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Diana Ordoñez carries faith, heritage and skill into her first professional season

The former Cavalier star reflects on the experience of becoming a professional female athlete

<p>Ordoñez scored 18 goals, including 8 game-winners, in her final season as a Cavalier.</p>

Ordoñez scored 18 goals, including 8 game-winners, in her final season as a Cavalier.

When Diana Ordoñez was selected sixth overall by the NC Courage in the 2022 NWSL Draft, she was sure to have her family by her side. The former star Virginia forward and Prosper, Texas native explained that her family was instrumental in introducing her to the sport and getting her to her current position as the 19th Cavalier taken in the National Women’s Soccer League Draft’s 10-year history. 

Ordoñez’s familiarity with the sport was natural from a young age, as her father and brothers also spent time on the pitch. 

“My dad grew up in Ecuador and my mom is Mexican,” Ordoñez said. “Those are two countries where soccer is the predominant sport. My mom didn’t play soccer, but my dad did and my two older brothers played as well … That was the first sport that they had me try out. It just kind of stuck.”

Ordoñez said she knew that soccer was something she wanted to pursue long-term right after she became a teenager. While she had her mind set at a young age, she has never shied away from trying to accomplish things early. She finished high school a semester early just after turning 17 and traveled all the way to Charlottesville as an enrolled freshman for the spring term to mentally prepare for the fall season. This decision didn’t come easy and wasn’t always the plan, but Ordoñez is happy she put herself in the position to succeed. 

“I [originally] committed to Texas A&M because I wanted to stay closer to home when I was first looking around,” Ordoñez said. “After a few months of being committed, I wanted to give myself another chance to look further away because I wasn’t so stuck on the idea of staying at home anymore.”

Even after de-committing, Virginia was hardly on Ordoñez’s radar. She was first introduced to Charlottesville because of her close family friend and former hometown teammate, Taryn Torres, who had recently joined the Cavalier roster and had seen major growth in her game. After seeing Torres’s success, Ordoñez took a leap of faith and decided to journey to Virginia.

“It seemed like the right fit for me, and I wouldn’t change it if I could go back,” Ordoñez said. 

Virginia fans wouldn’t change her decision either. The results speak for themselves. Ordoñez became a prolific scorer at Virginia, finishing her three-year career with 45 total goals, good for third all-time in University history. In perhaps her best individual season this fall, she was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year, leading the conference in goals, points, goals per game and points per game. However, she first made an immediate impact upon arriving on the scene in 2019, starting in 18 of 19 total games and scoring 15 goals. 

Former Virginia teammate and current keeper for the OL Reign, Laurel Ivory, recalled when she first got the opportunity to play with Ordoñez. 

“My first impression of [Diana] was that this girl was playing way beyond her years,” Ivory said. “She came into college as a 17-year-old and her speed, power and soccer IQ was far above any 17-year-old I had come across at the time.”

While Virginia never quite made it to its ultimate goal of a national championship during Ordoñez’s collegiate tenure, the program made strides with her on the field, including an impressive run to the NCAA semifinals in a unique 2020-21 season altered by COVID-19.

Ordoñez doesn’t just attribute the success she finds on the field to her family and roots in soccer. She recently made an appearance on the podcast ‘Our Game His Glory’ to talk about how she finds strength through God. She holds her faith close to her heart and is open about the way that it influences not just her game, but her life.

“[My faith] is something that is very central to my life and that’s something that motivates me, that I carry with me, and gets me through any sort of hard time I’m having whether it’s not even on the field to begin with,” Ordoñez said. “It [gives me] a good sense of community with teammates who share my faith.”

After her phenomenal junior season, Ordoñez knew it was time to make the leap to the NWSL. She said Virginia’s staff — especially Head Coach Steve Swanson — was supportive of her decision while also keeping her expectations realistic and grounded. Both Ivory and Ordoñez were quick to praise Swanson, highlighting his impressive coaching resumé, his versatile knowledge of the game and his belief in and support of both past and present Cavaliers.

“Obviously, [the coaches] would have liked me to stay, but I think the way that they handled me bringing it up to them was very supportive and the thing I appreciated the most was just how honest, especially Steve was with me,” Ordoñez said. “He told me what parts of my game are ready to be at this level and what parts of my game might not be.”

Ordoñez forwent her remaining years of eligibility at Virginia and was selected sixth overall by the NC Courage. While the move only took her one state down from Charlottesville to Charlotte, N.C., like with any other athlete, the transition didn’t come without challenges.

“You have to be very, very passionate and … ready to be putting your body through what it has to go through,” Ordoñez said. “In the preseason, it’s really hard and during the season it’s just a lot of effort for what seems like a very low return for what you put in.”

Of course, women’s soccer has been one of the key battlegrounds for closing the gender pay gap. The U.S. Women’s National Team recently settled a $24 million lawsuit for equal pay, breaking new ground and opening doors for women in soccer as well as other sports to pursue more fair and equitable compensation for their services. There is still plenty of work left to be done in order to ensure female athletes are provided the opportunity to pursue their dreams. In 2019, a study showed that the average MLS player earned $375,730 more than their female counterparts in the NWSL. One of the main proponents in this fight is USWNT star Megan Rapinoe, who is currently teammates with Ivory on the OL Reign.

“With the recent lawsuit, it's honestly been an observation period for me,” Ivory said. “I have people on my team who have been in the league since its beginning … I have learned so much from them about the realities of female soccer players and how to fight and push back towards people … It's inspiring.”

Ordoñez said she is thankful for a strong support system in her family, which provided her the opportunity to pursue her passion professionally, but added that not every woman experiences this reality.

“I didn’t realize until I got here how much effort and fight that took from people who are in the league,” she said. “These are people who have to go to practice every day, have to play in every game, going through all the struggles of ... being in a season.”

Ordoñez expressed her gratitude towards groups and individuals on the professional level that have worked to make strides in this realm. 

“That is something that I’m greatly appreciative of… The player’s association and all the people, leaders and representatives from the different teams who have worked endless hours trying to make financial situations and the environment of the league for new players,” Ordoñez said.

However, she thinks the time will come when women will reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think it is getting better,” Ordoñez said. “There’s things to look forward to. There’s a lot of strides being made to mitigate those wage gaps.”

While the more serious financial and social aspects of the NWSL may be daunting, Ordoñez isn’t afraid to show her enthusiasm about her first professional season. Whether she’s practicing, working out or listening to Drake to get game-ready in the locker room, Ordoñez is ready to make the most of her chances. She’s already getting late-game minutes across the first two games of the NWSL Challenge Cup, and Virginia fans know that if she keeps receiving opportunities, her first professional goal is soon to follow. However, Ordoñez maintains humility and a team-first mindset.

“I think my goals are more team focused,” Ordoñez said. “I’m very excited for the things we can accomplish. I would like to see our team hoisting a trophy at the end of the season, I think at least from what I can see right now, we would be very deserving to do so.”

She also is thrilled about the opportunity to be on the opposite bench from some familiar faces.

“It’s actually crazy,” Ordoñez said. “[In] our first game last weekend, we played against Gotham which is where Taryn [plays]. It was kind of like this crazy full circle moment growing up together, playing in college together, and now ... our first professional game was against each other.”

Her enthusiasm about reuniting with Torres demonstrates Ordoñez’s passion for the people and things that formed her, from the childhood friends and family values she developed in Texas, to her coaches, teammates and skills from Virginia. Ordoñez is excited to make a name for herself among the already numerous Cavalier alumnae that have gone pro.

“It’s something to be proud of, coming from a place that has had so many women make it to the league,” Ordoñez said. “I think it’s a really cool thing to be a part of.”