Thailand’s women’s side again qualified for a World Cup after finishing in fourth place at the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which served as the qualifying tournament for the Asian Football Confederation.
Two United States-born players feature for Thailand: goalkeeper Tiffany Sornpao and forward/midfielder Miranda Nild. We spoke with Nild ahead of the World Cup to find out more about growing up in the Bay Area, playing for UC Berkeley, and how she began playing for Thailand.
Editor’s note — This article has been edited for clarity.
Brandi Ortega: Let’s start with how and when you started playing soccer? Did you follow an older sibling? Tell me how you got started?
Miranda Nild: Yeah. Definitely a little bit of both. I played soccer when I was younger and I played in a rec league. I ultimately played a bunch of different sports, and I think my brother and I both chose soccer. Honestly, I can’t remember if he’s the one who chose soccer first, but all I know is that I was interested in soccer the most out of all of the sports.
Ortega: What other sports did you play?
Nild: I played basketball, softball-ish, baseball, swimming. I’m trying to think of anything else.
Ortega: When did you start to specialize in soccer or did you stop playing the others to focus on soccer?
Nild: So I ran track and played golf in high school, and then I was playing competitive soccer by then, I think by 12, but I was also playing other sports just to try and keep my athleticism at a good medium, if that kind of makes sense. And then my sophomore year I stopped running track and golf, and I just focused on soccer to get recruited through colleges and what-not.
Ortega: Tell me about your family. Were your parents athletes?
Nild: My dad played football up into junior college, American football, so he was always pretty athletic. And then my mom kind of played a lot of different types of rec sports throughout growing up. Mostly stuck with volleyball, but, yeah, they were pretty athletic, I would say.
Ortega: And you mentioned a brother?
Nild: Yeah. He played soccer with me until we left high school. We each practiced together a whole bunch through a lot of periods at the time. I was home-schooled for three years, and he was kind of my workout buddy when it came to soccer workouts and doing things like that.
Ortega: You mentioned being home-schooled. From what ages?
Nild: I was homeschooled from fifth to seventh grade.
Ortega: Tell me about that experience, going from school, home-schooled, and then back into the general population.
Nild: It was really interesting. I thought it was a really unique experience to be home-schooled. I think that we focused on a lot of soccer and I practiced a whole bunch, and that’s kind of where my peak grew, if that made sense. That’s where my skills started to get more precise and everything like that. So I kinda think that really benefited me through soccer.
Ortega: And what about socially? Was that difficult to kind of pick up on the school dynamics of cliques and all of that?
Nild: Yeah. I mean, it was always really interesting. I luckily had a lot of my teammates … I still played for my local team, so I think that that was also really nice, because when I decided to go back to school I already had friends at school because my teammates were going to the same school.
Ortega: You mentioned getting into college. You’re a Cal Bear. What was the experience of selecting a school like? Did you know you were going to Cal or were there other finalists for you in terms of selecting a school?
Nild: I grew up in the Bay Area, so I always knew that I wanted … There was a couple of criteria I wanted. I knew that I wanted to play for a big school and I wanted to play in the Pac-12, and those were very specific details that I wanted in my school. And then in the end, I realized that I just kind of wanted to go to Cal, that I was just describing Cal, so I was like, “Okay. Well, that was kind of dumb.” But I talked to Stanford and Santa Clara, which are also local schools that I know have a really good soccer programs.
Ortega: You kind of have to go with you heart on that.
Nild: Definitely. I mean, I went to Cal games when I was younger. It was super weird, thinking about it now, I guess the obvious answer was always right in front of me.
Ortega: No, I mean, I knew from about 12 where I wanted to go to school, and I ended up going. I mean, yeah, you just kind of know. Tell me about the jump, in terms of competition, from your club team and high school soccer into DI competition.
Nild: The jump is always really, I feel like, aggressive. I feel like going into high school, you’re like, “Oh, wow. I’m going to play with girls that are four years older than me. That’s going to be huge.” And then you jump into college and it’s like a whole new world, like these girls not only are four years older than you, they are at the best of their best, you know what I mean? They are focused, they are determined, they are doing everything in their power to be the best that they can. And I think being in that new environment really adds a layer of responsibility and stuff onto you, that I had time to adapt to.
But luckily I was able to adapt because I know there’s a couple of girls that aren’t always able to adapt. It makes it really hard, but I think that once I was there, I was like, “Wow. This is such a cool program, such a cool place to be, such a unique experience.”
Ortega: It’s kind of crazy to think that not only are we asking athletes to adapt to a level that they’re not used to but there’s also the experience of going to school and often being on your own. In your case, you went to Cal, which is well-known for its academic rigor, so that’s a pretty huge undertaking. Were you overwhelmed during your freshman year?
Nild: My freshman year was pretty overwhelming. I always feel like the first couple of months’ time is for me to adjust. Being independent was also really huge. Being home-schooled, I was always mostly a homebody, and so being independent was huge for me. And it takes you a while to adjust, to figure out, “Okay. I definitely need to do this in order to pass this class. And then I definitely need to do this in order for my soccer skills not to dwindle down.” And so there’s just all this figuring out for a couple months. So freshman year was hard, but you come around with it and you’re like, “Okay, I figured it out. This is manageable.”
Ortega: When did you settle on a major?
Nild: I settled on a major relatively late just because I literally had no idea what I wanted to do. And then I wanted to go towards cognitive science, but eventually couldn’t, due to missing class because of soccer and the national team for Thailand, so I ended up picking a make-your-own major just because of how much time I had to miss.
Ortega: I’ve heard about the make-your-own majors. What’s the title of your degree?
Nild: It was called American Studies. The overall theme, I believe, is that it focuses on American culture. You get to pick whatever classes you want and they all have to be in within a certain regiment. And then at the end of four years, you have to write a 30- to 40-page paper about what you took, why you took it, and how you’re going to apply it to the real world.
Ortega: You mentioned getting called into the Thailand national team. Explain that process. They didn’t pick you out of the thin air.
Nild: So my coach, the guy who’s been personal training me since I was young, is Thai, and he kind of had an old friend that just got hired in the football federation here, and then he kind of was like, “Hey, I have this girl who’s half [Thai]. She’s interested in playing if you guys are willing to look at her video. If you guys are, we can manage something else.” We decided to send in some video. They liked me, so they brought me straight into a tournament because I couldn’t miss that much school at the time so they threw me into this tournament, and luckily I did well enough, so that’s good.
Ortega: So they just threw you in. It’s international play for one, and then a qualifying tournament. So I think the natural question next is about the language barrier. Was there one and how did you overcome it?
Nild: For sure, there definitely was a language barrier. Luckily, I do speak Thai, so now it’s way less of a problem. But when I first arrived, my Thai was incredibly rusty. I used to go to the Thai temple in Berkeley weekly, and just talk to them and speak in Thai, so I would use a lot of Thai vocabulary, but as soccer got serious throughout high school and then college, I stopped going to speak Thai.
So I could still understand pretty well, but the girls would, A) speak too quickly, or B) I wouldn’t know how to respond, and there was this huge language barrier that I had to overcome. But with each trip it gets better. Each trip I’m more fluent. Each trip I’m able to talk back and able to joke around. Only recently was I able to joke around back with them. Or they’d always tease me in a really inviting way and I would just have to take it, because I was like, “Oh, I don’t even know how to respond to you right now, but if I did …” So eventually I got over that and I was able to roast them back, and my life has been incredibly easy since then.
Ortega: Had you visited Thailand leading up to that or was it just purely soccer? I mean, you mentioned your father being Thai, so did you take trips there when you were younger?
Nild: Yeah. I took a trip there about every year when I was a kid. I’d usually come once a year during the summer or during winter break to come visit some family or go on vacation here.
Ortega: In terms of the difference in culture, was it an adjustment for you?
Nild: No, luckily that one was pretty smooth sailing. I was always pretty exposed to culture through my dad. My dad, or his family on his side, was always very like, “Oh, in Thai culture you’re not supposed to eat this,” or, “In Thai culture we do this instead of this.” There was a couple things that kind of was different for me.
Like here in Thailand, the girls all wake up in the morning … when they wake up in the morning and they see any teammate or staff member that is older than them, they’ll [greet] them every morning, like, “Oh, good morning.” So when I first got here, I was the youngest so I had to say hello to 30-some people. It was super overwhelming. Because I was like, “I don’t even know half your names. I don’t go here.” So that part was really intimidating, but now it’s super minimal, two years later it’s very minimal. To think that it was overwhelming is a little hilarious.
Ortega: Talk about the adjustment, on the football field, between growing up in California, heading to Cal, and over to Thailand. What’s been the experience for you in terms of the football?
Nild: The football’s been a little different. I think that normally Americans play with strength on their side, if that makes sense. And I think that since the Thai girls are literally a foot shorter than almost every average player height in the World Cup, I think that they have to adapt differently, I think that they have to just play soccer differently, and that’s been really interesting to see. It’s been a learning experience for me, too.
Ortega: Have you always been an attacking player, or did you start out playing defense and then switch?
Nild: I’ve always been in the attack. I think it would probably be pretty beneficial if I would’ve started off in the back and kind of worked forward, but I’ve always been the attack. I think recently I’m being drawn more backwards, if that makes sense.
Like for college, for example, I went in as the nine, which is the center forward, and then I eventually played midfield, then I started defending a bit. And that learning experience was pretty big, so I kind of think that Thailand’s using the same idea — just put my height to advantage and put me back in midfield, which is going to be interesting and very fun for the next few games.
Ortega: Are you seeing more of the ball?
Nild: Yeah, exactly. And then we’ll be defending for a lot of our games, so I think that that’s kind of the mind-set they were looking at.
Ortega: You talked about the upcoming games upcoming, so what was that process like for you, realizing the World Cup is a few weeks away and you’re going to be there? What’s that like?
Nild: I’m still realizing it, if that makes sense. I’ve always had months to prepare, like, “Oh, you have this many months,” “You have six months,” “You have five months,” “You have four months,” and now we’re going into the month of the World Cup, and it’s going down to weeks, and now it’s just like, “Wow. It’s actually coming. It’s actually going to be here.”
And versus when it was months, it was more like, “Oh, it’ll come in the future. I just have to prepare now.” So I think that whole thing is going to be really different; though, this is my first World Cup, so this is very exciting, very overwhelming, very intimidating type process.
Ortega: The group that you’re in, you have the USA, Sweden, and Chile, but obviously the powerhouse, is the U.S. You were born in the United States so what’s that going to be like for you to play against the juggernaut that is the U.S. after growing up watching them?
Nild: I haven’t figured that out yet. I obviously know it’s going to be very fun, I think. It’ll be very crazy for me to kind of look at them, and then look back at myself and be like, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re on the same platform,” if that makes sense. I’ve always looked up to them, looked up to that team, so I think that it’s going to be a really awesome experience for me to be able to play with them.
Ortega: There’s different styles in this group, too. You have the U.S., and then you have Sweden, who showed that you can beat the U.S., pretty handily, by just sitting low and playing defense. And then you have Chile, who is just a completely different style. How’s the preparation going for each one of those games?
Nild: I think that since we play the U.S. first, it’s difficult for our team to look anywhere past it, if that makes sense. I think we’re really focusing on defense and we’re really focusing on aspects that will matter. Like even if we park the bus, we’re going to have to figure out ways to keep the ball on the defense, heavily, and everything like that. So I think that’s honestly been an interesting experience here, because it’s very defense-oriented.
Ortega: What’s the overall support been like for the national team? Tell me a little bit about that. The United States has a lot of support that other federations don’t give their teams. What’s that like, in general?
Nild: I think it’s a little frustrating, but I know that the Thai culture is insanely different than the U.S., so it’s not surprising, if that makes sense. I think people realize, in this country [Thailand], that we’re going to play in the World Cup, which is a big platform, but I don’t think a lot of the country realizes and even knows what the World Cup is. So I just think it’s a different level of support and, yeah, it’s been frustrating, but I think it’s slowly developing here.
Ortega: And Thailand is actually building off of the last World Cup [Canada 2015], where they were debutantes too. Did you have a chance to watch Thailand when they were in Canada?
Nild: I actually did not watch a single game. I was graduating high school at the time, so thinking that I was going to play in a World Cup was so far away from my imagination that I was just watching games of the U.S. I was like, “Oh, cool,” but I was not prepared to watch Thailand play.
Ortega: They didn’t make it out of the group stage, but they did have a wild game in group against Ivory Coast, which was great. It was great to see that the very first goal scored for Thailand, men or women, came from the women’s side. By chance, are any of your family going to make it over to France?
Nild: Yes. They are. They are bringing the whole family, so it’ll be really fun.
Ortega: What are your thoughts about after the World Cup? I know you’re focusing just on the World Cup, but since you’re out of Cal, you got that American Studies degree, any thoughts of playing professionally?
Nild: Definitely. I think that the huge benefit of playing in the World Cup is that I’ll be on a super large platform, so I think that the exposure will be good for me in terms of wanting to play for a professional team, hopefully in Europe somewhere. So, yeah, that’s my goal. I haven’t figured out anything towards that, but yeah.
Ortega: Any interest in coming back here and playing in the National Women’s Soccer League?
Nild: I’ve definitely thought of it. I don’t know, I guess we’ll kind of see, but right now I don’t know if that’s even an option.
Ortega: Looking at the team and your teammates, give me an introduction to a couple of players who we should know about or who will have a good tournament.
Nild: Sure. This is going to sound absolutely hilarious. I don’t know a lot of the girls’ real names. Majority of the time, we call each other by [nicknames] … So in Thai culture you have a nickname and then you have a real name, and we purely use the nickname.
Rattikan Thongsombut, she’s the one who scored in the World Cup four years ago for the first time. She is probably one of our most athletic girls on this team. She is insanely athletic and insanely fast. I would definitely mark her down as someone very notable.
I would also say Warunee Phetwiset, who I believe will be number nine. She is also very athletic. She’s a really fun person and I think that the energy that she brings is insane.
Ortega: Do any of your teammates play outside of the country?
Nild: No, not until this year have the Thai girls looked to play outside of the country, but hopefully after this World Cup some of them have decided that if they get looked at, they would definitely be willing to go abroad.
Nild and the rest of the Thai National Team open up Group F play against the United States on June 11 in Reims.