According to the internet, it’s about 4,600 miles straight from here to Paris, France. A direct flight would last nearly half a day and take you seven hours into the future, one of those weird things where you go somewhere so far away that you’ve practically time traveled in the process of coming and going across a half dozen time zones to a place where the time of day is measured by something called CEST, which almost actually sounds French or at least like some weird combination of Central and Eastern Standard Time where you stand with one foot on either side of the line, but actually stands for a thing called Central European Summer Time, which just sounds lovely.
All that and a language barrier are what Tanya de Souza traveled to get to Starkville, Mississippi from her maison in Paris. She didn’t even get a chance to look at her new home before moving to the United States, a country she was quite unfamiliar with but extremely interested in moving to.
Tanya’s dream: to play soccer and go to school at an American university. At Mississippi State, the talented goalkeeper found a place to make those dreams come alive.
“I didn’t know anything about America,” she now says, remembering her first days in the country. “Everything is different. You can’t imagine. Everything you drink, you have half ice in the glass. Back home, I don’t even put ice in my glass. Everything is different, every single thing. Like automatic cars, air conditioner. I was cold all the time, at first. Everywhere I went I was so cold. Everything is so different.”
Even the food, she says, has been an adjustment. Despite growing up in one of the most popular culinary cities on Planet Earth, Tanya said she typically didn’t eat out, instead choosing to eat something healthy at home. Here in college, she’s eating out on an almost daily basis, though she’s still having trouble with the concept of eating a meal in a car. It’s a different world.
But she’s started to figure it out and soccer has been the biggest reason why. That was her purpose in coming here in the first place, after all. Turns out, though she might not be great at eating Taco Bell while keeping an eye on the road at the same time, she’s an incredibly accomplished soccer player. In a country where soccer is the most popular and competitive sport around, Tanya has risen to the top of the heap, being twice selected for the French national team.
It was when she made the cut for the U-16 national team that she first realized, hey, I’m pretty good at this soccer thing.
“I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Am I that good to be on the national team?’ Because I just played for pleasure and I didn’t realize that I was actually good at soccer. It was crazy. Playing against international people was a good experience for me and I studied the game. That was just a dream come true.”
By the time she was selected as the goalie for the U-19 team a couple years later, she’d gotten used to the idea of being a respected soccer player. It was around that time her desire to play soccer and study business in the U.S. started to burn.
In stepped Aaron Gordon, the man entering his second season as MSU’s head coach last summer. He hadn’t thought he needed another goalie until an injury left him with only one active goalie with the season less than a couple months away. He’d heard about Tanya before, so when faced with a surprising and pressing need, he dug deeper. He called around. He studied film. He got in touch with Tanya and talked with her over Facebook and Skype, finding out that her plans to go to some other college in the U.S. had been spoiled when they didn’t want to jump through the necessary NCAA hoops for an international player and dropped her for a different goalie.
It was a bit of a risk for both of them, but Gordon was sold and so was Tanya.
“We had a good relationship,” she said. “He made me really want to come here. I really wanted to be part of this program. He made me really comfortable.”
MSU’s compliance department had experience with international players and began the acceptance and enrollment process happily and immediately, but with the timeline being so small, Tanya didn’t even make it to campus from France until the middle of the first week of classes.
She still remembers flying into the regional airport settled in the no man’s land between Starkville and Columbus.
“My first impression was weird,” Tanya said, “because whenever I took the plane from Atlanta to here, we were about to land and I was like, ‘I don’t see anything but trees here. What did I just do?’”
She was quite relieved when she got to Starkville and saw that, yes, there is much more than just trees here.
She’d completely missed the preseason at that point though, and she ended up missing the first few games, as well, while she got acclimated. Once she finally got on the field she did well, but after just a handful of games she had a season-ending injury. For as quick as it seemed everything happened for her, she found herself at the end of the season in a strange land feeling as if she hadn’t done a thing.
And that’s why she’s so excited entering 2015. She’s got Gordon excited, too. He’s finally getting to see her now that she’s healthy and comfortable with her life and the language. He likes what he sees.
“I’ve said this openly,” Gordon began, “she reminds me a lot with her athleticism and quickness of Brianna Scurry, who was the No. 1 goalkeeper for the national team. I got to work with her every day in the pro setting watching how quick and fast she is. Tanya is the same size, the same build and has those attributes. I’m excited to watch her play this season, in a full season being healthy, knowing what to expect, having such a better grasp of the language.”
Scurry, for those unfamiliar, was the starting keeper for the 1999 World Cup Champions, and she helped lead Team USA to two Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2004). High praise from Gordon, who said Tanya’s natural abilities have flourished as a result of growing up in a country where kicking a soccer ball is as familiar to children as throwing a baseball is to American youth.
“She just kind of has that soccer brain, soccer mentality,” Gordon said. “The things she does are very natural to her. She has really good feet. She makes really good decisions when she’s called upon. She’s just so crazy athletic and quick that she has the ability to get to spots that I think a lot of goalkeepers cannot get to in the women’s game. She’s got more coverage of the goal to be able to get to things. You’ll say, ‘That’s going in,’ and then, ‘Oh, wow, Tanya got to that.’”
If her heavily-shortened freshman campaign was considered a dress rehearsal, Tanya finally gets to make her debut on the big stage this weekend when MSU soccer opens it season hosting South Alabama Friday at 7 and Murray State on Sunday at 1.
2015 has been a season years, miles, time zones and several fast food meals in the making. Now, finally, it’s here.
“I’m really confident and I can’t wait for Friday for the first game,” Tanya said. “We’re all ready to compete right now. We’ve never been this ready before. We’re going to do really good this season.”