Former Badin standout and college All-American set to begin pro soccer career in Europe

Florida State grad Malia Berkely signs with French team

Badin High School graduate Malia Berkely has always dreamed of playing soccer professionally in Europe, so when an opportunity arose to sign with a rising club in France, it didn’t take much convincing.

Berkely, who graduated from Florida State University in December, was projected a top five pick in the National Women’s Soccer League draft in January, but after her agent sent out her highlight film to see what other interest she could garner, FC Girondins de Bordeaux stepped up with the first offer.

After a bit of research, Berkely knew she didn’t need to look any further. She signed a pre-contract in early January, making her ineligible for the NWSL draft, and the club made the deal official Monday. Berkely arrived in France last week, following delays with obtaining a work visa, and she now awaits her first training session, potentially next week, following quarantine because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I’m sure I would have interest at some point in NWSL, but I grew up watching the Europe teams and leagues and basing my style off theirs, and it’s always been my goal to play over there,” Berkely said. “Coming to FSU and the amount of diversity we had on the team, I loved getting to learn from those players from other countries. … Everyone brings something different and I loved the opportunity to develop and train with them. I think I have such a long way to get where I want to be and developing overseas is going to go a long way in helping me to where I want to go.”

Berkely, who grew up in Liberty Twp., built quite a resume for herself at Florida State and throughout her youth career, which included leading Badin to state titles in 2013 and 2014 and experience with the U.S. youth national teams. She started and played in 84 games with the Seminoles, mainly as a defender, before forgoing the completion of her senior season this spring.

Credit: Shane M. Lardinois

Credit: Shane M. Lardinois

The former midfielder finished with four goals and 14 assists and anchored one of the nation’s top defenses during her three-and-a-half seasons, leading the Noles to 49 shutouts. Berkely also helped FSU to three ACC Championships, capping her career with a title in the fall, and a national championship in 2018.

A first-team All-American in 2019, she was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year for second consecutive season in 2020.

Berkely said she wasn’t even sure Bordeaux had seen her film when the club reached out.

“I honestly was surprised,” Berkely said. “I asked if I could talk to the coach and some players and find out more about the team and the league and I found out so much. I loved talking to the coach and manager, they seemed like very similar to my coach at FSU so I knew it would be a good fit and what they have planned for the club is something I would absolutely love to be part of.”

FC Girondins de Bordeaux was founded in 1881 but the women’s team is just five years old. Despite its youth, Bordeaux currently sits in third in the Division I Feminine, and the top three qualify for the Champions League.

Berkely said that was attractive in itself but the difficult part was making a decision without having visited the club, something not possible because of COVID-19. Speaking with a French player about the league and what to expect from the facilities helped calm any concerns.

“It was a little nerve wracking, but knowing I’ve wanted this since I was little -- I always wanted to be a pro soccer player since I was like 3 or 4, and knowing I’m at that point and knowing I’m living my dream overrules the nerves and all that..”

Credit: Shane M. Lardinois

Credit: Shane M. Lardinois

Berkely had been to Paris, France, as part of a trip to Europe with FSU in 2018, also making stops in Belgium and Holland, but that was as close as she got to Bordeaux, a city across the country in southwest France.

The language barrier shouldn’t be much of an issue there, Berkely said. She knows a few French words and has an app on her phone to help with translations, but the coach speaks English, Spanish and French and most of the girls on the team speak English. Berkely said it’s been her goal to learn as many languages as she can. She already knows Spanish pretty well and is excited to learn French now.

Berkely said she already feels part of the club.

“I’m also excited because when the preliminary signing got announced, a bunch of the fans of the club started following me and welcoming me and I can tell it’s a very soccer-centered community, or I guess I should say football, so I’m excited about that. I’ve been really looking forward to just getting there and getting started.”

The two-time Ohio Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year (2014 and 2015) should fit in nicely with the squad’s playing style. Berkely grew up playing center midfield and forward before switching to a holding midfielder at FSU. That led to a transition to left back and finally settling in as a dominant center back.

Berkely, who picked up martial arts to help with offseason workouts, said she is comfortable playing anywhere Bordeaux wants her, though she prefers being somewhere in the middle. She and her dad, former Badin coach Todd Berkely, watched some games together and it was clear the team plays a possession style with counter attacks that should suit her well because of her ball skills and speed.

Leaving Florida State was a difficult decision, she said, as her team has a good chance to compete for another national championship this spring. The NCAA championships were pushed back from fall, and the Seminoles look forward to the season resuming after going 11-0 en route to winning the ACC title – the only conference to play a championship.

“My team so happy and supportive of me going pro,” Berkely said. “I’m going to miss them and going for another national championship with them but I couldn’t be more thankful for my career at FSU. I wouldn’t be where I am without everyone there. Now I just hope I can represent them well at Bordeaux.”

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