La Grande to the Filipinas

Another Oregon Connection at the Women’s World Cup 2023

The Thorns aren’t the only links to home to keep track of this summer.

By Margaret Seiler May 19, 2023

Oregon soccer lovers have no shortage of familiar faces to root for in the Women’s World Cup, kicking off July 20 in Australia and New Zealand. There’s 2022 National Women’s Soccer League MVP Sophia Smith, who helped Stanford win a college championship right before she was drafted by the Thorns as the no. 1 pick. The sage Becky Sauerbrunn, honored in April for notching her 200th appearance with the US senior team. And, of course, American star Crystal Dunn, Canada’s Christine Sinclair and Adriana Leon, and plenty of former Thorns, who are expected to appear on the sport’s biggest stage.

But Providence Park isn’t the only Oregon pitch to host a likely World Cup player, and not everyone headed down under is a seasoned pro. About 250 miles east of where the Thorns play, Eastern Oregon University in La Grande was the home field in 2020 and 2021 for Kiara Fontanilla. Eligible through her Filipino dad to play for his home country, the California native has never been to a NWSL game, but she’s helped the Filipinas qualify for a first-ever trip to the World Cup—they clinched their berth in a dramatic penalty shootout at the AFC Asian Cup in January 2022. At press time, Fontanilla didn’t know yet if she’d be one of the goalkeepers on the final roster for the tournament. But her inaugural game with the national team, which came earlier in the Asian Cup, was already a career highlight. 

“I was super excited. I was also super nervous—this was against players I grew up watching,” she says, admitting she had to remind herself not to “fangirl” all over Sam Kerr, the celebrated scoring machine for the opponent, Australia. “The game before ours, they beat Indonesia 18–0. So I’m, ‘Oh my gosh, I do not want that to happen to me.’” Fontanilla credits the defensive line for holding the Matildas to just a 4–0 victory—and claims a few victories of her own. “The fact that I have a 1-v.-1 stop against Sam Kerr, no one can take that away from me,” she says of her feat, a soccer equivalent of striking out Shohei Ohtani or holding Damian Lillard to single digits.

In its World Cup debut, the Philippines (ranked 49th in the world) will face Norway, Switzerland, and New Zealand (ranked 12th, 20th, and 25th, respectively) in the group stage. The island nation will need to finish in the top two to advance. Fontanilla says the Filipinas are ready to have the world’s eyes on them.

“We’re definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with,” she says. “We’re not just here to participate. We are here to win the World Cup. That’s the mindset we have to go in with.”

In the meantime, Fontanilla is rooming with another member of the Filipinas just outside Sydney, where she fits online classes for a business major (she’s since transferred to a school in SoCal) into her practice schedule for a team in an Australian league. Being on that side of the Pacific has made travel easier for her national team duties; a few days after her Zoom interview with Portland Monthly, she was in Tajikistan as part of Olympic qualifying with a team she now calls “my family, away from my other family.” 

It's certainly a long way from her years in La Grande, where Fontanilla had to get used to the snow, and where she wishes she’d had a more intrepid car for exploring. While she’s enjoying Australia’s Central Coast, she admits she prefers hiking to going to the beach.

“I’m a big nature person. When I sleep I love to listen to rain sounds,” she says. “When I was in Oregon, I just had to open my window.”

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