BY ALEEN ARSLANIAN
LITTLE ARMENIA—This year, five Armenian American women were scouted by Armenia’s Women Under-19 National Soccer Team. The team currently consists of 22 players, five of whom are from America. Teveen Aghababian, Nyree Der Meguerdichian, Tvene Derderian, and sisters Areni and Zabelle Hamparian are now not only members of the National team, but have been granted Armenian nationality, as well.
Representatives of the National Team scout players from the greater Los Angeles area often, as the area is significantly populated by Armenians. These representatives will return in January in search of additional Armenian American players.
This year, for the very first time, the Women’s U-19 National Team was given the opportunity to stay in Armenia’s FIFA headquarters in Yerevan, also known as the Yerevan Football Academy. The Academy housed more than just the teammates from America. Several U-19 team members travel from distant Armenian villages to partake in the trainings and games. During these instances, the Academy temporarily accommodates the girls, providing a safe space for them while away from home. Although under strict supervision, the girls were more than grateful for the opportunity to stay at the Academy, like the boys.
The Women’s U-19 team is led by Head Coach Liana Hayrapetyan, who, from the very first day, made sure that the Armenian American players felt included. During one of their first games, Coach Hayrapetyan took the time to ask the girls for their input in regard to what positions they were interested in playing and what time they wanted to play.
Prior to joining the National team, only a few of the girls knew one another. Now, the Armenian American players have a group chat where they are in constant communication, texting one another in anticipation of their next trip to Armenia. The girls are scheduled to return to Armenia in September, for a week of training, in preparation for the Union of European Football Associations’ qualifying games in Bosnia, in October. Of the 22 on the team, only 18 girls will be able to participate in the qualifying games.
Recently, the U-19 team’s Armenian American players visited the Asbarez offices, where we had the opportunity to talk to them about their involvement with the National Team.
Teveen Aghababian is a 17-year-old college freshman from Orinda, CA. After graduating from Miramonte High School, Teveen was recently accepted to the University of La Verne. Growing up, Teveen was frequently surrounded by soccer. Her brother, Aren, who plays soccer for Homenetmen San Francisco, recently participated in the 2019 Pan-Armenian games, representing Santa Monica. Teveen was scouted for the National Team during a soccer game at a UCLA College ID Soccer Camp. After one of her games, she was approached by a representative of the Armenian National Team and offered a position on the team. After flying to Armenia for a two-week training camp, Teveen was asked to officially join the team.
Nyree Der Meguerdichian is a 17-year-old from Los Angeles, CA who recently graduated from Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School. This September marks her freshman year at the University of California, Los Angeles. Growing up, Nyree often watched her dad and brother play soccer, and dreamed of getting onto the field herself. She finally started playing when she was 6-years-old. Prior to joining the U-19 team, a friend of Nyree’s reached out to inform her of this opportunity. She flew out to Armenia, where she participated in try-outs and trainings before she was officially offered a position on the team.
Tvene Derderian, the youngest on the team, is a 15-year-old student at Maranatha High School. Born and raised in Pasadena, CA, Tvene started playing soccer when she was 5-years-old. Similar to Nyree, Tvene grew up surrounded by soccer, where both her father and sister play. Tvene heard about the U-19 opportunity from her friends Areni and Zabelle Hamparian, who both play for the U-19 team as well. Intrigued by the opportunity, Tvene flew to Armenia and to try out for the team. Although she knew the Hamparian’s prior to this journey, Tvene excitedly explained that she’s now friends with Nyree and Teveen, too.
Areni Hamparian is a senior at Rose & Alex Pilibos Armenian School in Los Angeles, CA. She joined the American Youth Soccer Organization when she was 6-years-old. Shortly after leaving AYSO, she joined a club team called Crown City United Soccer Club. She now plays for SoCal. Areni was scouted for the Armenian National Team while playing with TUMO in Armenia. An individual affiliated with the National Team, who had seen Areni play soccer with the boys, approached her with a proposition: Would she like to join the Women’s U-19 National Team?
Zabelle Hamparian is a 16-year-old student at La Salle College Preparatory school in Pasadena, CA. Having watched her sister play, Zabelle started playing soccer at the young age of 6. Like Areni, Zabelle played for AYSO, Crown City, and currently plays for SoCal. Seeing her sister get scouted by the National Team was surreal. Having been offered a position to play, as well, was even more of a shock for Zabelle.
Aleen Arslanian: What an exciting time it must be for you girls. What pushed you to say yes to this very rare opportunity?
T.A.: It was always my dream growing up. It was my dream to play for the U.S. National Team, because I never knew we had an Armenian National Team. But, once I got the offer, my heart said yes. There was no doubt in my mind that I didn’t want to play for my country, because, after everything our country’s been through, I feel that if our soccer team can grow and become strong, and we show ourselves in the World Cup and the Olympics and we win, we can make our country known even more and things can change–especially for the women. Women’s soccer in Armenia starts at the age of 13 to 14. But in the U.S., we start younger, at age 3 or a little bit older than that. So, talking to them, and just being one of the leaders that can change how soccer is in Armenia for women and girls, I loved it. I loved the idea of helping out people that are less fortunate than me. Just playing a sport I love for the country I love is a given. There’s nothing that can beat that.
N.D.: I mean, I thought, “Wow, I’ve been playing soccer my whole life. I’m Armenian, and being able to represent my country—that’s a crazy opportunity.” Only a handful of people could say that, especially in America. So, I just wanted to see what I could do.
T.D.: I grew up being Armenian. Playing for a country that I’ve learned about all these years is crazy.
A.H.: First off, when I first heard, I thought it was incredible that I could represent my country and play with Armenians in Hayastan. I mean, wow, that’s incredible. I did not see it coming at all, because when I think of National Team, I think of something that’s big and scary, something that’s completely out of my reach. But, when this opportunity came close to me, I was just absolutely shocked with it. That, and being able to play for my country.
Z.H.: It’s just crazy. It didn’t hit me until we got there that: Oh my god, we’re playing for everybody.
A.A.: How would you ladies describe your experience with the National Team thus far?
T.A.: It’s honestly a crazy rollercoaster. I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster that’s not stopping, but it’s just so fun and so cool to be a part of something like this. It’s just a dream-come-true. A dream I didn’t know I had, coming true.
N.D.: It’s been really humbling, being able to just go and connect with the girls there. They’re very welcoming. It’s just a cool experience, because you can see their background. How they approach the game, and how we approach the game—it’s different. But, on the field it all makes sense, it flows.
T.D.: It’s a great experience. I feel better for myself that I’m doing this. Coming from America, especially… For those kids staying in Armenia, they don’t get as many privileges as we do. Just us going there makes them happy. You really see a whole different side to Armenia.
A.H.: I was very nervous, that’s for sure. When I first came, I was intimidated. I also felt very proud, because this was the first year that they let women into the Academy. It was a big step for the soccer federation as well as for Haystan as a whole. After that, there was all this comradery between us. The girl I roomed with, she was the sweetest thing. She’d fold my clothes, she was so nice. And then, one time, I made her bed, and she said, “No, no, you didn’t have to.” They were so incredibly sweet and humble.
A.A.: I like that they didn’t room you two sisters together, it gives you a chance to really connect with the other girls.
A.H.: I was hoping they would.
T.D.: They didn’t want any of us, any Americans, to be together. We still stayed together, we hung out, but it would’ve been a different experience.
Z.H.: I was rooming with this other girl, named Mary. She was really sweet. Sometimes we only ate three times a day, and I’m just used to eating more. She had a stash and she’d always offer me something from it. I also found it kind of interesting that, you know how in America we’re all equal, mostly, I noticed a bit of separation when we were at the camp. We had to stay more quiet than the boys and act more like girls. We’d get excited about something and raise our voices, but then we’d have to be quiet. But, it’s okay, because it’s the first year, and it’s just slowly changing, so it’s a process. We were just lucky to stay at the Academy. So it’s been a really great experience.
A.A.: Are there any significant memories from your time with the team that you’d like to share?
T.A.: So we kind of have little jokes as teammates about our coaches. We love them. Just the way they pronounce things is so funny to us, and then their hand motions. They say “compact” and “pressure,” but the way they say it, it makes us smile so much. They’ll be yelling at us, and they say “compact” or “pressure,”—it just makes us laugh. Honestly, though, one of my favorite memories of the whole thing was when we had downtime, we would all go into one room as a team. Even though, us Americans, our Armenian is not that good, we would just play games with the girls and laugh, and get close that way. Then, one time, we were in our office waiting for the English teacher, because they [the girls from Armenia] have to learn English. We would just joke around and we would teach them some funny American stuff, some English words. Just the silly things we would do inside makes the best memories.
N.D.: I would say, after one of our trainings—we had a really heavy day of training, a tough practice. Right after, there’s a pool by the field, we all went, changed really quickly, jumped in the pool and just had fun.
T.D.: When we were sitting in the conference room and the English teacher was late. The girls from Armenia were making fun of the coaches and what they talk about before the games. It was just very funny, fun times.
A.H.: I have one. When we played against the National team—I was doing okay during the games, I wasn’t doing great, and I wasn’t very happy with myself. I don’t know what got into me that last game, but I felt like I found my awakening. I set all these superstitions aside. Because, when we play sports, I feel like most athletes get all these superstitions, and it’s been clouding my thought process for the longest time. It was that game that I just set everything aside and just played the game to play the game I love. It was the greatest game for me, ever.
N.D.: Yeah, you played really good that game.
A.H.: That game was incredible for me. And being able to play alongside the National Team that is not yet the National Team, but is the National Team is really cool. It was amazing.
Z.H.: My favorite was—so, I was lucky, and I got to start the first two games. It was just really crazy, because, the first time, I didn’t really know what I was doing, you know, in a National game. Apparently you go, stand in the line, and then everyone starts moving forward. But, we—the girls from America—are still standing in our places, not knowing what to do. We didn’t really know the timing.
A.A.: Between flying to Armenia for trainings and games, and preparing for the new academic year, how are you managing it all?
T.A.: My family. They’re just so supportive and they love that I’m traveling to Armenia all the time to play the sport that we all love. My college has been very supportive of it, because it’s a national player for their college. I emailed my professors already, and they’re all on board and they’re just there to help me not fall behind. I will be doing school work on the road. It will be harder, because it won’t be with the professors, but I signed up for it. I’m ready to take on the challenges, because what I’m doing is like once in a lifetime opportunity.
N.D.: I graduated in June, and now I start late September. But I leave to Armenia on September 22nd, so I’m going to miss my first two weeks at UCLA. Actually, tomorrow, I’m going for orientation, so I’m going to talk to my professors. I’m going to try to get the same schedule as one of my friends.
T.D.: I start school on Friday, so I have to tell my teachers I’m leaving from September 21st to October 8th. I did tell the Dean of Students last year, that I’m leaving from September to October, so he has an idea. But none of my teachers know yet. I’ll probably get my homework from different people in my class. It’s going to be hard.
N.D.: Every time I get nervous, my parents and friends say, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, you’re never going to get this back.” My parents keep telling me, “You’re going to tell your grandchildren about this experience.”
A.H.: This September and October will be my first time being away from home for 20 days. Of course, it’s going to be difficult. My classes are going to be more challenging this year, I’m going to have a lot of work to do. It’s not going to be easy, but Armenia comes first.
Z.H.: It’s going to be my first year missing out on the school year. There’s no other reason I’d miss school for. This is it—for Armenia.
A.A.: How does it feel to not only represent Armenia, but to be an Armenian citizen as well? Would you ever repatriate to Armenia?
T.A.: It’s honestly crazy. I never thought of becoming an Armenian citizen. I thought, “Yeah, it would be so cool becoming a dual citizen, a citizen of my country,” but I never thought it was possible. Then, when my coaches said that I can become an Armenian citizen—that I actually had to—I thought, “Oh my god, I’m so ready for this and everything to come.” On the day I finally got it, I couldn’t stop smiling.
I would love to move to Armenia. I’ve been actually saying this for the past year. Probably after college, I would love to, maybe for a year or two, move to Armenia. I would like to help out in the medical field, because I want to study medicine. I really would love to move to Armenia, honestly!
N.D.: I would like to. I would like to finish schooling, get a job, and figure out what I want to do with my life. Once I get comfortable and know what I’m doing, I wouldn’t mind going half a year to Armenia, and spreading what I know, and starting a business—something like that. Like half of the year to start with, and then maybe fully transition into living there.
T.D.: I don’t know yet. It’s just, a lot of the girls are going to college. I’m still in high school, so I don’t know. Right now, my answer would be not now.
A.H.: We went through the craziest process [to get citizenship], because of our last name—just this huge mix-up.
Z.H.: We’re Western, so we spell our last name differently. Right now, as we’re Armenian citizens, our last name is spelled differently than our moms. So, if we wanted to buy a place and it went under our mom’s name, we’d have trouble proving it’s our mom.
A.A.: How did the mix-up come about?
Z.B.: Our mom had hers processed through the Armenian embassy here.
A.H.: In Armenia, they wouldn’t let us change the spelling. They said that absolutely, under no conditions can we change this, because, in Hayastan, this is how we spell it. But, once we actually got it, it was such a special, exciting, feeling.
A.A.: What differences did you see between the Armenia women’s soccer team and that of an American team?
T.A.: I would say maybe how split up the boys and girls are with everything. We were barely allowed to talk to any of them. Usually in the U.S., especially with my club, we have boys and girls teams but they always mingle and they become friends. But in Armenia, it was girls and then guys, which I felt like, “Okay, I understand; it’s the culture and everything.” In terms of strength, in the World Cup, 80% of the girls were from the U.S., so the U.S. does have more strength in soccer than the rest of the world for women’s soccer. I do see that the U.S. is more competitive.
N.D.: Yeah, for sure. We don’t train as much in Armenia. We train twice a day, for two hours per session. Two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Also, I grew up playing club soccer, on a club team, and just the style of play is really different. The girls in Armenia are just getting to understand the game, so their focusing more on defense and going up with the ball towards offence. Whereas here in America, the game flows; everybody knows where they are and how to play. They’re still trying to understand it, so it’s a little slower.
T.D.: Yeah, but they start playing at age 12 to 13. Here in America, the coaches let you play freely. They’re still in their Soviet mentality. Our coach is on a strict schedule, “No, we’re going to do it this way.” But, to get where you want to be, you have to train harder in America.
N.D.: Yeah, but we have to take into consideration that we have this opportunity, and they don’t. I wanted to play soccer when I was younger. My mom put me in dance, she put me in art classes—I didn’t like any of it. I wanted to play soccer. If the girls in Armenia, at that age, said that, they can’t have that opportunity. Also, the fields were incredible. Probably the best grass I’ve ever played on. Every day, I would look outside through the window, there would be people picking the weeds individually off the grass.
A.H.: The Armenian soccer team is not as rigorous. It’s more laid back, not too strict. Here in the United States, it’s more training, it’s more serious.
A.A.: Is it the same for the women’s and men’s though, in terms of training?
A.H.: No. The men’s training is much more strict on timing.
Z.H.: Yeah, it’s really hardcore compared to what the girls do.
A.H.: When we were training, there were Spanish coaches, which was very cool. They came, and they were training us. Well, no. They came to train the Academy, but they were only training the boys. And the only exposure we had to the Spanish coach was this one meeting we had. Which was great, it was very informative, I loved it. It was great getting to know this person, but we didn’t get to do any training with him. It was him telling our coaches, “Do this,” but without him actually saying where we’re at. This is a great start, that’s for sure. I hope we just continue building.