Albanian minnows Vllaznia and their little-known Americans aiming to cause a huge Women's Champions League shock
It’s a warm October day in Shkoder, northern Albania, and there is tension building at the Loro Borici Stadium, where the last 16 of a UEFA club competition will return to the country for the first time in 33 years.
Not since KF Tirana's run in the 1989-90 edition of the men’s European Cup has there been so much excitement about club football in this small, picturesque nation that loves the beautiful game.
As the players of KFF Vllaznia sit together in the stadium to watch this year’s Women’s Champions League group-stage draw, you can feel the anxiousness in the room, and when they are placed into the same group as Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, all of that comes to a head.
Lexie Knox, Vllaznia’s 23-year-old American defender, pauses as she replays it in her head, unable to put into words the reaction of the team. “There was shock, excitement, there were just all these different emotions,” she tells GOAL. “At the end, we were just like, 'Wow, these are big names, but we are ready'. We've got to work hard because we are here. We are in.”
Knox is one of six Americans on the team who are living an incredible dream thousands of miles from home, helping this club make history. She might not have thought it would come true in Albania, but this is always what she wanted.
“[When I was younger], everyone was like, 'I want to be a teacher’, or ‘I want to be a police officer'. I was like, 'Yeah, I want to be a soccer player'," she explains. "Growing up and seeing the U.S. women's national team, they were definitely an inspiration."
After finishing her college career – where she spent a year playing alongside Manchester City striker Bunny Shaw, who she describes as “a great mentor” – Knox declared for the NWSL Draft but wasn’t picked up.
She then had trials with Gotham, as did Vllaznia team-mate Meghan Cavanaugh, but both players – represented by the same agency, Narrow Pathway - would sign their first professional contracts in a country they knew next to nothing about.
“I definitely didn't think I would make it to the Champions League round of 16,” Cavanaugh tells GOAL. “But the fact that we are here, it does just show that hard work pays off. It definitely isn't the path I think either of us truly expected, but with all the hard work that we have both put in over the years, it's so exciting just to be here.
“Now we're going to be playing against players that we watch on TV. We just watched England against the U.S. women's national team and we're just like, 'Oh, wow, we're going to be on the same field as some of them'.”
Getting to the group phase has been no easy task. They might be nine-time Albanian champions, but Vllaznia had only successfully navigated the qualifying rounds once in 11 attempts before this season, before being knocked out in last 32 on that occasion.
However, a 3-1 aggregate win over Ukrainian side Vorskla-Kharkiv-2 sealed their place at the top table with Europe’s best – and the hype is real in the city of Shkoder, where the women’s team is building quite the fanbase.
“Men's football was already pretty popular with the people here, but now the women's team is making a name for itself,” Knox explains. “People are starting to talk about Vllaznia's women's team and they're coming out to the games like, 'Let's see about these girls. What's going on?'
“Walking out of the apartment, people will just say things to me like, 'Vllaznia, really good!' and, 'You guys are playing Real Madrid!' They're excited. They're going to come out to the games and they're super excited to.”
The game against Las Blancas is the one Knox’s mother was most excited about when her daughter texted right after the draw, too, with her flights to Madrid booked immediately.
However, the American duo have their eyes on the Chelsea fixtures in particular as they look to test themselves against some of the very best.
“For me, especially being a centre-back, Sam Kerr is who I’m excited to play against,” Knox says. “I love watching her play and just to be there defending her, it's going to be an honour, honestly.”
Cavanaugh is looking forward to battles against Fran Kirby and Jessie Fleming, who she has been “a big fan” of for some time. “I even watched her play when she was at UCLA,” the midfielder recalls. “Being on the same field as those players we’re like, 'Wow, do you think we can like jersey swap with you guys after? Because that is so cool!'”
That said, Vllaznia are not just looking to pick up a souvenir or two from these games. Once the whistle goes, it's all about a result.
“We don't have too much expectation going into our group so when we do go out and put our best foot forward, we're really hoping to just shock people and make them be like, 'Oh, wow, they made it here, just like everybody else, so you never know what's going to happen',” Cavanaugh says.
“I'm hoping that they see that we're a team that really plays for each other. If one of our team-mates loses the ball, we're not going to yell at each other, we're not going to scream at each other. We're just a team that fight for each other and we play for each other. We're going to win as a team, draw as a team or lose as a team.”
“This is an incredible stage,” Knox adds. “This is an incredible group. We've already got our names out there by being selected for Group A. People are interested. ‘Who is Vllaznia?’ People are interested in knowing who we are and what we're about.
“This stage is honestly just about putting not only Vllaznia on the map, but making a name for ourselves as individual players and as a team. We couldn't ask for anything more.”
This team has got nothing to lose and everything to gain as three of the world’s biggest clubs prepare to come to town. They have already made history.