When Alex Kimball was about to be selected 32nd overall in the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft on Jan. 10, she was nowhere close to the cramped Skyline Ballroom in Chicago, Ill., where the event was being held. Instead, Kimball was at home in Chapel Hill, fresh out of the shower, blow dryer in hand, with her mind focused on things other than the ongoing draft.
A quick glance toward her phone revealed a missed call from Laura Harvey, head coach of Utah Royals FC, the team who owned the fifth selection of the fourth and final round of the draft.
After a flurry of anxious swipes and pecks at the screen, the voice of Harvey came through the phone’s speaker:
“AK, you ready to be a Royal?”
Melissa Suarez swears that her daughter’s first steps on a soccer field closely followed her first steps in life. Placed into the local four-and-up soccer league as a teetering and tottling 2-year-old, Kimball was plunged into the game that would encompass nearly 20 years of her life, dominating how she thought, acted, and lived. For whatever reason, Kimball and soccer were intrinsically tied together, and would be throughout her early years.
But this tie frayed over time. It wasn’t perfect, as Kimball recalls a time in middle school where soccer burnout led to a near-dismissal of the sport altogether.
“I almost quit!” Kimball said. “I got really burnt out when I was about 12 or 13, because competitive soccer is a lot: The traveling, the training — it’s a lot. And as a little kid, I was like, ‘I’m so sick of this.’”
For a few months as a tween middle-schooler, Kimball traded in her pair of soccer cleats for cleats meant for the diamond, with a glove and bat rounding out her new sporting arsenal. Her budding soccer career was put on hold, with softball taking its place.
“Worst decision of my life,” Kimball said of her eighth-grade hiatus. “I’ll never forget being on the softball field, bent over with my glove, and I just looked over and I saw all the soccer girls. I was just standing there and I saw all the soccer girls and I’m like, ‘That’s what I should be doing.’”
Words of advice from her youth soccer coach, Cindy Parlow, would change this mistaken trajectory that led Kimball astray. Parlow — a former three-time NCAA champion with UNC-Chapel Hill and a two-time Olympic gold medalist — presented a challenge to Kimball, one that would convince her to stick with the game she learned to play as a toddler. If she was truly serious about the game, Parlow challenged, then she could one day earn a spot playing collegiate for a program such as UNC.
Kimball took this challenge to heart.
Teenage years spent with Chapel Hill High School and the Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) were years spent building: Building her game, building her collection of athletic accolades, and building her on-field reputation of a indomitable human wrecking ball. Players who collided with her were often left with regret, as one presumably would if they were to run into a brick wall. Tackling the 5-foot-7 Kimball was difficult and punishing; receiving a tackle from her was even worse.
For Anson Dorrance, winner of 21 national titles with UNC-Chapel Hill, scouting her was easy. Not because of his proximity to her high school, but because of the apparent skills she brought on the field for all to see.
“[I] really liked her,” Dorrance fondly recalled. “She had all kinds of fabulous qualities: She was very fast, she had very good one-v-one juice, she liked to beat players off the dribble, she had a fabulous vertical jump. And I loved the way she rode collisions. When you run into Alex Kimball, basically you get hurt. She’s just this brick.”
Granting Kimball a scholarship — of which covered approximately 30 percent of a full-ride, less than what other schools could offer — was a no-brainer for Dorrance.
A position-less chess piece on the field, able to maneuver as a forward, midfielder, or defender, Kimball was highly-recruited by several colleges — but for a long-time admirer of the culture and rich history of UNC, her decision, similar to Dorrance’s decision to make the initial offer, was a no-brainer.
“It’s something you can’t explain until you experience it, but for me it was always a dream to come here,” Kimball proudly proclaimed. “Not only are we number one, so it’s hard to say no, but I knew the kind of family environment that I was going to get from Carolina. And I didn’t realize this at the beginning but the connections and your development as a human is so much better here.”
Falling from the graces of being a high school star and settling into the role of an inexperienced collegiate reserve was an unavoidable consequence that came with attending a program emblazoned with U-N-C, standing more for a university defined by national champions than its Chapel Hill roots. Elevation through the ranks would not be gifted out of charity: It was to be fought for, and Kimball knew this.
“There’s always going to be girls who are better than you, who are faster than you, who are stronger than you,” Kimball said. “But for me, my mentality was like you’re never going to outwork me. You might be able to shoot harder than me, your left foot might be better than me, but in whatever drill you get put up against me in, I’m going to make your life hell.”
If the grassy fields were to be a hellish landscape, then Kimball was the Biblical judge responsible for inflicting her punishing physicality unto others. Opposing players were bumped, bruised, and even knocked out of play for extensive periods. Her own teammates weren’t spared, with Dorrance having to end practices short so that Kimball could “pull in her claws” to preserve the health and safety of herself and her teammates.
On-field violence would become the calling card of Kimball’s play, an unwavering persona that prompted her to wear the number 47, so that — in tandem with her initials — her lethal play could resemble that of a deadly assault rifle — AK47. Dorrance, nodding to Kimball’s Peruvian roots (and his relative inability to remember names), gave her the nickname “Inca Warrior Princess,” denoting that her amicable off-field personality devolved into that of a warrior’s whenever she stepped into a game.
“This is a wonderful Inca Warrior Princess and I just love the way she goes after people physically,” Dorrance said.
Harnessing this violent physicality was difficult, though, so much so that Kimball’s body began to fight back against her, with the occasional scrapes and bruises worsening into a severely torn labrum in her left hip in 2016. Visits to several orthopedic experts in the Triangle area forced her to come face-to-face with her own athletic mortality. One doctor in particular — Allston Stubbs — told Kimball to give up on soccer completely, to give up on whatever chance there was that her hip would return to normal.
She found a new doctor.
Months spent in-and-out of operating rooms and treatment facilities would grant her with the chance to return to her reserve role in time for her junior season. Although she ultimately spent 2017 as a redshirt, withheld from play, she entered her senior season in 2018 with a healthy hip and renewed mindset. It seemed that, for the first time in a while, she could focus on playing and nothing else.
An Oct. 25 injury to Alessia Russo, the team’s leading scorer, would change that. As a result, Kimball was abruptly thrust into a starring role near the end of the season, with a Russo-sized hole to fill.
“‘I’m not Less, I’m just gonna give it to you,’” Kimball recalled telling those who questioned what she could bring in Russo’s place. “‘I’m not Alessia Russo, but I’m Alex Kimball, and I’ll give you everything Alex Kimball has.’”
Which is exactly what she did. Starting in each of the nine games following Russo’s exit, Kimball recorded one assist and four goals, finishing her tumultuous career with seven assists and nine goals. Although she entered her senior campaign without the expectation of receiving draft buzz, a late-season push put her into consideration with one particular NWSL team: Utah Royals FC.
Having attended summer training with the Royals during the previous offseason, relationships were established between Kimball and the front office and coaching brass in her home state of Utah. Good relations aside, Kimball headed into the night of the draft hopeful but without the expectation of receiving an early selection. With over 320 Division I schools in the NCAA and only nine total franchises in the NWSL, being one of the 36 draftees in the four-round draft was a long-shot, so a night at home was seen as the only viable option for the NWSL-hopeful.
A phone call from coach Harvey would change that.
With the 32nd selection of the 2019 NWSL College Draft, a scrappy do-everything-player was plucked from the college town of Chapel Hill and given the chance to compete for a guaranteed contract and opportunity to play in front of her family in Utah’s Wasatch Front.
“I just want to learn. I just want to grow as a player,” Kimball said of her return home. “I know there’s a lot of girls on there that are vets, all over the world, and I just want to grow as a player. I know I’m probably — being a rookie, I’m probably not going to make an immediate impact but I’m going to impact every way that I can … I’m excited.”
She still has a ways to go before she can settle. Twenty-two roster spots are up for grabs, and, despite her moniker as a Peruvian princess, her spot among Utah’s “royalty” isn’t set in stone. The coming days, weeks and months are going to be a battle, and no comfort will be afforded to her.
But Kimball is used to it. The everyday challenges at UNC prepared her for life beyond college, with five years instilling a lesson she doesn’t plan on forgetting any time soon:
“You have to get used to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
(This feature story is from a class assignment at UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of media and journalism.)