Alessia Russo is fast, so you may not catch it.
But if she slows down, a small, white band can be spotted on her forearm. The piece of cloth reads “TFLF,” and it’s what motivates the 18-year-old striker from Kent, England. “So this is a saying that my dad always said to me: team, family, love, fun,” Russo explains in a heavy British accent. “You put tape around your wrist, and you write things that you play for.”
Team is first, and what a team Russo is part of. The North Carolina women’s soccer team is 13-2-2 and ranked third in the nation. The Tar Heels are set to face NC State as the second seed in the ACC Tournament semifinals tonight in Charleston, South Carolina.
The 2017 ACC Co-Freshman of the Year then turns her wrist, revealing more Sharpie scribbles. “And this is my mom, my dad and my brothers,” she adds.
Family is another of Russo’s four pillars, and hers is a football one. “I’ve grown up around the game,” Russo said. “I have two older brothers, so I used to play with them when I was young. It’s always been a big part of the family.”
Her dad, Mario, is the all-time leading goal-scorer for the Metropolitan Police FC, a semi-professional football club in England. Giorgio, her 22-year-old brother, plays for Hythe Town FC in the British semi-professional Ryman League. Her other brother Luca is an athlete as well. The 22 year-old is a senior on the University of Missouri’s cross country and track teams and has run for England’s U20 team.
Russo plays knowing her family is behind her. “We’re five hours back in England, so the games that are at six or seven here are like 12 or 1 in the morning there,” Russo said.“So they stay up and watch them and have a late night, but they wouldn’t do it any other way.”
Love is the third item on the wristband: love for the game, love for her family and love for her teammates. “We also play for our injured girls like Emily Fox and Maya (Worth) and Ru (Mucherera), who recently suffered long-term injuries,” Russo said.“So they’re unfortunately not able to play on the field, but we’re playing for them.”
Those same teammates are the ones who have given Russo a home 5,000 miles from her own. “The first thing is the girls, they welcomed us in so nicely,” she said. “They’re like family, so that helped us, straight away, settle in.”
Russo’s love for her teammates bleeds into her final pillar: fun. “You’re always together; there’s always stuff going on,” Russo said. “You’re never bored, thinking about being at home.”
But something is missing from Russo’s wristband. It’s her personal aspirations. “In the next three years, I would like to keep on the international scene back home, and keep progressing there,” Russo said.“We have an Under-21 World Cup in France next August, so back home, my aspirations there are to play in that tournament.”
Russo seems likely to accomplish that goal. The forward has already put together an impressive international résumé that includes 50 combined career appearances and 23 goals for England’s U15, U17 and U19 teams.
But for now, she is focused on helping her college team. As the only Tar Heel to land on the All-ACC first team, Russo will be instrumental in North Carolina’s hopes for its 21st out of a possible 28 ACC Tournament titles. After that, she will lead the Tar Heels as a likely top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
So Russo will be busy, and moving faster than ever.
But, in case she slows down, take a look at her wrist.
Photos by Caleb Jones