Tinaya Alexander Credit: Washington Spirit/ Xavi Dussaq

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Outside of the United States, the idea that an athlete could attend college on an athletic scholarship because they excel at sports can seem like a foreign concept. But the common American practice of combining academics and athletics presented Tinaya Alexander with an opportunity to leave the United Kingdom and come to America. Now, the 22-year-old is a professional soccer player with the Washington Spirit after being selected 14th overall by the team in the 2022 NWSL Draft.

“College is so expensive in the U.K., and then you’ll end up in debt,” Alexander tells City Paper. “Getting the opportunity to even go to college for free alongside playing soccer at the same time—I can’t complain about that at all and so many people would love to have that opportunity in the U.K..”

Alexander’s journey started in Reading, England and eventually took her to London, where she trained at the Arsenal academy. While playing for England’s youth national team, Alexander took a trip to the United States and realized the country was an ideal place to be for an aspiring female soccer player.

“I just enjoyed the atmosphere and the culture and how everyone treated women’s soccer—it’s totally different. So it was always an aspiration of mine to actually come and play in America,” she says. “I also wanted to do school alongside playing soccer and it was really difficult to do so in the U.K.”

Her destination, though, was not one she envisioned when she first considered attending college in the U.S. More than 4,000 miles separate her hometown from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the campus of Louisiana State University.

“I wasn’t like, ‘I want to get to Louisiana.’ It was just like, ‘I want to get to America.’ And I thought everywhere in America was the same, right?” Alexander says with a laugh. “I definitely was happy with my choice going there … [It’s] very cultured, very different. I definitely enjoyed my five years of being there and the people are great.”

At LSU, Alexander, a 5-foot-3 forward, became a four-year starter (her junior season was cut short due to injury) and earned All-SEC honors her senior season. Her 22 career assists rank second in school history. Alexander was one of several women’s soccer players who came from England on the Tigers’ roster, underscoring the draw of American college sports for foreign athletes. For female athletes especially, the ability to earn a scholarship is particularly appealing since there are far fewer opportunities to make a living as a professional soccer player compared to men.

“With the female side of football, the money isn’t always guaranteed. So my mom always made sure that I had school to back me up,” Alexander says. “I wanted to play at Arsenal and go to college but it was really difficult. I also wanted to travel, too, so it was just nice to get the opportunity to go abroad.”

Had she not journeyed from Reading to London to Baton Rouge, Alexander would not have ended up in D.C., where she’s joined up with the defending NWSL champion Spirit. Though going pro isn’t an option for the majority of college athletes, Alexander appears to have the skills to succeed in the NWSL. She is known as an elite-level chance creator, as evidenced by her haul of assists at LSU. Alexander also scored nine goals in each of her final two years in college.  

Washington has three principal attacking options in Ashley Hatch, reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman, and Ashley Sanchez, but Alexander should have the opportunity to earn minutes behind them. And with all three now in the U.S. national team picture, there will be chances to start games as well if she impresses off the bench.

Alexander isn’t setting concrete goals in terms of statistics this season. Instead, she is hoping to acclimate quickly to another new set of teammates and coaches.

“My main goal is to be happy, be confident,” Alexander says. “I think when I’m happy and I’m confident with myself then that’s where it all shows on the field.”