Racing Louisville FC is set to begin its inaugural season in 2021 as a new expansion team adopted into the National Women’s Soccer League. The expansion draft saw the club claiming the rights of United States Women’s National Team stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press, along with a handful of other standouts across the NWSL. However, RLFC decided to take a unique approach in the 2021 NWSL Draft and selected a hometown hero early in the first round. After drafting North Carolina defender Emily Fox with the top-overall pick, the club selected University of Louisville star midfielder Emina Ekic with the fifth-overall pick.
For Ekic, the selection was a dream come true; the Louisville native reached her goal of playing professional soccer, while doing so in her hometown. “There were so many emotions flowing through me that night,” she explained. “It is truly an honor to be drafted by Christy (Holly) and the coaching staff at Racing! I was overwhelmed with tears of joy to say the least; I’m beyond grateful and excited to represent this club on the biggest stage this city has to offer.”
Ekic looks to become successful on the big stage, but stardom is no stranger to her, especially not in this city. As a high school footballer at duPont Manual, Ekic received back-to-back Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year honors (2015-2016), while racking up various All-American and All-State recognitions. As one of the biggest women’s soccer recruits in the city’s history, she decided to stay home to play at collegiate level just a few miles away.
“I knew I wanted to go to the University of Louisville before I was even in high school,” Ekic recalled. “I always wanted to represent my hometown at the highest level the city had to offer. I was proud to wear the Cardinal red and represent my hometown. It meant so much to me and I always had this intrinsic motivation to show everyone how great this city is.”
In the spotlight is where Ekic flourished; from the very moment she stepped on the pitch as a Cardinal, she excelled. “I would say that it was easy to handle the spotlight and pressure because I was not where I wanted to be,” she added. “Everyday I was working towards being better and reaching my goals. I didn’t want to let the small successes towards my major goals get to my head. Not to mention, I never really thought I was in the spotlight to begin with. I was always working with and for my teammates; we were in that process together.”
Ekic came to the university as a promising recruit, and left as one of the best, if not the best, player in school history. She finishes at the top of the program’s record books in goals (29) and assists (19), while receiving various All-American and All-Conference honors. Additionally, Ekic became the first Cardinal to win ACC Player of the Year after scoring seven goals and dishing out three assists in a nine-game 2020 campaign.
Former Cardinal defender Niamh Nelson played three seasons with Ekic, and witnessed firsthand her fiery competitive edge and down-to-earth identity. “I loved playing with Emina,” she explained. “As much as she’s a phenomenal player, she’s a better teammate and friend. She’s always a positive person with a personality that draws people in. Every morning, she’s smiling ready to go and that impacts a player and a team more than people know. Even with her ACL tear, she came back better than before. Her attitude during her recovery showed others how much soccer means to her. As soon as you see her play you know she’s has something special and know she’s only getting started in her career. She’s one of the most genuine and kind people I’ve been friends with and an amazing teammate. I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in her future.”
Ekic believes her time in college has prepared her well for the next level. “I think the University of Louisville has prepared me well for the pro game,” she said. “I have not only grown physically in regards to speed and strength, but mentally with positivity and adaptability. Nothing has really changed in terms of approach to the game, but I’m trying to soak in all of the information I am getting, to grow and get better.”
It is borderline unprecedented for a player to remain in one city for all three levels of their athletic career. Dubbed as a “hometown hero,” all eyes will be on Ekic as Racing Louisville FC attempts to hit the ground running. With that recognition, comes an even larger amount of pressure; however, this is not a new phenomenon for the talented midfielder.
“To be honest, I don’t feel any pressure,” Ekic explained. “I’m playing the same game I have my whole life. This is my story and I’m just glad I get to keep writing it in my city. There will be ups and downs in my career, but I know the city will always have my back as I continue to learn and grow. My journey has been labeled as unique, but there is not any added pressure playing in front of the people I have been my whole life.”
For longtime friend and teammate (Manual and Louisville) Allison Whitfield, Ekic’s level of success was something that she saw coming. “I grew up playing with and against Emina and I knew from day one that she was going to make it,” she said. “I’ve never met someone more determined and hardworking than her. She was constantly staying after practices at Manual to better herself, and that’s why she is the person and player she is today. She is so dedicated to soccer and one of the most loyal friends that I have ever had. I am so lucky to not only have been her teammate for eight years, but also her friend. I can’t wait to cheer her on at Racing this year.”
Racing Louisville FC has already put together a roster filled with talent, regardless if Press and Heath decide to join the club this summer after their respective stints at Manchester United conclude. Even if the two stars elect to stay in England, Ekic hopes to play with them at the national level. Playing for the back-to-back World Cup champion USWNT and representing her country remains her biggest goal.
As influential Ekic is on the field with her ability to control the field with the ball at her feet, her legacy off of the field may be greater. The city has seen a seismic soccer surge in the youth ranks in recent years, and the founding of Louisville City FC back in 2014 has only contributed to the trend. Ekic serves as living proof that a soccer player can make it in the Derby City.
“This city is such a big soccer city,” Ekic said. “The game keeps growing and growing, not to mention the women’s game is growing everywhere as well. I think boys and girls have a great opportunity to build their soccer careers with our new academies. It’s an honor to be called the hometown hero. I want to use my platform in this city and in the soccer world to make my community and the world a better place.”
Her message to the upcoming soccer generation in Louisville? Don’t give up, and trust the process. “I would tell the youth to take everything one step at a time and not look too far into the future. Win each day and do the best you can every day and the results will come. Before you know it, you’ll be where you want to be.”
Ekic has already done many notable things as a player, but her best days are ahead of her. As great as she may turn out on the pitch, she is becoming a legend off of it, giving a new definition to the term “hometown hero.”