USWNT's Emily Fox hopes Arsenal move takes her to next level

Could Emily Fox start a trend of USWNT players going to Europe? (1:58)

Jeff Kassouf discusses Emily Fox's move to Arsenal and whether it could lead to more USWNT players going to Europe. (1:58)

U.S. women's national team defender Emily Fox was among the 59,000-plus spectators at the Emirates Stadium on Dec. 10 to watch Arsenal defeat Chelsea, 4-1, a crucial victory for the Gunners in a three-team title race in England's WSL.

Fox was a free agent considering her next move, and playing in Europe was always a matter of when, not if, she said. Soaking up that crowd, and the thrill of a title race reignited, was "the icing on the cake" in her decision to leave the National Women's Soccer League after three seasons and join Arsenal. For years, she thought about being part of that the type of environment.

Fox, 25, is already one of the best full-backs in the world, one who often plays an inverted role and is capable of attacking opponents in unpredictable ways. Her move to Arsenal, she said, is about getting uncomfortable and further refining her game -- and a necessary step in her explicit quest to become the best full-back in the world.

"I feel like I want to develop more of my attacking game and so I think the style that Arsenal plays allows me to have freedom, especially with inverting inside or staying high and wide, which I think has become more of a thing that outside backs are doing now because the game is changing," Fox told ESPN.

"And then playing in big stadiums like the Emirates and really being in a culture and environment where football is everything, and that pressure of it as well. I also feel like that will be really beneficial for me, just having that different type of pressure where football is just the culture, is everything."

The timing was everything for Fox, too, having established a foundation as a pro player in the NWSL. Her move abroad also comes at an inflection point for the U.S. national team. The Americans' round-of-16 exit at the 2023 World Cup was the program's worst showing in history, a result that thrust scrutiny upon the entire U.S. development system and called into question whether the U.S. player pool was too reliant on the NWSL and its more direct style of play.

Incoming U.S. head coach Emma Hayes wrote before taking the job that the NWSL "doesn't offer enough diversity" in its style of play for U.S. players, and that the U.S. player pool looked "massively short of creative talent." In the column, Hayes says the different styles of play in Europe prepare players to face anything on the global stage.

All but one player on the USWNT's 2023 World Cup roster played in the NWSL, and the team's poor showing there led to a belief that more players would soon move abroad in search of diverse development, although that hasn't happened en masse -- not yet, at least. Fox's move to Arsenal is the biggest U.S. women's national team move away from the NWSL, but most American free agents this transfer window signed within the domestic league. (NWSL champions NJ/NY Gotham FC signed four high-profile U.S. players.)

Fox said she would have made the move to Arsenal regardless of having just experienced her first World Cup. The USWNT's results in New Zealand and Australia motivated the team to improve, she said, but she "always wanted to go overseas -- it was just a matter of the timing and the right club." Fox said she considered playing abroad when she turned professional and was the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft, but she decided to first gain experience closer to home. She soon emerged as one of the USWNT's clear starters at full-back ahead of the World Cup.

"I think I think the experience itself was amazing -- being there and being able to represent the U.S.," Fox said. "But then the result and how it ended, and then having to come back [to the NWSL] mid-season, that was really challenging. But I think, again, I knew I had always wanted to go overseas."

Fox became an NWSL restricted free agent after the 2023 season, which she spent with the North Carolina Courage after being traded there last year from Racing Louisville FC. Thanks to the 2022 ratification of the NWSL's first collective bargaining agreement, she had the agency to explore offers -- multiple sources say the Courage made a "significant offer" to keep Fox, but Arsenal's offer was comparable to some of the biggest contracts in the NWSL.

Courage head coach Sean Nahas told ESPN that he knew how difficult the decision was for Fox based on their conversations. The Courage knew when they traded for Fox last year that they could lose her with her contract expiring, but they were willing to live with that. The year together fit both parties, with North Carolina playing the most possession-based style in the NWSL in 2023.

"I'm fully supportive of her making a decision that she felt was best for her and something she wanted to test, and I think maybe that doesn't happen a lot in today's world where everyone's trying to tell people what to do," Nahas said. "But this is her career and all I could do is support it. Yes, it sucks to lose her -- don't get me wrong. But I want Em to be happy and we feel that we helped her grow and develop last year, and this opportunity came about because of it. I get it. And she won't be the last player that has these conversations with European clubs. Let's be honest. It's just the reality of it."

A confluence of personal reasons led to Fox's decision to join Arsenal specifically, she said. There is her friendship with former University of North Carolina teammates Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy, who both now play for Arsenal. The Gunners have other ties to North Carolina, like former U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly, who played for the club from 2017-18 and was in the stands for Fox's first league game earlier this month. Two-time World Cup winner Tobin Heath, a longtime Arsenal fan and another UNC alumna, texted Fox to congratulate her on the move.

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Current U.S. captain Lindsey Horan could best relate to Fox's decision-making process. Horan, who plays for French power Olympique Lyonnais, was the only player on the U.S. roster who played for a club outside of the NWSL.

"She was just saying it's always important to speak your mind and not be afraid to say how you feel," Fox said. "And it definitely is. You have to be good at your communication, letting people know how you're feeling especially with travel from Europe to the U.S., going into camps, going out of camps and then going into big games. So, just listening to your body, not being afraid to communicate how you feel."

Horan was recently vocal about her desire to see more U.S. players leave the "comfortable" setting of the NWSL -- where she played for six years -- to get more exposure in Europe. Fox joins Horan, forwards Mia Fishel and Catarina Macario at Chelsea, and 20-year-old midfielder Korbin Albert at PSG as prominent Americans abroad.

U.S. Soccer officials have already been collaborative and communicative with Arsenal about FIFA international windows and future schedule plans, Fox said, adding that she mostly spoke with U.S. interim coach Twila Kilgore about the move.

Those are relatively new developments that have made it easier for U.S. players to go abroad. U.S. Soccer was the manager of the NWSL for the first eight years of the league, which gave the federation an unusually large influence over the league and its players, including directly paying U.S. national team players' league salaries. U.S. Soccer's authority allowed the federation to hold women's national team camps outside of international windows, a practice at odds with global standards. The federation's positioning has changed dramatically, and U.S. Soccer is now mostly aligned with global practices and calendars. The end of NWSL federation contracts made it "a lot easier" for U.S. players to make moves abroad, Fox said.

"There's so many amazing leagues and I think the NWSL is growing and is one of the top leagues in the world," Fox said. "So again, I think a lot of it is just very personal, like what you want, what you're looking for, and then timing. But I wouldn't be surprised if more people [from the USWNT] were interested in going because I know before with with allocation and things like that it was a little bit harder."

Investment from top global clubs in their women's teams has also increased exponentially over the past few years. Fox saw a tangible effect first-hand at that Dec. 10 game at the Emirates, which set a Women's Super League attendance record. She has since learned about the club's ticketing and marketing strategy, and she praises Arsenal's desire to share best practices with other English clubs to raise the standard everywhere. She sees the investments behind the scenes like the team chef whipping up meals for players.

Fox immediately stepped into a starting role for Arsenal as the Gunners chase their first league title in five years. Fans even had a custom chant ready for her as she warmed up for her first match. The on-field goal is to win three trophies and qualify for the Champions League, Fox said. Personally, she aims to be the best full-back in the world, a claim some might argue she is already able to make. Off the field, Arsenal offered the Fox an experience she long sought at a human level. Everything about the move to Arsenal made sense.

"The soccer part was obviously the biggest and most important, but I also wanted to experience a different culture and being living close to London, and the diversity that's here," she said. "That's been something that I love. And now that I'm here I can travel almost anywhere in Europe and so just having that life experience as well I think is really important."