Despite facing off in World Cup, sisters’ bond runs deep
They share the same last name. The same birthday. The same youth clubs and the same university. They own many of the same experiences, the same interests and same aspirations.
One difference — a big one if you ask most North American soccer fans — is that one wears the red, white and blue of U.S. Soccer, while the other dons the colors of “El Tri” for Mexico.
But for Sabrina and Monica Flores, twin sisters from Livingston, N.J., and members of the Notre Dame women’s soccer team, that’s just a little detail in a much larger journey together playing the game they’ve grown to love.
The sisters grabbed national attention when they faced each other on opposing sides during the 2016 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup. The two gained even more headlines when Sabrina, who represented the U.S., was captured by cameras consoling Monica, a member of the Mexican team, after a 2-1 U.S. victory in the quarterfinals.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for what came after the game,” Sabrina said. “The video of me going up to her after the game, I wasn’t aware any of that was being filmed. It was really overwhelming.”
Despite grabbing some attention a year earlier when the two countries played in the qualifying tournament, the sisters were surprised by the coverage of their story following the U.S. quarterfinal win in Papua New Guinea. For them, it was a natural interaction on the soccer field — a place where they have spent countless hours together since their early years.
Sabrina and Monica grew up in an active family and played several different sports. With their father, David, from Mexico and mother, Adriana, from Romania, the family didn’t have any ties to American sports or professional teams. However, by as early as third grade they knew soccer was the sport for them.
“Once Monica and I started playing soccer, we kind of brought that into our household — getting our parents involved in watching games,” Sabrina said. “Now, our mom will watch soccer games and keep us updated on results. Whereas before she probably didn’t even know the rules of soccer, so it’s been an ongoing influence as we’ve gotten into it.”
Monica said she and her twin sister have always had many of the same interests, which has kept them on primarily similar paths — both on and off the field. And as they grew, soccer became less of a way to simply stay active and more of a passion.
Their club team, the SDFC Lynx (NJ), operated on a foundation of building up players to become technically sound and comfortable on the ball. The Flores sisters said that environment helped shape the players they are today.
While with SDFC, they won a pair of US Youth Soccer New Jersey State Cup titles and competed in the 2012-13 US Youth Soccer National League season. They also made their way through the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (ODP) together — which presented them with both challenges and opportunities.
“It was an amazing experience to be part of ODP and play top talent from around the nation,” Monica said. “Just being put into an environment where there are higher expectations and you’re with top-caliber girls from different teams you haven’t played with, and being paired with coaches who can push you — that whole experience was incredible.”
Sabrina echoed her sister and said US Youth Soccer ODP played a big role in their recruitment and development. The program helps prepare players for the next level by putting them in different situations, which she said is a necessary challenge to help young players grow.
While competing for SDFC and participating in ODP, the two began hearing from some colleges, including one of the top schools on their list — Notre Dame.
“When we talked to coaches, it was always about both of us and not one of us,” Sabrina said. “I think the first email we got from Notre Dame was addressed to Monica and Sabrina. We were lucky they provided us with the same opportunity.”
Sabrina made an immediate impact as a defender for the Fighting Irish, as she was the lone freshman to start all 22 games during the 2014 season. Meanwhile, Monica saw limited action as a freshman while registering one assist.
By their sophomore season, Monica joined Sabrina as a regular fixture in the Notre Dame starting lineup. Irish head coach Theresa Romagnolo praised each of the Flores’ intangibles and called them students of the game.
“They’re hard workers and very disciplined in their training regimen,” Romagnolo said. “They have a plan, and they’re going to go above and beyond to be successful.
“I think coupled with that is their passion for the game. They’re going to do whatever they can on their own time to make themselves the most technical they can be.”
Describing the twins’ similarities on and off the field came easy for Romagnolo, but trying to pinpoint the biggest difference between Sabrina and Monica proved to be a harder task. The coach’s first thought went to Monica’s early adversity while at Notre Dame, when she had to work a little harder to get on the field.
However, the chances Monica would let a lack of early playing time at Notre Dame deter her were slim — as were the odds she would give up on an international career when her path started taking a rare detour from Sabrina’s.
That’s what Monica, the younger of the twins by 11 minutes, had to do when call ups to U.S. Youth National Team camps slowed down around age 15. After constantly being side-by-side on the field with Sabrina, Monica said it was initially challenging to go her own way and begin training with Mexico.
“That was the first time there was a divide in what we were doing,” Monica said. “It was difficult for me, but I never took my eyes off of what I was doing. I was still playing the game I enjoyed, and my ultimate goal was to continue to play and reach the highest level I could.”
With the Flores sisters split among the two CONCACAF nations, they knew their teams would likely face each other. And just two weeks after playing together in Notre Dame’s second-round exit of the 2015 NCAA tournament, Sabrina and Monica squared off in the opening game of the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship.
Each of the twins went a full 90 minutes in that matchup, as Mexico overcame an early two-goal deficit to earn a 2-2 draw against the U.S. — thanks in part to Monica assisting on Mexico’s 65th-minute equalizer.
After getting a small taste of the attention their story would get, the sisters finished the qualifying tournament with their respective squads and returned to Notre Dame. However, varying national team schedules and Sabrina redshirting for the 2016 season kept them apart more than usual over the course of the year.
When they can’t be side by side, the twins can lean on the close relationships they’ve created with their teammates — both collegiately and nationally. And when Sabrina was off at a U.S. camp in the spring of 2016, Monica enjoyed the unique situation of having both of her soccer families on the same field.
The Mexican Under-20 women’s team came to the United States to play some exhibitions against college teams, including the Fighting Irish. Monica joined her national teammates for a few trainings and played with them against DePaul University. However, when it came time for Mexico to face Notre Dame, she stood across from the Mexican team — wearing the interlocking “N” and “D” of Notre Dame.
“It was a surreal experience,” Monica said. “No matter which team I was with, I was extremely loyal to both. I had 22 teammates who I was playing for and against. It was pretty cool.”
As spring practice turned to summer workouts, which led way to the fall season, the Flores sisters kept concentrating on doing what they could to help their team — whether it be Notre Dame, the United States or Mexico. Employing the type of focus necessary for top athletes, Sabrina and Monica didn’t notice much of the outside noise that may have arisen about their unique story.
So, when Mexico scored on a free kick to take a 66th-minute lead over the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals, Monica focused on holding that advantage. Sabrina concentrated on helping produce an equalizer until she was subbed out in favor of an attacking player. And when the U.S. came back to score a stoppage-time winner, one sister celebrated victory while the other faced the disappointment of defeat.
That’s when Sabrina, who had shared with Monica the joy of almost every win and frustration of nearly every defeat, met her sister to offer support with the two on opposite sides of the result. It showed they produce a rare exception in sports, where the name on the back of the jersey may mean just as much as the one on the front.
And no matter what happens moving forward — during their final remaining season together at Notre Dame or in the years beyond — Sabrina and Monica will have one another to lean on.
“The greatest thing is they have each other to compete against every day,” Romagnolo said. “They go out and do something to work on their technical ability, and they’re always pushing each other to get better. They’re so similar in their aspirations and their drive.”