Bright lights and roaring crowds greeted North Carolina junior Andrea Santiago as she stepped onto the field in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for the 2020 CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship.
The path there wasn't easy.
It was one paved over gravel and jagged stones, injuring her as she climbed and always getting steeper and more challenging. But Santiago recovered, healed and grew, and now, she finds herself at the top of the mountain.
'Strong, determined, resilient and persistent'
Simply put, Santiago was a natural soccer player.
She began playing when she was only 7 years old and quickly fell in love with the sport, participating in various elite training programs in and around her hometown of Union, New Jersey. She was also on travel teams that played in college showcases around the country, dedicated to producing high-quality prospects.
"Andrea’s the type of player who always gives more effort than necessary but in the best way possible,” former teammate Samantha Herbert said. “She’s a very selfless player, I would say. She’s always trying to help people on the field and off the field. She’s quick, consistent and creative.”
But during her high school senior season, Santiago was playing when she and her goalie heard a sudden popping noise from her leg. Among various other muscle injuries, she'd torn her left ACL.
Her debilitating injury didn't just bring physical pain — there was the pain of being unable to play in tournaments with her team, of mental doubts and insecurities and of not being able to enjoy the sport she had spent her whole life playing.
Her recovery was an uphill battle. She had lost nearly all of her leg's muscle mass and mobility, and had to break through scar tissue to get back to where she was.
Rock bottom was the only way Santiago could describe the feeling.
“I realized that if I didn’t have soccer, I wanted to be somewhere where I could take advantage of opportunities and thrive as a student and as a person,” she said.
She applied to 11 schools that she had not considered for soccer. Her dream school, UNC, was among them, and she was later admitted into the class of 2022. For Andrea's mother, Elisandra Santiago, it was her daughter's bravery and ability to change paths that impressed her most during her injury.
“I learned about Andrea pursuing all her soccer goals that she is strong, determined, resilient and persistent,” Santiago said. “She completed all her therapies, landed a job at the physical therapy office, finished No. 3 in her class of 600 students and was accepted into her dream school.”
Santiago spent her first semester in Chapel Hill finding her place and getting used to the college environment. But that first Winter Break brought the news she had been waiting for: her doctor cleared her to play soccer again. In January 2019, she tried out for UNC's women's club soccer team and made the squad.
Despite a devastating injury a little over a year before, she had found her way back to sport she loved. But Santiago would go even further.
'All of my childhood dreams coming to fruition'
In 2017, Santiago was in contact with the Puerto Rican U-20 national team, which was looking for players for its next tournament. With both she and her parents having been born on the island, it would've been a dream come true for Santiago to make the team.
Before she could make a run at that opportunity, though, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September of that year and halted all soccer operations for the next two years. Santiago still had family on the island and spent much of her time preoccupied about them.
“Hurricane Maria affected my family and thousands on the island," Santiago said. "They lost power, access to food and their homes were destroyed. It was difficult for my family because we weren’t able to contact them for days because their power was out.”
The next two years saw the island slowly begin to recover, all while Santiago had suffered and recovered from her ACL injury. So the stage was set in 2019 when the national team reached out to her again and asked if she was still playing.
After submitting her updated information, the team invited her to training camp that November. A grueling week of tryouts was followed by Winter Break, and Santiago returned to UNC for the spring semester, waiting for a response.
“The day I found out, I was having lunch, and I was just checking my email and I found it and jumped up and started dancing,” she said.
She learned her dream came true and she would play for Puerto Rico in the 2020 CONCACAF Women's U-20 Championship.
For Santiago, the Puerto Rican national team was a change of pace. She knew that she had to improve her training regimen if she would have any hope of helping her team during the tournament in Santo Domingo. So she sought advice from the best.
One day, she walked into the UNC women’s soccer office to ask head coach Anson Dorrance, a coach with over 1,000 wins to his name, if he had any resources he could share with her. Instead, he proposed that she train with the women's team for the rest of the semester.
“The whole experience was surreal,” Santiago said. “It was like all of my childhood dreams coming to fruition.”
She worked with the Tar Heels for two months before flying to the Dominican Republic for the tournament. After arriving and joining the national team, there were still gaps to be bridged — differences in play styles, training techniques and even languages. It was difficult, but by the end of the week-long training program, the team found its footing and was ready to compete.
'Beyond my imagination'
The team played four official games against Mexico, Guyana, Nicaragua, and Trinidad and Tobago. For Santiago, the most important game was against Mexico.
“We ended up tying them and losing in the last second in overtime, which was so impressive," Santiago said. "It got a lot of streams online, and it was a really historic moment for Puerto Rican women’s soccer, to be able to compete and stick along with some of the big dogs."
Although Trinidad and Tobago eliminated Puerto Rico in the first round of the knockout stage, Santiago walked away from the tournament with a new outlook on the sport. On nearly every one of the teams she played for, she always noted a lack of Puerto Rican female players. She wanted to focus on infusing empowering messages into the sport to encourage young women to succeed in places they’re not often seen.
As Puerto Ricans themselves, Santiago's parents also saw their daughter's accomplishments as a great honor. But the one thing they always circled back to was their daughter's resilience.
“The proudest moment throughout Andrea’s soccer journey was the moment I saw her play again after the ACL surgery,” Elisandra said. “Everything else she achieved, including trying out and playing for the Puerto Rican national team and practicing with the UNC Division I (team) was beyond my imagination.”
For now, Santiago is just as focused on her day-to-day life as everyone else. The pandemic put a pause on playing soccer in large groups, but Santiago's seen adversity before. Torn muscles, personal doubts, family trauma and team difficulties — none of them are strangers to Santiago. So wherever her soccer career takes her next, it's safe to say she'll be ready.
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