World class

Soccer player and aspiring physician Michelle Alozie '19 became a bit of a celebrity this summer as a member of the Nigerian World Cup team.

Evan Frondorf ’14, a risk consultant in San Francisco, writes frequently about sports for this magazine.

Among the many stories coming out of this summer’s Women’s World Cup, it was hard to miss the infatuation with a certain American member of the Nigerian team. The headlines exploded: “From the Lab to the World Cup: Meet Footballer-scientist Michelle Alozie,” “Meet Michelle Alozie, Nigeria’s Star Player Pursuing a Career in Medicine,” and “Michelle Alozie Stuns in New Photo.”

A month after Nigeria’s exit from the tournament, on a Wednesday in September, Michelle Alozie ’19 was back in the daily grind of a “footballer-scientist.” She had just made the quick trip from the training grounds of the Houston Dash—her professional soccer team in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL)—to Texas Children’s Hospital, where she works as a research technician in a lab that is testing various novel chemotherapies to treat pediatric leukemia. “We’re hoping that the smaller-scale research we do is able to go into a bigger scale and then into clinical research,” says Alozie.

Later that week she would travel to Louisville, where her Dash notched a crucial late-season win before she headed back to Texas for another packed week. “Personally, I’m exhausted by the time I get home from training,” says Aerial Chavarin ’20, Alozie’s former Yale teammate, who currently plays professionally in Mexico. “I’m not surprised one bit that Michelle is able to make it work—she’s always been super hard-working and focused on her goals both on and off the field.”

While waiting to send out samples from the lab, Alozie reflected on a summer that saw her become one of the more recognizable faces of the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. It was a summer that propelled her to international fame. “I blew up a little bit quicker than I ever would have expected,” she says. “I just feel really grateful for the platform, and I hope I can be a role model for anyone who is looking to be in the science field but wants to pursue a different passion or a love or a dream of theirs beforehand.”

Michelle Alozie was born to Nigerian parents in Apple Valley, California, in the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles. She took to soccer from an early age, winning national championships with club teams and setting high-school records in her hometown. She could have played at any number of Division I colleges, but she knew she was interested in both a career in medicine and a career going pro, and she decided Yale was a place where she could do both. “They really sold to me that I could make the best of whatever situation I’m in,” she says. “Even though it’s not necessarily a school—or even a league—that produces a lot of professional athletes, I could always be the start of that.”

In New Haven, the 5' 6" forward was immediately a standout. She was named Yale’s top offensive player in her first year and Ivy co-offensive player of the year when she was a junior. In that year—2017—Yale posted its best record in more than a decade. She was named to the All-New England team. And just as an aside: she was the top vote-getter.

Then, two games into what should have been a victory lap of a senior season, Alozie suffered a severe ACL injury that kept her away from the game for almost a year. After graduating from Yale, she played an additional season at Tennessee with her remaining eligibility.

But her time at Yale, where she majored in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, only reinforced her commitment to an unconventional path in medicine. Alozie found inspiration in Alan Dardik ’86, her senior-year research mentor; he had studied computer science at Yale College, and then became a surgeon-scientist at the Yale School of Medicine, focusing on vascular disease. “He really showed the kind of fluidity that is possible in medicine,” she says. “That gave me some peace in knowing that, although my path will be very, very different, I can still make it my own.”

After her 2018 injury, Alozie did attempt to enter the NWSL college draft, but she went unselected. She completed her one-season tour with Tennessee, and then signed a deal with a Kazakhstani professional team. She played in the early months of 2020—until the COVID-19 pandemic derailed her burgeoning career.

But she had achieved the first step in playing beyond college, and so had several others who had been on that 2017 Yale roster. Along with Chavarin, who was drafted into the NWSL in 2020 and still plays professionally, Carlin Hudson ’18 became Yale’s first draft pick in 2018, and Noelle Higginson ’20 played for Louisville’s NWSL squad before attending law school.

“I say it’s the era of smart schools, because the best players want the highest academic institutions,” says current Yale head coach Sarah Martinez. “They have their athletic goals, obviously to play professionally, and I think being able to see that it can be done without sacrificing other professional goals has really elevated our conference as a whole.”

It’s a surge that coincides with the continued growth of women’s soccer. The NWSL is now in its eleventh year, more than doubling the longevity of any other previous professional women’s league and setting new attendance records in every non-pandemic year. In 2023, an average of 10,000 fans have attended each game: more than 100 percent growth since the league’s inception. The Women’s World Cup, which once included 24 teams, expanded to 32 teams this year for the first time.

In 2021, Alozie was still on the outside looking in. Then came a leap of faith, and it produced a series of big breaks. She contacted a former club teammate from her teenage years who played for the Houston Dash, who in turn connected her to the Dash’s coach for a spot on the practice team. “My sister lives here in Houston,” she says. “I just came, literally crashed at her place, and just crossed my fingers and prayed that I’d be able to make it on the Houston team.”

And the pieces started to fall into place. Just a few months later, the Nigerian national team traveled to the US for a series of exhibition matches prior to the Tokyo Olympics. They were missing a number of players, due to visa processing delays. With matches coming soon in Houston, and roster spots to fill, the Nigerian head coach, Randy Waldrum—himself formerly the head coach of the Houston Dash—attended Dash practice and discovered Alozie.

Two days later, Alozie made her international soccer debut against Jamaica as a member of the Nigerian national team, known as the Super Falcons. Three days after that, she scored her first goal against Portugal. And within the same week, she was tasked with defending US star Megan Rapinoe in their final friendly match. “She just brings such a tenacity on both sides of the ball,” says Houston Dash general manager Alex Singer. “I would hate to be playing against her.”
 “Our FroCos at Yale had us write a letter to ourselves in five years,” says Alozie. “And on that letter, I wrote, ‘Oh, I’ll break a record at Yale for goals.’ And then I said I would make the Nigerian national team in five years’ time. It took a little bit longer—it took six years. It was a perfect moment that they were literally in the city that I was in, and everything aligned really well.”

Later that summer, Alozie signed a contract with the Houston Dash as a replacement player during the Olympics, before agreeing to a more permanent deal. Since that fateful week, she’s been a key member of the Houston Dash—and the Super Falcons. In June 2023, she was named to Nigeria’s World Cup roster as they prepared to take on a tough group consisting of Canada, Australia, and Ireland. Canada and Australia were considered to be top-ten teams per the FIFA rankings; Nigeria was ranked 40th heading into the tournament. (Alozie wasn’t the only Bulldog in the World Cup; Reina Bonta ’22 was on the Philippines roster.)

 “I don’t think it really hit me until I was actually in Australia. We were trying on the jerseys for the first time, doing photos and everything,” says Alozie. “I don’t know if it was imposter syndrome or an out-of-body experience. But it definitely just felt surreal that something I’ve dreamed of since I can remember was coming true.” The dream didn’t end there. Nigeria became one of the thrilling Cinderella stories of that tournament, going undefeated in their group to advance in upset fashion—including a dramatic 3–2 win over the cohosts, Australia. In the round of 16, the Super Falcons stayed even with England (the eventual World Cup runner-up), for the entire game before losing on penalty kicks at the end.

Alozie started every game and was one of few to play every minute for Nigeria, becoming a fan favorite with her aggressive play and charismatic presence. “She represented Yale and Nigeria and Houston Dash and her family with such incredible pride,” says Martinez. “She absolutely became a household name not just to Yale fans, but to the entire world.”

That’s when she “blew up,” as Alozie described it. Suddenly, her face was splashed across publications both Nigerian and international, covering her intertwined goals in soccer and medicine. “She has such a confidence about her that I truly think is blossoming now,” says Singer. “I think it made perfect sense that she ended up leading the team on the world stage. Everybody was able to see who she was.” The science journal Nature covered her story; her followers on Instagram and TikTok now number in the hundreds of thousands. “In college, we talked about our dreams and aspirations on the field,” says Chavarin. “To see her accomplishing hers with such class and swag is inspirational.”

But on that Wednesday in September, Alozie was back in the lab, refocused on her research mission. As an NWSL season comes to a close, Alozie normally moves to full-time work at Texas Children’s until the seasonal cycle starts all over again, where her sights are set on the Paris Olympics next summer. “I just hope that my body is good and healthy, and I can play soccer as long as possible. And then once I see a dip or feel any bit dissatisfied in that dream of mine, I definitely have to hunker down and start studying for the MCAT again,” she says, with a laugh. “But right now, I’m happy with where I’m at. Happy with focusing on soccer. Happy just being in this lab and making a difference wherever I can.”  

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