Lily Yohannes, a 16-year-old American, is playing in the Champions League. Is U.S. Soccer watching?

Lily Yohannes draped her left arm around a European champion, then stepped onstage. It was a Wednesday night in Amsterdam; a Champions League night last week at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Yohannes, a 16-year-old from Virginia, shrugged off nerves and immersed herself in a childhood dream. She became the youngest American, male or female, to ever set foot in soccer’s most storied club competition. And then, for 77 minutes, she helped engineer a stunning upset: Ajax 2, PSG 0.

She glided around a famous field, her shiny dental braces tucked inside unflinching lips, her bushy hair bouncing and twirling. World Cup veterans watched as she pinged through-balls between PSG defenders. A crowd of 13,106 watched her exhibit breathtaking poise. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, elementary-school peers watched in awe. And so did a growing number of American fans.

They watched, and at times saw what you'd expect from a 16-year-old battling some of the world's best players: sloppy touches, a missed chance, a panicked clearance. But they mostly saw an intriguing prospect with passing range and a precocious football brain. They saw Yohannes unlock PSG in the buildup to a goal. They saw her and Ajax stymie a perennial Champions League contender, so they wondered: Is U.S. Soccer watching, too?

The answer is yes, of course: Yohannes is on U.S. Soccer's radar. She has been invited to two youth national team camps, one Under-15 and one Under-16. But for over a year now, she's been curiously overlooked, omitted from U-16 and U-17 rosters full of domestic players, most of them amateurs.

She “would hope for some more future opportunities,” she told Yahoo Sports from her Amsterdam home on Saturday. But she is focused on the present; on another Champions League night Thursday in Rome; on continuing a unique journey toward the top of her sport.

Yohannes takes Dutch soccer by storm

Lily was born in Springfield, Virginia, into a soccer-crazed family with international football heritage. Her Eritrean maternal grandfather, Bekuretsion Gebrehiwot, starred for the Ethiopian national team, and scored a legendary goal in the 1968 African Cup of Nations. Gebrehiwot later fled the country amid political unrest, and eventually settled in the U.S. His daughter, Semhar, came of age in the States, which is where she met and married Daniel Yohannes.

Lily is the third of their three children. She followed her older brothers, Aethan and Jayden, into soccer. She also competed with them, relentlessly, whether on video gaming systems or in their basement, which Daniel converted into something of an indoor soccer training pitch. Dad and daughter would play 2-v-2 against the boys. And Lily had to win. "Yeah, I would get a little mad when I lost," she says with a giggle.

“‘A little' is an understatement, Lil, come on,” Daniel interjects with a smile.

Her competitiveness, of course, translated well to outdoor soccer fields. It did for all three siblings, and by the time Aethan was a teen, Mom and Dad realized he might have a future in the sport. They set out to explore that future — in the Washington D.C. area, but also overseas. They saw value in exposing the kids to different cultures, different countries, different life experiences, Daniel says. And in 2017, they found an avenue to residency in the Netherlands, via Daniel's work as an IT consultant and the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty.

Lily, who was 9 at the time, remembers a full-family conversation about the move. But she doesn’t remember anxiety or apprehension; “I was pretty excited,” she says.

In Amsterdam, she jumped into an international school, and into Dutch life — including Dutch football. She played on an amateur boys team, then caught the eye of talent evaluators from the Dutch football federation (KNVB) and pro clubs. At 13, she began training weekly with the country's most successful and fabled club, Ajax. At 15, she joined its women's reserve team. And ever since, according to coaches and scouts and Lily herself, her development has accelerated.

It accelerated, though, largely outside the scope of U.S. Soccer’s girls talent identification apparatus. While U.S. men’s and boys national teams have an extensive recent history of recruiting players reared abroad, the women’s program has relied exclusively on players who spent their formative years in America — for a very simple reason: While Europe has long boasted the best boys soccer academies, on the girls side, the U.S. was the standard-bearer; Europe lagged.

But that’s changing. The same pro clubs that scouted Lily’s brothers are now scouting — and tutoring — girls like her. They’re leveraging existing infrastructure and methodologies. Many experts would argue that at least a dozen top European clubs, including Ajax, and perhaps many more, now offer a better footballing education than most or all youth clubs in the U.S.

The Ajax education has begun to shape Lily into a multi-dimensional, pro-ready midfielder. The environment, she says, “is always pushing you and challenging you to develop.” Daniel recently asked her what she’s learned, and she spoke about reading teammates’ movement, about advanced concepts that flew over Daniel’s head. The second team, Lily says, prepared her for a “pretty smooth transition” to the first team — and an unprecedented leap.

A nervy Women’s Champions League debut

The contract offer came midway through last season, before Lily could legally drive or drink or vote. It initially shocked the Yohannes family. And it presented them with the latest of many consequential choices. Lily could sign with Ajax, on a three-year deal through June 2026; or she could hold out for a college scholarship, four years of free tuition at an elite university, a degree that could pave the way to a successful life.

Her choice, though, was clear. “Very clear,” Daniel says with a laugh. “Crystal clear.” She wanted to be a footballer. She signed in April, at age 15, and became the youngest pro in Ajax history.

Her days now begin with a 15-minute car ride to training. Some include a video session, and some a stint in the gym. Then there is school — online, individualized by Ajax — and a train ride home. There are meals, and homework, and rest, and sleep, and repeat. “Every day,” Lily says.

When asked if she enjoys school she answers reticently. But Daniel perks up.

“Come on Lily!” Dad says. “You can say that you're a straight-A student!”

She seems more comfortable speaking with her football, though. She has zoomed into the Ajax starting lineup, and rarely looked back. She is the youngest of an all-teen midfield that, on paper, looked completely overmatched by PSG — but not on the pitch last week. They neutralized Grace Geyoro, a top-50 player globally; and Jackie Groenen, a Dutch national team mainstay; and Korbin Albert, a 20-year-old American recently called up to the USWNT.

Yohannes felt “some nerves” in the hours before kickoff. “But once I got onto the field, and got that first ball contact, then the nerves really just go away,” she says. She noted the game’s quick tempo; she could tell this was a level beyond anything she’d felt before. But she didn’t shy away from it. She plunged into duels. She sought out the ball.

She was far too focused to ponder just how freakin’ cool the whole experience was, but as she strolled around the field afterward, hugging teammates and thanking fans, the realization set in. It followed her home that night. She walked through the door around 1 a.m. Dad wanted to watch a recording of the game, in part to offer his traditional critiques. But Lily disappeared into her bedroom, and let her mind roam free.

“I was pretty tired,” she says, “but couldn't really get [to] sleep, just thinking about the game the whole time.”

Nor did she have to. There was no day-after-game training session. And “luckily,” she says, “I got free from school that day.”

Comments on this article
On Air97.1 The River - Classic Hits Logo

mobile apps

Everything you love about and more! Tap on any of the buttons below to download our app.

amazon alexa

Enable our Skill today to listen live at home on your Alexa Devices!