ASU prides itself on being an attractive university for international students, a mindset that is trickling down to its athletic programs.
Englishman Graham Winkworth, in his second season at the helm of ASU’s women’s soccer team, placed an early emphasis on recruiting international players because of a unique dilemma.
Upon his arrival in December 2016, the majority of players in the 2018-20 classes had already committed, forcing Winkworth to widen his recruiting area.
“The way recruiting works in women’s soccer is that most of the best players commit two, three, four years before college,” Winkworth says. “We had to go overseas and get a little bit more diverse with our recruiting than what most teams do.”
In total, Winkworth brought in 18 players in his first full recruiting class, including five international ones. He signed players from Germany, England, the Netherlands, Japan and Mexico. They have contributed to a 6-5-1 start this season for the Sun Devils, who have already surpassed the team’s win total of last year.
Recruiting internationally presents its own challenges, something that Winkworth has been aware of throughout his coaching career. Born in Reading, England, he has established a network to help him find the best overseas players.
“Internationally, it’s contacts-based,” Winkworth says. “It’s hard at first, but once you sort of make inroads it’s easier again.”
Those inroads have resulted in Winkworth bringing in some top-tier international players that have made an immediate impact in maroon and gold. Even with his connections, Winkworth still had to be creative in recruiting.
“We’ve got players that leave for their national teams, whereas some universities won’t allow that to happen because they’re on scholarship,” Winkworth says. “We recruit in a way where we allow it to happen, so it gives us a better chance of signing the girls in the first place.”
That wrinkle in the recruiting system was a key piece in bringing some talented players to ASU.
“I’ve been training for the World Cup the whole year, and it was my main goal,” Dutch freshman Eva Van Deursen says. “When I finally got called up for the final team, I was really happy and coach was so encouraging.”
Nicole Douglas, from England, is pacing the team this season with six goals. The level of competition sold Douglas on coming to the desert.
“I wasn’t very aware (of American collegiate soccer),” Douglas admits. “I had to do some research before I came over here about the different conferences. I wasn’t sure what the best conferences were over here, and I found out that the Pac-12 was one, if not the strongest, and I knew that it was the conference for me.”
Winkworth is no stranger to recruiting internationally. One of his most talented players is senior captain Jemma Purfield from England, who he initially recruited to play at the University of South Alabama. Winkworth convinced Purfield to transfer to ASU after he accepted the head coaching job in Tempe.
Purfield knows that as a leader and as an international player herself, she has experience that other players can lean on.
“I can relate to what they’re going through and how hard it is sometimes to leave home,” Purfield says. “I try to be empathetic to what they’re going through and make them feel at home as quickly as possible so they can transition and help the team.”
On and off the pitch, the transition is happening about as smoothly as anyone around the program could have hoped.
Off the pitch, the players aren’t alone. They can lean on fellow international players like Purfield, sophomore midfielder Lara Barieri, a native of Brazil, or sophomore goalkeeper Nikki Panis from Canada for experience on managing a college soccer career thousands of miles from home.
The local players help as well, providing a sense of home for the players in their day-to-day lives.
“I think the girls really have embraced having the diversity culturally, (and) also the girls from the area,” Winkworth says. “When it comes to Thanksgiving, I bet these internationals might go for six turkeys. They’re going to have so many options because it’s a really close environment.”
On the pitch, the five international freshmen have accounted for 12 goals this season, scoring 11 and assisting on another. Stylistically, Van Deursen, Douglas, Mexico’s Alexia Delgado, Japan’s Hikaru Minami and Germany’s Marleen Schimmer play different brands of soccer.
However, they’ve blended those differing styles successfully for Winkworth.
“Not only are they talented technically, (but) they have a very high soccer IQ,” Winkworth says about his international freshmen. “They come from countries where soccer is a priority, so it changes the mentality within the squad.”
The international flavor has helped ASU start the season strong. Although Winkworth says he intends to look for players from the Phoenix area first, his worldwide recruiting strategy promises to add an international flair to ASU’s women’s soccer program for years to come.