Former UT soccer player debuts with U.S. national team

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

M.A. Vignola made Tennessee soccer history last week in her hometown of Cincinnati and became the first Lady Vol to ever take the field for the U.S. Women’s National Team. She did so after overcoming a serious hip injury that kept her sidelined and on crutches for months.

In soccer parlance Vignola earned a cap, which refers to a player’s appearance for her national team at the international level. Other Tennessee players who have earned caps on their national teams include Hannah Wilkinson with New Zealand; Michelle Alozie with Nigeria; and Khadija “Bunny” Shaw and Kameron Simmonds with Jamaica. Vignola is the first to do so for the United States, so a tip of the cap to all of them.

It used to mean a literal cap was given to a player, a practice that originated in England, to commemorate the milestone, but that tradition ended. The name has remained.

“It’s exciting for her, and it’s exciting for our program,” Tennessee soccer coach Joe Kirt said. “To have this opportunity at home is so exciting for her. I’m proud of her for the player and person that she’s become.”

M.A. Vignola’s U.S. National Team photo

Vignola played the entire second half of a match against South Africa on Sept. 21 for an international friendly that the United States won, 3-0. The teams played again on Sept. 24 in Chicago – a match made memorable as it was U.S. national team stalwart Megan Rapinoe’s 203rd and final international match – for a 2-0 win.

Vignola played at Tennessee from 2016-19 and earned All-SEC First Team honors in 2019. She appeared in 59 games with 11 assists and 15 goals, four of which were game winners.

As a junior she was part of Tennessee’s historic run to the NCAA Quarterfinals in 2018 and played a pivotal role for a defense that limited opponents to a program-best 15 goals. As a senior, she averaged 83 minutes per match and tallied nine goals and five assists.

After college, the defender played professionally for Thróttur Reykjavík and Valur in Iceland and now plays in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for Angel City FC in Los Angeles, a team in which former Lady Vol basketball player Candace Parker is an investor.

“M.A. has been through a lot and to see her come out of it and to get the chance to represent her country is really special,” Kirt said. “Her journey hasn’t always been a straight line, but she’s continued to excel and manage whatever comes her way.”

M.A. Vignola takes the field with Angel City in Los Angeles (Angel City)

Vignola had to overcome a debilitating injury to take the field for Angel City after playing a full season for Valur with a torn hip labrum. A hip injury is difficult for any athlete, but a soccer player sprints for long stints and must make sharp cuts and pivots at full speed in what can be a contact sport. The labrum is essentially a seal that helps align the ball at the top of the thighbone with the hip socket.

“I was in horrible pain the entire season,” Vignola said in THIS STORY. “I could get through, like, 25 minutes, and then I’d take a step a little bit wrong and I’d be in pain.”

Angel City signed her to an NWSL contract in late 2021, and Vignola played in preseason early in 2022, but the intense pain persisted, so Angel City focused on her health and rehab. She returned to the field in September 2022 when Angel City hosted Mexico in the inaugural Copa Angelina and then became a significant contributor on defense for Angel City in the 2023 NWSL season.

That led to Vignola’s national team debut after a year of dealing with pain on the pitch and then being forced off of it because of injury and feeling disconnected from a sport she had played since she was a little kid in Ohio.

“It’s always a battle,” Vignola said. “It’s always a battle with yourself and your mentality, and if you’re willing to keep going.”

VOLLEYBALL: Tennessee is now ranked No. 12 in the country and 2-0 in the SEC after a three-set win last Sunday over No. 22 Kentucky in Lexington.

“I am just really proud of our team,” coach Eve Rackham Watt said. “I am just so happy for this group to be able to play as well as we did. We did it on their court. We didn’t play perfect, but we were close.”

Rackham Watt, who is in her sixth season at Tennessee, now has 101 career wins as a head coach. She reached the century mark in just her 152nd match, making her the fastest coach in the modern era of Tennessee volleyball to reach that milestone. Rackham Watt was hired to lead the Lady Vols in 2018 after 10 seasons as an assistant at North Carolina.

After the wins over Missouri and Kentucky last week, three Lady Vols earned conference honors with Morgahn Fingall the SEC Player and Offensive Player of the Week; Emily Beeker the Co-Defensive Player of the Week; and Caroline Kerr the SEC Freshman of the Week, her fourth consecutive week of conference recognition.

Tennessee is now 11-1 overall and its next three matches are also away from home against Mississippi State on Sept. 29, Ole Miss on Oct. 1 and Alabama on Oct. 3 for an extended road trip.

SOCCER: The Lady Vols played No. 7 South Carolina to a 1-1 draw on the road after the Gamecocks evened the score on a penalty kick in the 87th minute. Tennessee is now 1-1-1 in the SEC.

Tennessee’s goal came from Kate Runyon. The freshman started in place of Simmonds, who had national team duties in Jamaica and will return this week to Tennessee. Runyon, who also scored in the 2-0 win over Florida, earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for her efforts.

The Lady Vols are back on the road against Mississippi State this Friday, Sept. 29, for an 8:30 p.m. match in Starkville.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *