Alozie finds escape from cancer research with NWSL’s Dash

Michelle Alozie is accomplished by any measure. She is a professional soccer player who also works at Texas Children’s Hospital. Last summer, she helped Nigeria to the round of 16 at the World Cup. Oh, and she has an Ivy League education, if there was any doubting her credentials.

So why didn’t the Houston Dash feel forward like she belonged on the pitch for many years?

After a frustrating conclusion to her college soccer career — her Tennessee Volunteers failing to make the NCAA tournament — a stint in Kazakhstan came to an abrupt end because of the Covid-19 pandemic. She had sent an email to the Dash coaching staff and earned a roster spot after weeks with the club as a trialist. Her national team journey started in a similar way, with her club coach notifying the Super Falcons manager who just happened to be training in town that she was eligible.

Last year, there was no doubt. Not only does Alozie belong on the soccer field, she was born to be there.

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“I think the first year or two, I felt a little bit of imposter syndrome. Like, this wasn’t really meant for me or it seemed like everything was like a fluke, me getting onto the national team or me even coming to Houston. and just sending a Hail Mary email,” she told ESPN. “The 2023 season allowed me to come to terms with everything and put myself at ease.

“I had an amazing journey, one for the books. It’s just kind of random, but it’s definitely my story and I have to own it.”

It is fair to say a career that went from Southern California, stopped at Yale, had a layover in Tennessee thanks in part to a current NBA player, went to Kazakhstan and now is thriving on two continents is not conventional or even replicable, but it’s Alozie’s path. She now heads into the 2024 season as a key contributor for the Dash and an important part of a Nigeria team looking to reach the Olympics.

“She’s just tough as nails,” said Brian Pensky, who coached Alozie at Tennessee and recently led Florida State to the national championship. “She’s obviously a phenomenal athlete, she has a very good feel for the game and is just someone whether she starts in the first minute or comes on in the 70th, she’s probably terrible to play against because she’s so relentless.”

Pensky got an usual assist in bringing Alozie to Tennessee. Current Charlotte Hornets forward Grant Williams chose Tennessee over a number of Ivy League schools, but after meeting Alozie on a recruiting visit to Yale, the two stayed in touch. A fervent supporter of the soccer team, Williams nudged Pensky to take a look at Alozie, who was coming off an ACL tear, as she entered the transfer portal and looked to join a Power Five school after completing her molecular biology degree.

Both she and Pensky agree that she didn’t start showing her full potential until late in the season at Tennessee as she continued to recover from the knee injury. She didn’t enter the NWSL Draft, opting instead to lean on connections she had from college coaches and sign with Kazakh club BIIK Kazygurt, which was in the UEFA Champions League.

Returning from Kazakhstan in 2020, Alozie had options and started thinking about focusing on medicine. But the chance to fulfill her childhood dream as a professional soccer player, momentarily putting aside the intensity of pediatric cancer research, was something she still felt was worth chasing.

“Once I step onto the field, nothing else really matters. It’s just about playing and having fun and fulfilling a childhood dream of mine: to be a pro soccer player,” Alozie said. “It allows me to play for the little girl inside of me, but mostly I use it as escapism. It fills me with complete joy.”

As she crashed with her sister in Houston, Alozie took the advice of then-Dash defender Ally Prisock and reached out to the Dash staff, who took her on in the preseason. She signed a pair of National Team Replacement deals before officially joining the Dash full-time in August 2021.

Being in Houston, a city renowned for its medical community, allows Alozie to pull off the double dip that sounds (and surely is) exhausting but fits in well with what Alozie experienced from a young age as the child of immigrants.

“I was always so used to being done with school, and from school go to training, and after soccer, go to track, and after track to robotics,” she said. “I’m always doing one thing after the other, and that led me into getting into the research field while I’m playing right now.”

Doing two or more things may always be a part of who Alozie is, but the 2024 season may drive home just how good she is at playing soccer.

New Dash coach Fran Alonso is implementing a style change in Texas, where the versatile Alozie should be able to find a role that suits her well and also sets her up to continue being an influential part of a Nigeria team two results away from a spot at Paris 2024.

Her star in Nigeria grew massively during the World Cup, something she calls “confusing to me, but obviously I love to be able to be a role model for people and have people look at my story and find some type of inspiration to do athletics and pursue different career paths.”

Those who know her well are sure she’ll only continue to inspire more and more as she keeps balancing sport with her research and continues to be an asset on the field for every team on which she plays.

“I’m so impressed by her, her stick-to-it-ivness,” Pensky said. “She had a bright future and she’s reaping it now. It goes back to being tough, and you’ve got to have grind in you. That’s absolutely Michelle … endlessly impressive.”

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