Emily Thompson didn’t take the ordinary route of playing a collegiate sport. She was recruited to play soccer at Webster University in 2009, the same year she graduated from Jackson High School. Unlike most collegiate athletes, who play right after their senior year of high school, Thompson wouldn’t play for Webster until a year later.
She spent a year playing semiprofessional soccer in Italy first.
Thompson traveled to Italy as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program, where she took classes in art history and art restoration. Thompson’s decision to travel to Italy was based on her education, not soccer.
“I’m doing art restoration as a career,” Thompson said. “That’s kind of where all the art is, so that was a big appeal of going to Italy in the first place. I got to see a lot of the things we study at Webster up close and personal.”
Thompson was accepted to play soccer at Webster before leaving for Italy, but she wasn’t sure if coach Luigi Scire would allow her to play once she came back.
“The leaving was a decision I pondered over,” Thompson said. “Once I was accepted to play on the women’s team here, I didn’t know if when I came back they’d let me play. Luigi said he would be more than happy to have me come and play whenever I got back.”
Thompson lived in two cities while in Italy, first in Ventimiglia and then in Alessandria. She lived with two different families, and both helped Thompson find soccer teams she could play for: Sanremese Calcio Femminile and Alessandria Calcio Femminile.
The first family Thompson lived with knew she played soccer because of the application she filled out for the Rotary, so they found a team she could play for.
“I couldn’t understand a word of Italian,” Thompson said. “All I know is they said, ‘You’re going to soccer practice.’ I got my stuff together and went in the car with them.”
Italian soccer leagues are ranked from Serie A to Serie E in descending order of skill level. Serie A is the professional league, while Serie B to Serie E are semi-professional leagues.
Sanremese Calcio Femminile is a Serie C team, while Alessandria Calcio Femminile is a Serie B team. Thompson was not paid to play for either of the Italian teams she was a member of.
The style of play in Italy is different than it is in the United States, and Thompson realized that when she tried out for the first team.
“When I went to the first set of tryouts for the first team, we had to do what was considered their hardest and only run of the entire year,” Thompson said. “It was a 15 minute run around the field. Me and one other girl were the first two that finished. They were like ‘Oh, you can run.’ Apparently they don’t do that very often over there.”
Aside from not running very often in practice, Thompson had to make some other adjustments.
“Playing here and being a defender, we made lots of runs out of the back,” Thompson said. “Whenever I tried to do this with my first team, I got in trouble and yelled at. They’re so different. Nothing is the same at all.
“Here, we try to put more passes together on the ground. They had a tendency to flight the ball sometimes, even just the short ball they were trying to get. They would kick it, but somehow it would always end up at the right person’s feet. If you try that here, sometimes it just looks like you’re playing kickball. They made it work, and it looks fabulous.”
The playing conditions weren’t the same either. Thompson frequently played on dirt fields and in imperfect weather conditions.
“It was rain or shine, snow or sleet, literally,” Thompson said. “At Webster we cancel practice if it rains. One night it rained so hard we could barely see anything. It was November on the coast. We played in a foot of snow on a turf field. They didn’t stop for anything.”
Thompson had to adapt to playing with and against women significantly older than she was, which helped her understand and adjust to the Italian culture.
“I played with women 16 all the way up to 42 years old,” Thompson said. “They work far more as a family. We had to dress, undress and shower right after practice in the same locker room with everyone. That kind of weird, bond closeness is what they operate on. They’re so close it’s weird.”
Playing against older women of an advanced skill has helped Thompson play at the collegiate level. Scire noticed the change in the way Thompson plays post-Italy.
“She plays with a little more confidence,” Scire said. “She is more aggressive than she was in high school. We’re very happy what she’s achieved after playing at an advanced level.”
Thompson admitted that playing in Italy has helped her mesh with the new women on Webster’s team.
“I had played for one team since I was 10 years old and knew all of them like they were my own family,” Thompson said. “Having new people on the field with me was definitely a good experience. Being able to exist on the field helps tremendously when trying to get to know all the new players here at Webster.”
Thompson’s time in Italy helped her develop into a better player, and her playing skills have translated to the collegiate level.
“The opportunity to just step on the field helped sharpen up her talent and skills,” Scire said. “Her time over there was beneficial, and her experience has helped her in the collegiate game.”
It may seem nerve-racking to live in a foreign country, and not know anyone or how to speak the language, but Thompson saw it as an opportunity to improve her knowledge of art and her skills in soccer. And she fulfilled a childhood dream in the process.
“I was more excited than anything,” Thompson said. “I told my mom since I was younger that I was going to live in Europe. The fact that I was doing it for free before I went to college or had a job was a very exciting aspiration.”