Nobody who had ever seen a soccer match would mistake young Samantha Chung for a great player. She wasn’t even average.
“I was the worst player on the field,” Samantha said.
“I would run away from the ball. Every time it would come near me, I would just run the other way. I was just like, ‘No way, I don’t wanna do that.’”
Between the ages of 9 and 14, Samantha never started for her club teams.
“I was terrible,” she said.
Now a 20-year-old junior midfielder at UF, Chung will play in her third NCAA Tournament on Friday when the Gators take on South Alabama. But her journey here wasn't without suffering. A tough-love father who benched her in one of the biggest games of her life, a mother who endured two strokes and a younger sister with autism all impacted Samantha on her way from being terrified by incoming soccer balls to playing key minutes off the bench for a top-20 program.
Samantha said her mentality, coupled with her family urging her to excel, made the difference.
“Friendly competition kind of helped me to get to where I am now,” Samantha said. “I want this, so I’m going to get it.”
“I just wanted him to come home.”
Samantha Chung’s father, Mark, took a measured pause before answering his daughter’s claim that she was terrible.
“I wouldn’t say she was the best player on the team,” Mark said. “But she was hardworking.”
Mark would know. Between 1992 and 1998, he was a member of the United States men’s national team. He played in 24 matches for the Stars and Stripes, scoring twice. He also played Major League Soccer for 10 years, scoring 65 goals and assisting on 80 more in 310 games.
He was a first-round pick in the inaugural MLS Draft for Kansas City. He was voted to the MLS Best XI — an annual list reserved for the best 11 players in the league — three times in his career, cementing his status as one of the greatest midfielders of his era.
All this is to say, Mark didn’t always have time for his family.
“That was one of the reasons I retired,” Mark said. “I was constantly away, and it was difficult to be around them and to help them.”
As a kid, Samantha didn't know her father was one of the greatest American players of his time. She did, however, resent what came with his fame.
“I just didn’t like when people came up to him and stuff like that,” Samantha said. “I would get weirded out, but then I just wanted him to come home.”
Mark and his family moved to South Florida when Samantha was 9, and she started playing youth soccer for Boca United FC.
Her father's newfound stability helped her. Mark would take her to Loggers' Run Park in Boca Raton to train. He pushed her to join random pickup games. Mark said it took years to develop her shot in practice.
“I’ve learned grit.”
When Samantha was 15, Boca United went to Phoenix to play in a tournament. By this time, Mark was coaching his daughter’s team.
In the finals matchup, the referees weren't giving her the calls she wanted.
“Samantha was throwing her hands up,” Mark said. “She was very frustrated. She was upset with herself, upset with her teammates.”
Mark took Samantha off the field after 15 minutes. She never made it back on.
“That night, there was a lot of crying in the stairwell,” Mark said. “She was saying she wanted to quit soccer.”
Samantha didn’t speak to her father for three days after the match. Nor did his wife.
But Mark, a former pro, knew that you can’t become a competitor without managing your emotions on the field.
The rest of her family also guided Samantha through her growing pains. Her sisters, Daniella and Gabrielle, and her mother, Jennifer, all helped.
Daniella is following in her older sister’s footsteps by playing with Boca United. Samantha helps coach her sister’s team on occasion and said it has helped her as a player.
“It made me realize how hard it is for the coaches,” Samantha said.
But for all the lessons Samantha taught her sister’s team, coaching her sibling has taught her a few lessons as well.
“I’ve learned grit, something I didn’t have,” Samantha said. “Fight. She’s feisty, but she’s an extremely talented player. She works hard, and that’s what I take from her is that grit.”
When the subject shifted to her mother, Samantha was hesitant to discuss the details. She shifted slightly in her seat and strained to find the right words.
"My mom has gone through a tough time," she began. "She's a really strong woman."
Jennifer was a high school athlete as well. She played softball before pursuing a career in teaching. She has suffered two strokes in her lifetime but has completely recovered from each. Samantha says her mother’s strokes were caused by a patent foramen ovale — a hole in her heart.
“The doctors were like, ‘How does that happen?’” Samantha said. “She had a tough time taking care of Gabi, but I look up to her. She’s definitely my role model.”
Gabrielle, Samantha’s 19-year-old sister, is autistic. Mark said she deals with social, academic and physical issues because of her condition, but she’s able to manage them all. He remembers Gabrielle needing to set aside time to work out, often running 90 minutes at a time on a treadmill.
Despite the setbacks, Gabrielle is also a brown belt in karate. She and Samantha bond over martial arts on occasion.
“Sometimes we get into fights, and she teaches me some moves,” Samantha said. “It scares me sometimes.”
Their fights are lighthearted, joking most of the time. If they argue about anything, Samantha said it’s usually over “something stupid.”
“But we always get along,” Samantha said. “We’re pretty close now that I left for college.”
Samantha has a blue puzzle piece, a symbol for autism, tattooed on her ankle to remind her of Gabrielle’s strength.
“Through all that (Gabrielle) has, she keeps going,” Mark said. He said that’s why Samantha looks up to her.
Mark said one of his proudest moments coaching his daughter came a couple years after Samantha’s meltdown in Phoenix. In the finals of the Florida State Cup, the highest youth competition on the state level, Samantha’s team was down 3-0 in the final 15 minutes of the match.
“Samantha was the last player on the field to keep running and fighting and tackling,” Mark said. “She didn’t have to do this. The rest of the team had given up; this game was done. But she would not stop playing.”
“The last person she has left to please is herself.”
Around the time of Samantha’s Florida State Cup match, UF assistant coach Vic Campbell was already scouting her. However, according to Samantha, her change in attitude wasn’t enough for him. She said Campbell told her she wasn’t mentally ready for the national stage.
Though she took an official visit to UCF, she was verbally committed to attend USF on a soccer scholarship and follow in her father’s footsteps as a Bull. But Campbell’s words always stuck with Samantha.
“I thank him every day for that because he pushed me to get better,” Samantha said. Campbell watched nearly every game she played in high school. About a month after her verbal commitment, Samantha received an offer from UF, but she declined.
In October of her senior year, a second offer from UF came. This time, she decommitted from USF and accepted UF’s offer on the same day.
Though Mark said her choice was a difficult one, he was excited to see her thrive through competition.
“She was really wanting that fight,” Mark said. “She was going to go after being a starter, working hard to be that type of player at UF.”
Mark said the most important thing he tells his daughter is that he’s proud of how far she’s come, from running away from soccer balls and getting pulled out of a match to never giving up late in a blowout and playing for a top-20 team.
“I always try to tell her that you’ve already surpassed anything that I thought,” Mark said. “The last person she has left to please is herself.”
Samantha still isn’t satisfied. After she graduates from UF, she wants to sign with the Orlando Pride and play professionally.
Samantha said she couldn’t have gotten this far without her family’s help. The combination of her father’s hard truths, her mother’s unfortunate tragedies and helping her sisters thrive under tough circumstances shaped the person she is today. Samantha said her drive to help others serves a singular objective.
“Just happiness within myself,” Samantha said. “Just to be happy with who I am and how I play. That’s my ultimate goal.”
You can follow Morgan McMullen on Twitter @MorganMcMuffin, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.