At 5-foot-4, UC San Diego's Ali Lai is typically one of the shorter players on the soccer field. She also ranks a notch below the top in terms of straight line speed and wouldn't be considered one of the harder shooters in Coach Brian McManus's arsenal. But Lai's combination of quickness, toughness, ball control and energy make her one of the most indispensable players on the 2007 Triton roster. After the Danville native racked up seven goals and two assists last fall, McManus named her one of UCSD's co-captains and expects big things from Lai in her senior season. "Ali plays with so much enthusiasm that she really leads by example," says McManus. "She's always going to get goals and free kicks because she knows how to hold the ball and turn people. If we're able to cash in on the opportunities she creates, we're going to be OK." With the No. 5-ranked Tritons' season opener looming Sunday against No. 6 Nebraska-Omaha, Lai spent a few moments talking about soccer, her team and what’s ahead.
Q—What is the secret to the consistent success of the UCSD Women’s Soccer team?
LAI—Brian has been coaching here for over 20 years. As much as I may question what he says or does, I trust that he knows what he is doing because he has so many years of experience and has taken so many of his teams to playoffs and national championships.
Q—How have your three previous seasons been different for you and how do you expect 2007 to be unique?
LAI—First year was chaotic. I was new to the college soccer experience, I felt lost and behind pace. Second year was solid because the only starter we had lost was our keeper from the year before. There was a core of players that I was very comfortable with.
Last year was the coolest season of soccer I have ever experienced. Team chemistry was amazing on and off the field. This resulted in some of the most awesome goals I have ever seen in my life.
This season will be different for two reasons. First, I have an entirely new role on the team as captain, and second, I don’t have the four seniors from last year to look up to, something that I have relied on so much in my previous three seasons.
Q—Where do you expect to be the strength of this year’s team to lie?
LAI—Our keeper, Jess McGovern has been improving a lot over that last two years. She has worked especially hard over these recent months. The team has a lot of confidence and trust in her, and she will be a very solid last line of defense in the goal.
Q—How would you describe your style of play?
LAI—I was a central midfielder up until just two years ago when coach moved me up to forward. When I am not on the ball, I see the game as a central midfielder, which helps me figure out where I need to be, what I need from my teammates and vice versa. When I am on the ball, I have fast footwork and prefer to work the ball up the field with short, quick passing. Being the shortest player on the team, high air balls don’t bode well for me.
Q—How do you view your role as a team captain?
LAI—As captain, I feel responsible for keeping the team on the same page mentally. But sometimes I can’t even keep my own head straight, so it will be a challenge to keep 22 other players mentally stable as well. I also feel like there is pressure to be consistently “on,” every practice and every game.
Q—What part of your game is most improved since your freshman year?
LAI—I have improved how I think throughout a game. Freshman year, I was focused on what I was doing in the moment. I thought about where I should be running, where my mark was, where I will go with the ball, etc. Now I think beyond myself and beyond the moment. I think about what my teammates should be doing and where they should be, where the ball is going to be three passes from now, and what my teammates and myself should be doing in the next play.
Q—Are there any soccer players you’ve admired growing up? Is there a player you have looked up to during your career at UCSD? Why?
LAI—Growing up, I loved watching Aly Wagner play at Santa Clara, and now on the U.S. Women’s National Team. When I moved from central midfield to forward, I became obsessed with Thierry Henry (French National Team/Barcelona FC).
Q—What player on the current team possesses a skill you would like to make part of your game?
LAI—Alexia Zatarain’s shot from 30 yards out. I am kind of a scrappy goal-scorer. I pick up a lot of the tap-in goals when keepers bobble the ball or when a teammate’s shot deflects off the post. I would love to be able to blast a hard, accurate shot from really far out.
Q—When did you start playing soccer? What are your remembrances of your early playing days and was soccer the only sport you played?
LAI—I started playing when I was six. I miss the days when a soccer game consisted of a whole bunch of little kids bunched around the ball, following it wherever it went. Once in a while, you’d be lucky enough to get a hold of the ball and break away from the pack for a few seconds before you lose it again. I also miss oranges at halftime and post-game snacks provided by parents. I played softball up until high school, and basketball up until everyone hit their growth spurts and I didn’t.
Q—Has your size ever been a detriment on the soccer field?
LAI—No, because I’m just as strong or stronger than most players I go up against and defenders can’t use their strength against me if I’m faster and can get around them.
Q—Are there other athletes in your family?
LAI—No other collegiate athletes. I have an older brother who played football in high school, and a younger brother who played soccer.
Q—What are some of your off-the-field interests?
LAI—I love snowboarding. I love how soccer is a fall sport, so an injury on the mountain wouldn’t conflict with the soccer season. Recently my boyfriend has made me get into some outdoorsy things like hiking, rock climbing, and dirt biking. I also enjoy reading magazines and keeping up with new research and developments in science. Hey, that’s UCSD for you.
Q—What is your proudest collegiate soccer accomplishment to date?
LAI—Last year, scoring both goals in the 2-1 overtime victory over Cal Poly Pomona. And two days later, scoring the lone goal in the 1-0 victory over Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Q—What goals do the 2007 Tritons have?
LAI—Every year since my freshman year, we have we have gone to a further round into playoffs. First year was CCAA playoffs. Second year was second round of NCAA playoffs. Last year was NCAA Quarterfinals. That means at least going to Final Four this year.