Jessica Ayers GFXLinas Grikietis/GOAL

From sprints with Rapinoe to playing Champions League: Ayers' path from NWSL to Sweden 'dream'

It was early 2015 and Jessica Ayers, a graduate from Colorado College, had just answered the phone to Vlatko Andonovski, the now-head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.

At the time, Andonovski was in charge of FC Kansas City, the reigning NWSL Champions, and was sat in Philadelphia navigating that year’s edition of the College Draft.

‘Hi, is this Jessica?’ he asked. ‘Yeah, that’s me,’ replied a rather surprised Ayers. ‘Listen to this,’ he said, holding his phone up.

Article continues below

‘And, with the 26th pick, FC Kansas City selects Jessica Ayers’.

The words echoed around the room and down back through the phone to a disbelieving 21-year-old, who jumped off the sofa in excitement.

“It was the coolest experience of my life,” she tells GOAL.

For some college players, that is their path. They get drafted, sign a contract and work hard to establish themselves in the top league in the U.S. from there.

For Ayers, that could have been the case.

She recalls walking into training on her first day in Kansas, surrounded by champions and stars, and it feeling “one part petrifying and one part electrifying".

“Sydney Leroux was on the team at the time and she's just the most charismatic person, such a big and warm personality and, oh my gosh, such a baller,” the midfielder enthuses.

“I just remember thinking, ‘How can you be both?’ She's having such a good time, joking around on the sidelines, then she steps on the pitch and she's like a tornado spinning past you.”

In that environment, Ayers improved and impressed, so much so that she was called into the office one day to sign a contract.

“This is like a dream come true for me and then the club manager gets on the computer and he's like, 'Wait, hang on a minute' and he's opening this email,” she explains.

“He's like, 'Oh, wait. I'm not sure we can do this.' I was like, 'What do you mean? Why?'

"And he says, 'Well, it looks like another club has taken your rights.'

"It turned out that Western New York Flash had taken my rights one day before Kansas City tried to sign me.”

Sydney Leroux Jessica Ayers quote gfx PS 1:1Getty/Goal

Things didn’t work out in New York and Ayers would be sent almost 3,000 miles west, to join the club now known as OL Reign in Seattle.

“They had just a killer team. Hope Solo was on the team. Megan Rapinoe was on the team. Jess Fishlock. Just amazing players.

"I remember, [me and Rapinoe] ran sprints together after training once, and she just blew me away! But as she's running past me, she's turning around and encouraging me,” Ayers laughs, looking back.

“You go home at the end of the day and you're like, 'Oh, my God, Megan Rapinoe encouraged me today', or even just gave me a high five after I scored a goal or something. That probably means more than those players even know.

“To get that kind of feedback and encouragement from that calibre of player, it just lifts you up. There's not that many other places where you can experience that.”

She felt the Reign's stacked team “wasn't the right place” for her career to begin: “I wasn't going to even suit up for that team. I wasn't a mature enough, good enough player yet.”

So, she looked overseas instead and ended up having a really enjoyable experience in Finland, but the level of football was not high enough for her to believe she could progress from there.

“I thought, 'Okay, this is the end of the road in terms of football for me. I don't see a path forward from here',” she remembers.

Ayers returned home and stopped playing. She went back to graduate school and got a full-time job in Los Angeles. She was out of the game for two years.

It was the Women’s World Cup in 2019 that brought her back onto the pitch.

“I couldn't watch it, because it was too upsetting to me, I guess, because I missed playing football so much,” she admits.

“At that point, I had to sit down with myself and my family and have a think. 'What am I doing with my life at this point?'

"The people around me were really encouraging and were like, 'Maybe you should go back and try again.'"

Ayers then did what she describes as “the craziest thing” she’s ever done in her life. She quit her job, phoned her old team in Finland and moved back to Europe.

“It’s also one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she adds.

From there, she got the opportunity to play for Gintra Universitetas, the 20-time Lithuanian champions who compete in the Women’s Champions League.

Ayers says she’ll “forever be grateful” to the club for giving her a chance after she hadn’t played at a top level for several years. She’s won titles and she’s played European football.

It’s given her an incredible personal experience, too.

“I'm Jewish, and my great, great grandfather and my great, great grandmother actually lived in Lithuania," Ayers explains.

"I've been able to dig into that family history and have since visited the town that my great, great grandfather was born in and grew up in.

“That’s been a really cool connection to this place that I've been able to make that I didn't even know when I signed to play with Gintra.

"It's also been a cool thing for my family to connect over, digging up these stories from my grandma's cousins and people that we wouldn't otherwise necessarily talk to.”

This year, her footballing story moves into a new chapter.

Ayers has signed a contract with IFK Kalmar, who will compete in the Damallsvenskan this coming season. The top league in Sweden, which has been home to players like Christen Press and Marta, has long been a “dream” of hers to play in.

Her route to this point may not have been as straight-forward as it should have been when she was called into the office that day in Kansas.

This is certainly not where she would’ve imagined herself to be when she hung up her boots five years ago.

However, with Champions League football under her belt, and an experience in one of Europe’s top leagues next in line, it's likely there will be a few more chapters in this remarkable story.