The beautiful game is developed in innumerable locations around the world. Streets, courts, and pitches alike have developed the next generation of talent in soccer.
But for Emina Ekic, the daughter of Bosnian immigrants – her unfinished basement is where her story beings.
“It’s a love affair with the ball for Emina,” said University of Louisville Head Coach, Karen Ferguson-Dayes. “She’s grown-up juggling in her basement, playing soccer tennis with her brother – she’s out taking freekicks with her father. She’s been with the ball for as long as she could have a ball at her foot.”
Ask Ekic where she got her love of the game, and the answer is simple.
“My parents,” said Ekic with a smile. “Everyone on my Mom’s side played, and my Dad played professionally. It’s a family thing; I always watched my older cousins play. Whenever they had games, I would tag along and watch them play when I was growing up.”
Ekic has spent her entire life in Louisville, a city that blends big-city ambition with small-city comradery. Louisvillians fiercely honor their own, whether it’s Muhammad Ali or the invention of the high-five. Ekic’s appreciation of her hometown, however, was never tied to bright lights and shining stars.
“It’s not a small city, but it has a small city feel,” said Ekic. “Everyone is so close within their communities and the city as a whole. It has a uniquely homey feel. There’s a lot of boutique shops, family-owned places. It isn’t a city of chains, and that’s special. I love Quill’s Coffee Shop, a local place that has gotten bigger in recent years. There’s a lot of small, quality places like that all over town that really make Louisville what it is.”
Ekic’s ascent into local folklore began with freshman tryouts at duPont Manual High School. Tardy but dominant, word travelled quickly about Ekic’s prowess that went well beyond her years. Soon, the boys team at Manual wanted to see what she had. She obliged – and sent them home packing.
“They ended up beating the boys 3-1, and Emina scored all three goals,” Ekic’s high school coach, Rick Underwood, told ABS WHAS 11. “From that day forward, a crowd came to watch her play and would get into it. And it was mostly those boys soccer players.”
Ekic’s legend only grew as she netted two Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year awards. As the prospect of college loomed, tragedy struck for Ekic – a torn ACL ruled her out of her senior campaign. Following rehab, Ekic was recruited by a litany of schools.
But there was only one choice.
Let’s meet #10 Emina Ekic! pic.twitter.com/5egqAVYyj6
— Louisville Women's Soccer (@ULWomensSoccer) October 3, 2017
“It’s always been Louisville for me,” said Ekic. “I couldn’t see myself going somewhere else. U of L is in my backyard. On my visit, I fell in love with the entire program. It was a very easy decision for me. I committed my freshman year, which was pretty early. I always knew I wanted to go here growing up and watching the girls play. I wanted to follow in their footsteps.”
When asked about recruiting Ekic, Ferguson-Dayes remembers a process that wasn’t much of a recruitment at all.
“Honestly, Emina chose us,” Ferguson-Dayes said. “She grew up here, and I think playing for us was something she had dreamed of. In a way, I became the beneficiary of Emina. I knew she wanted to be close to home, but after talking with her I knew she was a Cardinal through and through. She was coming here as long as we had a scholarship offer for her, which I did and have never regretted that decision.”
To say Ekic hit the ground running was an understatement. Leading the team with seventeen points in seventeen stars, the attacker was on her way to stardom. Then, much like at Manual, tragedy struck again.
“Gosh, I remember it clear as day,” said Ferguson-Dayes. “That second ACL tear against North Carolina was devastating for her. But her ability to compartmentalize things was an elite level even before that injury. So, she was able to focus on her recovery and getting back to the player she wanted to be.”
For the second time in as many years, Ekic faced the prospect of a lengthy recover.
“I knew the process, but in a way that actually made it worse,” said Ekic. “The time off, the exercises, you’re almost overwhelmed by having to face it again. There’s a component of overthinking it as well, sometimes pushing yourself to get there too fast. But there’s a comfort in being able to retrace your footsteps and hit all the benchmarks.”
Unsurprisingly, Ekic soared in her comeback sophomore season, earning second-team All- American honors. But Ekic’s brilliance found a new level in her junior year, which began with a challenge from the Cardinals coaching staff.
“We challenged her to be a more complete player,” said Ferguson-Dayes. “I wanted her to bring other players into the game, and she almost took it personally. ‘What do you mean there’s more to my game that needs to happen?’ But she rose to the occasion and added so many layers to her game.”
It would be her penultimate masterstroke as a Cardinal, which she would follow up in a COVID-shortened senior season that saw her claim ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Along the way, Ekic made her name as a big-game player – and both her and Ferguson-Dayes agree on her finest moment.
Emina Ekic scores the game winning penalty kick to defeat Vandy!!!#GoCards
— Louisville Women's Soccer (@ULWomensSoccer) September 16, 2019
“Man, she scored a lot of big ones,” said Ferguson-Dayes. “But against Vanderbilt, that was classic Emina. Vandy was ninth in the nation, and she scored the game-winning penalty. But it was the way the penalty was drawn. Very tight space, trying to get around three defenders. She made it, took it, and scored it – all in overtime against a ranked team. Her ability again to compartmentalize the moment and not get lost in the emotion, is special.”
“Definitely Vandy,” said Ekic with a smile. “It was massive for us as a program; they were ranked #9 at the time, and that really put us on the map. That was special.”
The legend of Emina Ekic has reached the end of one chapter, but a new chapter – professional – was soon to come.
Free kick? No problem for Emina Ekic 💪
Halftime | UVA 2, Cards 1
— Louisville Women's Soccer (@ULWomensSoccer) November 11, 2020
For Christy Holly, immediacy was a key to Racing Louisville’s scouting process ahead of the 2021 Draft. With many players choosing to return to school this spring, Holly found himself scrambling to shortlist players that could hit the ground running in a professional preseason. Amongst them was Ekic, and Holly was impressed from the first sight of her.
“She’s supremely talented, and we saw that quickly,” said Holly. “Her attacking production is just phenomenal. She does it all, and that was the type of player we were looking for. She’s incredibly sophisticated on the ball, and she’s intelligent and savvy in how she aims to break an opponent down. But she’s got plenty to work on, and she’s the first one to understand that. She’s so coachable, so grounded, and that impressed us from the beginning.”
Throughout the process, with Ferguson-Dayes advising her and acting as an intermediary with the league’s ten teams, Ekic tried her best to remain neutral and be content with whoever took a chance on her. But, just as in the collegiate process, it was all about Louisville.
“I was pretty hopeful,” said Ekic. “When they announced, I knew that year was when I would graduate. I wanted to be on the first team that gets to represent Louisville and make history for the city. It was a fairy tale for me, too good to be true. I was hopeful, but I really didn’t want to get my hope up. Whenever Louisville was like on the clock, I was always on the edge of my seat.”
Ferguson-Dayes admits that many teams led them to believe that Ekic would go sometime in the second round. When Racing came up again at number five, neither had much expectation.
Then, it happened. Emina’s road to local legend was complete.
This is truly a dream come true! I'm so glad I was able to share this moment with my family & friends.
— Emina Ekic (@emina_ekic10) January 14, 2021
“A weight being lifted like off your chest,” said Ekic about her selection. “You finally know where you’re going and it’s time to focus on training and the preparation for preseason, not the draft process. But honestly it was just hard not to cry. My parents were excited for me and I knew they wanted me to stay home. They never told me that they did, but it’s a plus for them.”
For Holly and Ferguson-Dayes alike, the fairy-tale is incredible for the city and club alike.
“It’s fantastic,” beamed Holly. “More than anything, it shows young players in Louisville that it’s possible. There is a real pathway to the professional game in this city, and that’s key. Some places in this country, every street has a youth player that has professional potential. That’s not the case in this town or this state, so to be able to secure that that player is vital to us as we reach out into the city.”
“In recruiting we want the best kids in Louisville playing for the University, so obviously you the best college players in your state playing for Racing,” said Ferguson Dayes. “To have her be selected top five and entrusted with a role on her hometown team – it’s incredible. Nobody there will have more pride for that badge than her. She lives and breathes this town; she is Louisville through and through. Christy gets that, and that’s why she went so early. You don’t let a kid like Emina slip away.
Now, Ekic and her hometown team look to take the NWSL by storm as they face the Orlando Pride at Lynn Family Stadium. Holly and Ekic alike admit that there has been a jump for her from college to the pros, but she’s learned every step of the way.
As for the moniker of Hometown Hero? Well, that will take some getting used to.
“I actually don’t really think about it much until someone always like brings it up in an interview,” said Ekic. “They come up with a new name for me every week, and it’s kind of overwhelming at times! But honestly, I’m excited for this team and be a part of it in our first game. It’s a lot to take in, and I kind of let myself take it in after the draft. I really don’t want the pressure to get to me. I’m doing my best to keep it simple and focus on my game.”