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Manteca grad represents Samoa in Olympic qualifier
Leah Manuleleua scored 90th-minute goal in group-stage win
Leah Manuleleua
Leah Manuleleua is presented with her jersey by a Football Federation Samoa board member. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED

A standout striker at the high school and NCAA Division I levels, Leah Manuleleua has taken her soccer career to new heights.

She returned home this week after spending nearly a month in Western Samoa, where she competed in the Oceania Football Confederation Women’s Olympic Qualifier.

The 2016 Manteca High graduate appeared in all four of Samoa’s matches and even notched her first international goal, burying a penalty kick in the waning moments of Samoa’s 1-0 win over Vanuatu in a group-stage opener.

Overall, it was a fulfilling cultural and athletic experience for the 25-year-old. She’s eligible to compete for Samoa because her paternal grandparents

Leah Manuleleua
Samoa forward Leah Manuleleua shields off a Vanuatu opponent from the ball. OFC MEDIA
were born there. Manuleleua got to meet many of her Samoan relatives for the first time, and they even got to watch her play.

“Definitely super special to see where my dad and grandparents were born and raised,” Manuleleua said. “We still have family there, and they gave me everything, whether it was food, gifts, love and support. I got to eat a lot of the different food my dad grew up on.

“It was special playing on the home pitch there. Kids were coming right after school to cheer us on. It was a little overwhelming, but in a good way.”

Manuleleua hadn’t played competitive soccer since graduating from South Dakota State University three years ago. She was twice named to the All-Summit League First Team during her three years in Brookings. In 2019, she was Summit League Offensive Player of the Year and United Soccer Coaches All-West Region Second Team honors after leading the Jackrabbits with 11 goals and four assists

Prior to earning the full-ride athletic scholarship to South Dakota State, Manuleleua produced 21 goals and 11 assists as a freshman for Delta College, earning a spot on the 2016 National Soccer Coaches Association of America Junior College Division II All-West Region Team after leading the Jackrabbits with 11 goals and four assists. South Dakota State won the league championship and qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

For Manteca, she was a two-time Valley Oak League MVP, led the Buffaloes to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title in 2016 and left as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 116 goals.

Manuleleua looked into playing internationally while still in college but ultimately could not because of time and financial constraints. After wrapping up her senior season, she sent her college highlights to the Samoa national team and remained in contact but had not been able to fully commit.

Since graduating, Manuleleua has worked as a nurse while keeping in shape by playing indoor soccer recreationally at Big League Dreams and doing CrossFit.

Juan Chang Urrea was appointed Samoa’s head coach in November, and he came across Manuleleua’s name during his international talent search to fill out the roster for Olympic qualifying. The college tape that remained with the team was enough to convince Chang Urrea to reach out to Manuleleua and invite her onto the squad.

She arrived in Samoa on Jan. 18, and camp began two days later. That gave the team little time to prepare for its first game on Feb. 7.

“I still play at BLD and get my touches once a week, but it’s not the same,” Manuleleua said. “I’ve been missing playing competitively. I enjoyed that process of training hard again.

“I was already training with my sister and college girls from around the (Central) Valley and doing CrossFit on my off days like I normally do. I felt like since I was already working out prior to (training camp), getting back into game shape was a little bit easier for me.”

She proved to be match fit during the tournament, playing 90-plus minutes in three out of Samoa’s four contests.

Getting that finishing touch back was more of a challenge, however.

In the opener against Vanuatu, Manuleleua was unable to cash in on multiple scoring opportunities.

Then, in the 90th minute, teammate Sariah Taeaoalii drew a foul inside the penalty box.

“Our coach doesn’t tell us who is going to take (penalty kicks), he lets us decide,” Manuleleua said. “So, when (Taeaoalii) got fouled, I asked her if she was going to take it and she said, ‘You want to take it?’ Some of the other girls were telling me to take it, so I was like, ‘Honestly, I need to finish something here.’

“It was a special moment, for sure. It was the first goal I scored in years, but it was nerve-wracking.”

Leah Manuleleua
Leah Manuleleua celebrates her last-second goal for Samoa in a group-stage win over Vanuatu on Feb. 7 during the Oceania Football Confederation Women’s Olympic Qualifier. OFC MEDIA

The dramatic finish delighted the partisan crowd, as well as her fans from back home.

“The support there from my teammates and fans was amazing, but I was getting it from afar,” Manuleleua said, noting that Manteca coach Justin Coenenberg was among those who sent her a congratulatory text message.

Samoa went on to lose two of its final three games. Manuleleua subbed out at halftime of a 6-0 loss to defending champion New Zealand, but Samoa earned a spot on the knock-out rounds with a 2-0 victory over Tonga.

The run ended with a 2-0 semifinal loss to Solomon Islands. New Zealand dominated the title round 11-1 and will represent Oceania in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

“I really felt like we were the only team that could compete with New Zealand in the final,” Manuleleua said. “That’s just how soccer works. We had our chances (to score), it was just not our day against Solomon. It was still the furthest Samoa has ever gotten in an Olympic qualifier, so it was a huge deal for us to make it that far.

“Soccer is growing in Samoa, and all the girls who have been there awhile said this was the best team we’ve ever had. It was cool to hear that, and there is now hope for soccer there.”

With World Cup qualifying and any international friendlies down the road, Manuleleua has not ruled out the possibility of future caps with Samoa. She’s even thinking about joining Stockton Cargo SC — a pre-professional women’s team co-coached by her older sister, Sialei — but that would be tough to pull off because of work obligations.

“To play as many games and as many minutes as I did, I’m honored they gave me the opportunity,” Manuleleua said of Olympic-qualifying campaign. “I just wanted to help in any way. It gave me great joy playing again. It was a joy that I missed and that I could only get from soccer.

“I even miss the training; it brought back memories from college and growing up in the sport. I’m still enjoying it. I’m just trying to figure out how I can balance it with my work schedule.”

Leah Manuleleua
Manteca resident Leah Manuleleua poses with the Western Samoa flag while donning her national team jersey. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED