“She may not be fast or athletic, but at least she should be able to walk straight,” the doctors told the parents of baby Francesca Claire Tagliaferri back in 1999.
Tagliaferri was born severally “pigeon-toed” meaning her feet were pointed inward, something that is not uncommon in babies. For the first four months of her life, she wore casts on her legs. Every two weeks her mom would bring her to the doctor. They would cut off the plaster and replace them with new ones, slowly turning her feet towards the outside so her toes would point forward.
Tagliaferri wore casts on her legs for the first four months of her life.
It worked. She was soon walking, then running, and by the time she was ready to play soccer, running pretty darn fast.
“Well, not in my first year playing,” said Tagliaferri (pronounced with a silent g), who everyone calls Frankie. “My first year I just followed the pack with my back to the ball and looked at my parents the whole time. My parents didn’t think soccer was going to be my sport, but for some reason, in my second season, I turned around, got the ball and started scoring a lot of goals.”
She hasn’t stopped since. If anyone was not aware that she is in fact fast and athletic, her goal that opened the USA’s 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup campaign showed both. After receiving a thread pass from Brianna Pinto with her back to the goal at the top of the penalty box, her first touch to her right set the ball up perfectly as she spun to create separation from a defender before smashing the ball into the back of the net past the onrushing goalkeeper from 11 yards out.
The goal was the 10th of Tagliaferri’s U-17 international career and eighth of 2016 (she would score another in the USA’s second match against Ghana). But more importantly, it was the first for the USA in Jordan.
“It felt amazing,” she said. “We all had so much energy and were trying to get the momentum going and I think that once that goal went in, we settled down and started to play our game. We’ve been waiting for this for two years and it showed in that celebration. It was everyone’s goal.”
Tagliaferri scored the first goal in the USA's 6-1 win against Paraguay in the U-17 WWC opening match on Oct. 1. It was the USA's first goal of the tournament. Photo: FIFA/Getty Images
Tagliaferri comes from an athletic family. Her mom and her aunt played college basketball at Monmouth (her aunt with former U.S. WNT captain Christie Rampone), and her dad played high school football. Her mom was a state champion in the javelin in high school and both her parents were amateur body-builders.
In fact, her parents met at the gym. So it’s no wonder that young Frankie played every sport she could. She remembers her childhood as a whirlwind of sports and fun.
She of course played a lot of basketball but there was also gymnastics, swimming, softball, field hockey and karate. She even did a little modeling.
“I didn’t really like it because it would take up so much of my day having to go into New York City,” said Tagliaferri. The loss for Gap Kids was U.S. Soccer’s gain.
Tagliaferri credits her mom and dad for helping cultivate her competitive edge, calling them the type of parents who would “come home from work and go outside and play soccer, basketball or any other sport” with her for hours. She was the kid who was always bothering her older cousins to play with her every second and the one who got “over-competitive” (her words) during family ping-pong tournaments or volleyball games.
“I was the only one keeping score,” she says.
“My parents would always ask if I wanted to go to basketball practice or soccer practice, and I’d always says soccer,” said Tagliaferri. “I think things clicked when I was about six. Just watching the Women’s National Team and watching girls above me in my clubs made me want to keep doing it. On the way to soccer practice, I’d watch Dare to Dream (the HBO Documentary on the 1999 Women’s World Cup Team). I had a fat head of Mia Hamm in my room, well, I still have it. I wanted to be like them when I was older.”
Things really hit home for Tagliaferri when she went to Giants Stadium in the summer of 2007 to see the U.S. Women play Brazil. Kristine Lilly scored an early free kick and Abby Wambach scored a header off another free kick in front of 17,000 fans.
“It was super motivational,” she said.
She saw thousands of young girls in that stadium who dreamed of playing for their country. She made it happen.
In 2007, she went to Giants Stadium to watch the U.S. WNT play. Nine years later, she is in Jordan representing the USA.
Tagliaferri was part of the previous U-17 WNT cycle as a 14-year-old and one of the two youngest players along with current teammate Civana Kuhlmann. She played in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Jamaica where the USA suffered a crushing loss in penalty kicks and did not make it to the World Cup. The experience was eye-opening and most of all, educational.
“I think about back then and I was a young girl that had an opportunity that came very suddenly,” said Tagliaferri. “It was amazing to be with the older girls and to learn from (U.S. head coach) B.J. (Snow). It enabled me to get a lot of experience which included a few bumps in the road, but that made me a better player and a more confident player. It made me work harder to do what I had to do to get back here and keep moving forward. I felt so privileged to be in that environment at such a young age.”
Tagliaferri is now embracing everything it means to be an elite soccer player. She has been working with a nutritionist to adjust her diet for maximum performance while increasing her focus on fitness, although she knows at just 17-years-old, she has much soccer ahead. She has committed to attend Penn State in the fall of 2017.
There in Happy Valley, fans will see that she still is a bit pigeon-toed, but since her dad once told her that some of the greatest athletes were as well - Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, John Elway and Dominique Wilkins to name a few – that’s just fine with Frankie.
“Someone told me that (1991 Women’s World Cup and 1996 Olympian) Carin Gabarra was really pigeon-toed,” said Tagliaferri. “Since she retired before I was born, I’m going to have to see if I can find some video on YouTube.”