For Missouri's Julissa Cisneros, training in Mexico felt like home.

The unique opportunity improved much more than Cisneros’s game — it improved her connection to her culture.
Sophomore midfielder Julissa Cisneros takes a corner kick during 2019's home opener. Cisneros scored the lone goal of the game, propelling Missouri to a win over Southern Mississippi. Andrew Moore

For most athletes, going to a soccer training camp in Mexico would feel like a study-abroad opportunity. For Julissa Cisneros, it felt like home.

Cisneros was Missouri soccer’s leading scorer in 2019. The striker scored 11 goals last season as a sophomore, the most by a Tiger in a decade. Her development and dominant performance over the past two seasons caught the eye of Mexico’s U-20 national team squad.

Cisneros, who has dual citizenship because of her grandparent’s heritage, has been called up to the training camp twice since July 2019.

Missouri women’s soccer head coach Bryan Blitz saw Cisneros’ potential even before her first season. He asked scouts from professional and international clubs to keep an eye on the newfound young talent.

“Coach Blitz has definitely been one to reach out for me, even before stepping on campus,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros wanted an opportunity like this since her early days of playing the game. She grew up in Moreno Valley, California and played club soccer for Inland Empire Surf SC in San Bernardino. Coached by Ted Small, she helped her team win the 2016 Disney Showcase championship and the 2017 SoCal Summer Showcase title. In 2018, Small had high praise for Cisneros.

“Julissa is a superstar,” Small said after Cisneros had committed to Missouri. “Her goal-scoring rate is unbelievable ... I have no doubt I will see her on TV one day playing this sport."

She also played for Rancho Verde High School. Cisneros tallied an impressive 35 goals in her high school career. She also holds her high school’s single-season goals record.

“I knew I wanted to play internationally and professionally,” Cisneros said. “I just knew I wanted to play soccer.”

A couple teams made offers to attend their camps, but nothing that really excited Cisneros. She hoped that, after her first college season, more opportunities would present themselves.

Cisneros proved her worth after that first season with five goals and one assist. She was also named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

She was very hopeful that someone had taken notice of her, and, thankfully, someone had: the U-20 Mexican National Team.

“[My family and I] were very excited,” Cisneros said. “We were over the moon.”

It was an exciting moment for Cisneros’ parents, Maribel and Alfonso, to see her dreams becoming reality.

“We felt very blessed,” Maribel said. “It’s a big blessing, and it came from all of the hard work that she has put in. What more can a parent ask for than to see our child achieving her goals and making her dreams come true?”

After all the anticipation and waiting, she had been noticed. In such a high-stakes situation, it would be normal to be intimidated by the tough competition that was to await her in Mexico. Cisneros, however, felt at ease.

“When I first got [to the camp], it was like I was meant to be there,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros’ talents and abilities as a player made her feel confident on the pitch, but, more importantly, her shared background and culture made her feel comfortable.

Cisneros has a strong connection to her Mexican heritage. She emphasized that her family participates in many cultural traditions and festivities.

Cisneros is a first generation Mexican American, so most of her family in the United States are immigrants who primarily speak Spanish in the household and gained their citizenship later in life. She has been surrounded by a tight-knit extended family that loves and cares for each other.

“On game days, everybody comes over to cheer her on; to cheer the team on,” Maribel said.

Cisneros' parents also taught her to embrace and express her culture proudly.

“Do not be afraid to show who you are,” Alfonso told Cisneros.

The training camps turned out to be a different experience for her. Her teammates in Moreno Valley and in Columbia didn’t all share her heritage, but when she got to Mexico, they spoke the same language, listened to the same music and even used the same phrases she did. It was easy for her to fit in and connect with the other athletes.

Her favorite part of the camps — held in July 2019 and January 2020 in Mexico City — her coach’s passion for the game. Mónica Vergara, the U-20 head coach, gave new life to the game that Cisneros already loved.

During "charlas," or little talks, Vergara would show how much she wanted success for not just the team, but each individual. Cisneros specifically remembered one of these talks after a “chaotic” training session. The squad was a bit off and not playing to the potential Vergara knew they were capable of.

“Instead of punishing us, what [Vergara] did was she went one by one to each staff member and asked them, ‘What does it mean for you to be here with the national team?’”

Later that day, Vergara asked the same question to the players that had been there for several years. She probed even deeper and asked what it felt like to be a part of the team the first time they got there. After hearing each of the staff and player’s stories, the squad realized that it had been the same for everyone. No matter how old they were when they first attended the camp, their emotions were high and their families were excited.

Vergara fueled the team by helping them realize that they were involved in something incredible. Cisneros had gained passion and pride that couldn’t be matched in the U.S. There was great pride in representing their country, especially in a sport that is idolized by the Mexican people.

“Even women’s soccer, they have fans, they have people drawing things for them,” Cisneros said. “It’s just so cool. These kids are 18 or 19 years old and they have all these fans because there is so much support.”

Soccer is the most popular sport in Mexico, something Cisneros saw while training. She got to experience not only the team’s passion, but Mexico’s love of the game.

“A lot of people love the sport,” Cisneros said. “It doesn’t matter if you have cleats or not; if you live on the street or not: We all love the sport.”

Cisneros believes her experience with Mexican soccer will only help her game for the Missouri Tigers. She plays with a newfound passion born from the love and dedication Mexico’s people have for the sport. With a large proportion of freshmen on the team, Blitz will be looking for leadership from the veterans. Cisneros’ national team experience will be highly valued.

“It's helped me in acquiring my voice on the team and being a bit more analytical in the way we play together,” Cisneros said.

With exciting opportunities presenting themselves, she chooses to remain in the moment and focus on the team’s opening game.

“Right now, [I’m] just focusing on the season ahead, but [I’m] obviously very hopeful for the future,” Cisneros said.

Missouri’s opening match was against the University of South Carolina on Sunday, Sept. 27. Cisneros drew a foul outside the 18-yard box and capitalized, scoring the Tiger’s first goal of the season. Missouri went on to fall to South Carolina 4-1.

Cisneros remains eligible for selection to be called up to the U-20 squad in future international competition for the next 12 months.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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