LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Emina Ekic's soccer stardom has flashed in fields and stadiums. However, she first honed her skills at her Louisville home.
"My basement is unfinished solely for soccer purposes," Ekic said. "It's a concrete floor and concrete walls, so we can just hit the ball off the walls. We even have an old mattress up against one wall, so I can practice shooting without the ball ricocheting back to me.”
"From the time she and her younger brother could dribble a ball, they were down there every night, playing and practicing," former duPont Manual High School girls soccer head coach Rick Underwood said.
Now, her blue cleats bounce with speed across green turf fields at Champions Park in preparation for her first season as a professional. She remembers them being made of bumpy grass from club and pickup games.
“So it's kind of like I left, and then I came back,” Ekic said.
Really, she never left. The daughter of a father who played professionally in Germany, Ekic was born and raised in Louisville.
She rose through Manual and the University of Louisville (UofL) to become the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft for Racing Louisville FC.
"I kind of always secretly hoped for it," Ekic said. "But I didn't know that I was going to end up here."
To her former coaches, the path to the pros always seemed likely, even if she was a little tardy to starting it by coming late to Manual tryouts because of regional soccer camps.
"I didn't know she was coming and I had not heard about her reputation,” Underwood said. “The girls who knew her said, ‘Well, there's one more player coming that you need to hold a spot open for.’ And they started talking about how good she was."
The word traveled as quickly as she did on the field, dribbling and cutting far beyond the level of a freshman. Eventually, the boys team at Manual wanted to play against her. She obliged and dominated.
“They ended up beating the boys 3-1 and she scored all three of the goals,” Underwood said. “From that day forward, the crowd came to watch her play and would get into it. And it was mostly those boys soccer players."
Anyone in attendance at one of the two-time Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year's games could probably come away with a story or two.
Current Manual girls soccer coach, Sheri Kiser, recalls one against Providence High School: a ball that bent around a waiting wall of defenders, past one of the best keepers in the state and into her memory as one of the greatest free kicks she’s ever seen.
“Not just for a high school player, but for any soccer player,” Kiser said. “All the coaches kind of turned and looked at each other and we just smiled. We knew that she was going to be something special."
As Ekic approached her senior season, a simple plant and twist during a club game for Javanon FC tore the ACL in her right knee, meaning she'd miss her senior year.
"It was a hard and long nine months," Ekic said. "I think I could have joined for the end of my senior career, but I would have been nowhere near totally ready. So I just sat out the whole nine months and kind of worked on myself and got better."
"She didn't see anything as a setback," Kiser said. "She had such a good knowledge and understanding of the game that she could provide feedback and was almost like an assistant coach. She spoke to them like a player, but she would motivate them, she would challenge them and her teammates valued her in that role because they knew what an outstanding player she was."
"I was told a lot of times that there was bigger and better things down the road," Ekic said.
Those bigger and better things were about five minutes down the road at UofL.
"The first time I knew we absolutely needed Emina was at an event I watched her at in Florida," Louisville women's soccer head coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes said. "She was playing with the regional team. And of course, she was a very good player here in the city and in the state."
She showed Ferguson-Dayes she could still be elite in that setting. Impressed with the local product's desire to want the ball and precise technique with it, Ferguson-Dayes didn't have to pitch her too hard on being a Cardinal.
As one of the top players in the country who could’ve gone anywhere, staying home was always what Ekic wanted.
"She essentially recruited us," Fergsuon-Dayes said. "It was kind of always her dream to come to UofL. And she's very, very close with her family."
The freshman immediately produced. Ekic led the Cardinals in points and goals on her way to being named ACC Co-Freshman of the Year, the first Cardinal to ever win a major ACC award.
All of that speaks for itself, but her former head coach learned more from what led to the instant impact of her soft-spoken star.
"It probably took me a full year to understand Emina and all of her value," Ferguson-Dayes explained. "Because Emina doesn't talk about herself. She doesn't tell you everything she's doing. She doesn't tell her teammates. She's off in the dark: taking set pieces, getting fitter and getting better technically. She's very humble, almost humble to a fault, because you just think she's a great player. But, you don't see the seven or eight hours behind the scenes where she's really paying attention to a lot of those details."
While the production was familiar, so was the ending. In a two-overtime, scoreless tie at North Carolina, Ekic tore the ACL in her left knee in the same type of fashion she tore her right.
It was the penultimate game of that regular season and the rising sophomore faced another 9-10 months before a return.
"As the rehab process went on, I got more confident," Ekic said. "I kind of told myself that I've been through those 10 months and I don't want it to limit me while I'm playing the rest of my game."
It's safe to say it didn't.
In her next season, she started all 19 games for Louisville on her way to being a first-team All-ACC standout and second-team All-American, the first Cardinal to do so.
Her junior campaign is where Ferguson-Dayes saw the complete realization of a pro.
"My challenge to her was, can you make the other players around you equally as good as you," Ferguson-Dayes said. "Because she's always just solved the game on her own.”
Her complete development showed in a career season: eight goals (five game-winners), eight assists and 24 points, all of which led Louisville, while also leading UofL’s press as a defender. It resulted in being honored as a second-team All-American again.
"I think I really kind of stepped into more of a leadership and responsibility role my junior year," Ekic said. "It showed on and off the field."
Of course, her senior season in 2020 saw a lot more time off of the field.
Due to COVID-19, Louisville played just nine games in the fall. But Ekic saw the shortened year as a chance to test her growth.
"It really kind of embodied just being confident," Ekic said. "I trained really hard over quarantine and even when the team got back together. I felt ready."
“I initially thought we needed her from a soccer perspective,” Ferguson-Dayes said. “She really embodies a holistic approach to how to be a great soccer player and how to be a great human. She did way more for our program than I guess I ever expected, dominated on a college level and then put us on a platform where we do have some brand recognition.”
With an ACC Offensive Player of the Year award in hand, the senior declared for the NWSL Draft.
Racing FC head coach Christy Holly, a former opposition analyst for U.S. Soccer who’s worked with the youth national team as well, had been tracking Ekic for the last couple of years.
“The big thing that Emina has is her ability to play,” Holly said. “She's got supreme ability in her left foot, but she's very comfortable in tight spaces."
The former Cardinal enjoyed the feeling of being wanted during the draft process, but said it was stressful with so much going on.
Ekic couldn't recall how many teams reached out, but Ferguson-Dayes estimates six to seven called about her star.
"I think she was okay with potentially going somewhere else," Ferguson-Dayes said. "I was okay with her going somewhere else. But at the end of the day, I think this is where she wanted to be."
"It was just like a dream come true that we get an NWSL team here exactly as I'm finishing up college, just in time when I would be playing professionally," Ekic said.
While being masked in a room surrounded by friends and loved ones, Ekic couldn't hide the emotions when the fifth overall pick of the 2021 NWSL Draft came.
After it was announced, she stood up and immediately hugged her parents, uncle and brother as the first Louisville player to ever be an NWSL draftee.
"Once my name got called, there was just a sense of relief and so much excitement," Ekic said. "I get to stay home with my family and friends."
"I just thought it was fairy-tale," Ferguson-Dayes said. "It's signing your hometown hero."
"We've talked about embedding our roots in the communities that we work and live in," Holly said. "And there's no better way to do it than taking people from the community and inserting them right in the middle of this club."
It's visible to the young women in this area who have dreams like Ekic once did. Now, they don't just have representation at the highest level of women's soccer in a club: They have a local figure who made it there.
"I think it's so awesome because growing up here, I didn't have that," Ekic said. "And we didn't really have the academy. It was very difficult to get seen, to get noticed."
"I'm an unbelievably big advocate of if you can see it, you can be it," Ferguson-Dayes said. "I see the interaction she has here at our stadium. I see the interactions that she has here at our camps. Young girls know who she is.”
“And what that does for young players is priceless,” Holly said. “I mean, it's inspirational."
“She’s become somewhat of a soccer pop figure,” Underwood said.
The academy players training just a field over can take a quick glance to see it: the hometown hero hitting turbo on turf as Racing rolls through preseason in preparation for its inaugural season. And she can go right back home to the basement.
“I’m kind of comfortable and familiar with everything,” Ekic said. “Louisville is home. I love this place, the community and the people.”