It was long after dark in the wee small hours of the morning when Aiyanah Tyler-Cooper finally arrived at the apartment she’d never seen before, in the city she’d never been before, in the country where she’d never lived before.
The tall young woman from UNCG traveled alone on this journey into the unknown.
Tyler-Cooper spent that whole January day on airplanes and shuttle buses, losing six hours as she crossed time zones on her trip from the United States to the coast of Spain.
The truth is, it was a journey five years in the making since her first day on campus in Greensboro.
And she was weary.
“I had a stopover in Paris, and I didn’t arrive until after 1 a.m. from my flights,” Tyler-Cooper says. “But as soon as I got here, the other girls pitched in and helped with my luggage. They had waited up, and they made sure I settled in and was comfortable.”
In that moment, Tyler-Cooper realized everything was going to be all right. She wasn’t alone after all.
She was already part of her new team.
A few weeks after graduating from UNCG in December 2021, one of the Spartans’ all-time best soccer players embarked on her professional fútbol career with FC Málaga City Femenino.
Tyler-Cooper, a goalkeeper who finished her five-year college career as UNCG’s all-time leader in saves, jumped right in.
And in the light of day, she got her first glimpse of her new home away from home.
“The next morning, I had my first training session,” Tyler-Cooper says. “Everyone greeted me with smiles and hugs. They were excited to have me here as part of the team. The move was pretty hectic … but it’s been wonderful. I’ve been loving it here so far.”
What’s not to love?
Málaga, a resort city of a half-million people in southern Spain, is part of the Costa del Sol (“coast of the sun”) region along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, a warm-water seaport founded about 770 BC by Phoenician traders.
The women’s team Tyler-Cooper plays for is based in Estepona, a resort town of 67,000, roughly 45 miles southeast of Málaga along picturesque coast roads.
FC Málaga City placed Tyler-Cooper with three other teammates in Estepona, sharing an apartment that’s about a 15-minute walk from their soccer stadium.
She has spent the last three months exploring the ancient seaside town. She’s ventured out to the Paseo Marítimo, a promenade lined with palm trees next to the rocky Playa de la Rada beach. The city center features old whitewashed buildings and the Plaza de las Flores, a flower-filled town square.
Tyler-Cooper has also spent that time getting to know teammates from everywhere.
She is one of four Americans on the roster, and other players are from Canada, England, Gibraltar, New Zealand, and a handful from Spain.
“It’s a good mix, and that’s been helpful,” Tyler-Cooper says. “Because we come from all over, we understand we’re all going to be different. There are different customs than what any of us are used to, but since Day One it’s been very welcoming here.”
Her UNCG education has helped her make the adjustment. Tyler-Cooper graduated with a degree in Biology, but she also minored in Spanish.
“I got here and already had more than a basic understanding of the language,” she says. “It’s just an adjustment, because some of the Spanish is a little different, and they talk a bit faster. The (Andalusian) dialect is different from what I’ve learned and heard before, but it’s not a huge difference.”
The teammates help each other out, too.
“Every day it’s gotten a little bit easier communicating,” Tyler-Cooper says. “I’m not fluent, but I have a pretty good understanding of Spanish. I’ve become more comfortable speaking when I go out to places and ask for things. I’m able to go to a café or shop and order things. And my teammates from Spain have been able to help me with my Spanish, and I help them with their English. It’s a two-way street.”
The team’s closeness has helped in its success. Pro soccer is a job, and they’ve done their job well.
FC Málaga City Femenino finished first in its division standings, and the team has advanced into the second round of the playoffs after a 6-0 victory over UD Antequera.
It’s serious business. The Spanish soccer season lasts 10 months, with eight weeks of playoffs. The league is set up similar to the American NFL, with practices Monday through Friday – two or three sessions each day – leading up to a weekend game on a Saturday or Sunday.
That’s much different than Tyler-Cooper’s college experience. In a typical week during the Southern Conference season, the Spartans would practice three times and play two games.
“The training is different here. European soccer is a different style of play than what I’m used to,” Tyler-Cooper says. “And it really affects my position as a goalkeeper. The game is more more possession-based, and there’s a lot of play throughout the back. Goalkeepers are more involved in that style of play. I help position the field players to build the attack.”
It’s a style of play that suits Tyler-Cooper, who has dreamed of playing professional soccer since her teenage years. It’s a dream that was fostered by UNCG.
Two of her older teammates went on to play professionally – midfielder Heida Vidarsdottir in Iceland and defender Regan Lehman in Ireland – and they offered advice. And the Spartans’ schedule prepared Tyler-Cooper for the pro game.
“UNCG played against good competition in our league,” she says, “but also in tournaments and non-conference games. I’ve played against N.C. State a few times, against Florida State and Duke. Teams like that.”
And now Tyler-Cooper is a professional, even though she knows she can’t play the game forever.
But right now, at age 22 and soon to be 23, she can.
“If someone else wants to do what I’ve done, I’d tell them to definitely try it, especially at this young of an age,” Tyler-Cooper says. “I went back-and-forth making my own decision. I had thoughts like, ‘What if I don’t have time to get my life started?’ and, ‘Shouldn’t I get a career going in the real world?’ But, honestly, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t say no.”
So this goalkeeper’s goal is to play the game as long as she can.
She knows she won’t get rich. Even in the European leagues where the game is most popular, typical players earn a lower-middle class living.
Tyler-Cooper gets a stipend from FC Málaga City Femenino that covers her share of the apartment rent, and the team helps with food. There’s a little money left over for fun, but not an extravagant amount.
“I can make enough money to survive,” she says. “The pay in Europe depends on what country and what league you’re playing in. Some women can make a good living doing this. I can make enough money to live day to day without struggling, and I can work my way up.”
The truth is, the life experience of this journey is far more full than a bank account.
And there’s no expiration date on Tyler-Cooper’s bachelor’s degree in Biology from UNCG.
“After soccer, I have two options I’m considering now,” she says. “The first is coming back to the States after I’m done playing and going back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant. Or the second is I could go directly into pharmaceutical sales. They’re both possible because of my degree.”
Those are choices for another day, another time.
Right now, Aiyanah Tyler-Cooper is soaking up life in sunny southern Spain, a young woman playing a kid’s game on an adventure far from home.
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photos by Denise Archetto and Carlos Morales, UNCG Athletics; and contributed by Aiyanah Tyler-Cooper.