted Fox. “I think building a culture, building standards for the team is something that takes years and years and years.
“But, again, my teammates here are amazing, and even though it is hard to be an expansion team and, you know, when you look at the history of expansion teams it’s tough.
“I feel really proud of our team. And even these past games, I feel like we’re finally starting to hit our groove even though our season is ending. But it’s exciting for the next year and the years to come.”
In the last three games of their season, Racing Louisville earned 5 of their final 22 points with a win against the Orlando Pride and two draws against NJ/NY Gotham FC. Although they ended the season in ninth place, they managed to earn the most points of any NWSL expansion team in their first year. Previously, Orlando had earned 19 in 2016 and the Houston Dash earned 18 in 2014. Not bad for a side filled with young players with limited pro experience.
Still, the NWSL is a hard league, said Fox, and learning to build on the pitch chemistry with your teammates on the fly is challenging – even if you do have great relationships off the field.
“It’s hard,” said Fox. “I think that in this league every game is so competitive and so I think that’s also been tough. Like knowing that these are things we need to work on and need to fix almost immediately and having that stress on your back because each game in the league is just so competitive and so hard. And so having cohesion and having that chemistry is so important because the season is so long and each game matters…
“So, yeah, I definitely think we’ve gotten so much better at it and I think each game we’ve been able to learn from it which explains why at the end things are starting to come together.”
As tough as her rookie season was, Fox said a year in the professional league has helped her level up as a player. Today, November 5, Fox was announced as one of three nominees for NWSL Rookie of the Year showing her hard work is being recognized.
🚨 Time to vote! 🚨
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) November 5, 2021
“I definitely think playing in this league for a year has helped me so much, especially with the aggression and physicality. It’s a huge jump from college and so I definitely think with how many games we play and with the competition we play in every game, I think that physicality and aggressiveness is something that I’ve learned and wanted to improve in as the game goes on.”
The increase in the physicality and confidence in her game was certainly on display in the USWNT’s second October friendly against South Korea. Multiple viewers commented on her aggressive runs during the match with quite a few saying she deserved player of the match accolades. Her name even trended nationally on Twitter despite the fact that it was also the much-lauded final international match of superstar Carli Lloyd’s career.
After the match, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said he was “very happy” with Fox’s performance.
“Overall, a great performance,” said Andonovski. “And I just hope this is a baseline or base for her that we can continue building on.”
When asked to describe what besides a year of professional experience changed between this match and her previous senior caps to inspire such a burst of confident play, Fox’s answer was surprising.
“In terms of just confidence and kind of owning it, I always try to ‘fake it til you make it’,” she responded with a laugh.
“So if you act confident, if you act like you belong there, your body kind of emulates that. And so, I think for me, I just kept telling myself ‘you’ve done this before, you’ve been here before’.”
Just the experience of being in the senior camp was important, said Fox. Coaches Andonovski and Milan Ivanovic were incredibly supportive of her, as were all her fellow teammates. The fact these matches were also superstar Lloyd’s final international matches also provided a burst of inspiration.
“I heard a lot of great conversations within the camp and it just made me be like ‘wow, this is really cool’ and like I’m really excited and really happy to be here and like I want Carli to go off of this game with a win and just kind of take over.”
A Look at Emily Fox’s Tactics and Statistics by Michael Shaw
If you have watched Racing at all this season, you have seen how much the team plays through Fox.
I would encourage you to check out Arielle Dror’s pass networks on Twitter. Taking a look at the Pass Networks for Racing’s 3-1 victory over Orlando visually highlights Emily’s value to the team. On Racing’s pass network, notice that Fox’s circle is larger than all of the other players, indicating that she had the most touches during the match. Fox also has lines (indicating passing exchanges of 5 or greater) connecting her to 6 other outfield players, the most of any other player on the team. When Savannah McCaskill is not in the match, a large portion of the play runs through Fox. When McCaskill and Fox are playing together, they tend to be the dual nodes of Racing’s attacking play.
When asked about her on-field passing connections, Fox stated, “I play outside back so the 7, 11, and the center backs that are right next to me, I have to have great chemistry with them. I played with Kayleigh Riehl previously so I was really excited to be able to play next to her just because I think she’s a great leader and she’s a very calming presence and just reassuring. So I was really excited to continue that chemistry with her.”
Looking at Orlando’s pass you can see Fox’s impact on the defensive side. Orlando basically just abandoned any possession on Fox’s side of the field. Whether this was planned or dictated by Fox’s play in the match, it shows the respect that opposing teams have for her defensive skills.
While Fox is in the top 3 for Racing in such categories as passes/match, total minutes, and number of touches, an advanced statistic called goals added probably best summarizes her value to the team. According to the American Soccer Analysis website, “goals added (g+) measures a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defense. It does this by calculating how much each touch changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding across two possessions.” Fox’s g+ is 75% higher than the next player on the team.
In order to have successful passing and g+ numbers, you have to build chemistry with your teammates. According to Fox, “Because we’ve had different lineups and we’ve had three games a week, I feel like I’ve been able to form relationships and chemistry with everyone.” When asked about who she’s learned from the most, Fox pointed to Yuki Nagasato. “I think one (player) in particular who I think I’ve learned a lot from is Yuki. Just how she plays … I really love her style of play. So I think whether she’s talking or whether she’s just doing something and I’m watching it I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her.”
Additionally, Fox was the team leader in interceptions with 46, which also put her in the top 10 in the league in that category. However, even as a defender, you have to be good with your next pass once you win the ball.
“I think when you’re a defender because you distribute to everyone…being able to know what people prefer [helps with chemistry].”
The chemistry that she had with her teammates in driving the team forward led her to be nominated for NWSL Rookie of the Year. Although that award will most likely go to the Washington Spirit’s Trinity Rodman, as almost all awards go to forwards and midfielders, Fox should certainly be honored for being nominated as a defender.
Next week, we’ll continue our profiles of Racing Louisville international players with an interview of forward Ebony Salmon who plays internationally for England. Stay tuned!