Russia, Iceland, USA & 302 minutes that brought a World Cup history-maker to the A-Leagues 

Wellington Phoenix will look to bounce back as they host high-flying Perth Glory in round six of the Liberty A-League.

After struggling for game time at club level, Mariana Speckmaier has found a home to flourish at Wellington Phoenix. The Venezuela international’s career to this point has been fascinating with ups and downs, as she tells

Ask any footballer and they tell you a career is full of ups and downs. Mariana Speckmaier is no different.

Before joining Wellington Phoenix heading into 2023-24, the 25-year-old had only managed 302 minutes of club football across three years after being drafted 39th by National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) outfit Washington Spirit in 2021.

Speckmaier had to take some time away from the game to cope and reset.

Now she is thriving with the Phoenix in her first season in the Liberty A-League. Not only has Speckmaier already amassed 396 minutes in five appearances, she has scored two goals.

“I definitely grew a lot mentally and as a player,” she told ahead of Saturday’s blockbuster against league-leading Perth Glory. “But it obviously has a toll on you.

“I went from playing almost 90 minutes every game in college to basically the complete opposite once I became professional. You definitely learn a lot. It was tough for sure. I’m grateful to be given this opportunity from Paul (Temple) to show I can play at this level and impact a team.”

A 12-time Venezuela international, Speckmaier added: “Having my national team helped a lot along the way because I do get a good amount of minutes when I’m with them. I didn’t struggle as much mentally because I was able to get those minutes in between.

“It was tough though. Coming into the NWSL, unless you’re a really top draft pick within your class, it’s tough to break into a team and get those minutes over there. You do learn a lot through training. At the same time, you do want that game experience.

“Mentally it takes such a toll on you and there were times where I was at my lowest. I needed some time off to recover and get back to where I wanted to be mentally to be able to play. You find a way through it. Now I’m here and getting the opportunity.

“You have your ups and downs. Everyone has that in their career.”

Being part of an NWSL-winning team and THAT goal

In the 2021 Draft, Washington selected Speckmaier out of Clemson, where she scored 25 goals and supplied 29 assists over four years.

Her maiden season with the Spirit was a learning curve. She was limited to 93 minutes of action across three appearances as Washington – who also used the second pick on Trinity Rodman – conquered Chicago Red Stars for their maiden NWSL Championship.

“That season was so crazy. Our team went through so much,” said Speckmaier, who was an unused substitute in the final.

“With everything that happened with Richie Burke (who was suspended and later sacked following an investigation into abusive behaviour toward players), then Kris Ward taking over then the club ownership changing. We showed so much resilience and proved a lot of people wrong.

“Put all those outside factors to the side and focus on the main thing.”

Before her big move to the other side of the world, there was a magical moment for Speckmaier.

In an NWSL Challenge Cup fixture against Orlando Pride in August, she scored an outrageous stoppage-time winner with her first-ever career shot on goal.

“To be honest, I think I picked up the ball around midfield and dribbled a few feet maybe,” Speckmaier smiled. “I looked up, I saw the keeper out and saw the defence running back.

“I saw how far out I was and I didn’t really want to run that much more.

“I just decided to shoot it. You have those moments where you do hit a ball, it just feels right. The second it left my foot, I knew it would go in.

“It was a sense of relief that goal. The work I was putting in was for a reason and I can play at this level.”

Making history and embracing her Venezuelan roots

Speckmaier was born and raised in the United States to Venezuelan parents.

The Miami-born forward represented Venezuela at the 2016 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup. It was a tournament where 2023 Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati emerged.

For Speckmaier, it was an unforgettable experience, where she made history for Venezuela.

Venezuela finished bottom of the group without a win, but she scored the country’s first ever FIFA U20 World Cup goal.

“That was an amazing experience. Probably one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in my life,” Speckmaier, who looked up to legendary Germany striker Miroslav Klose as her father’s side of the family is German, reflected.

“That was one of the things that initiated my goal to go professional. It was a humbling and grateful experience because obviously I wasn’t born in Venezuela but being with those girls, it made me connect to that culture a lot more.

“Understand where they come from and all the things they have. Those girls are like family to me now. I feel really close to those girls. It’s made me appreciate that side of my culture a lot more.

“To be able to score the first goal for Venezuela ever at a U20 World Cup.”

Since then, Speckmaier debuted for the senior team in 2021 and has scored three goals in 12 caps – against India, Chile and Argentina.

“My Spanish wasn’t very good when I went to the U20 World Cup but since then I’ve improved so much,” she said. “Every time I go to camp, my Spanish is so much better. I get to talk to the girls a lot more and learn more about them.

“Every camp I have an amazing time. They’re all so nice. We’re still growing as a team and federation but we’ve started to be respected more I believe by our federation.

“They’re doing a lot more for us and you can see that. We have talent and it’s growing. I do think we have a chance of hopefully qualifying for the next World Cup.”

Her aborted Russian adventure

Speckmaier had high hopes when she signed for CSKA Moscow in Russia. It was to be her first foray into European football.

However, it was an extremely brief stint. She did not even play for the club. Instead, the move was aborted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began three days after she signed in February 2022.

“I had been training with the team in pre-season. I was really excited for a new culture and to experience something so different. I was going to be given that opportunity to start and get minutes,” said Speckmaier.

“Then obviously the war breaks out. I have a talk with my family and come to the conclusion that the best decision is for me not to go. I still believe that’s the correct decision.

“Things like that change so quickly. You don’t know what to do. I signed a contract for two years. I had a stable idea of what my next two years would be like. Then all of a sudden it completely shifts.

“I got a little nervous and scared for a bit cause at that point, a lot of seasons were either close to ending or teams had signed their players.”

Asked if CSKA were understanding, she replied: “Not at all. Obviously they don’t see things in the same perspective. After a while, they understood it better but at that point, all ties were kind of cut with the initial reaction I received.

“(I’m) grateful to FIFA for having introduced that rule that foreign players could cancel their contracts in Russia.”

There was also a stint with Valur in Iceland but, again, that did not go according to plan.

She was part of the team that won the Besta deild kvenna title and Super Cup in 2022. Speckmaier also scored in a UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifier however she was limited to only 161 minutes of football.

“Iceland was interesting for sure. The country is beautiful. On the football side it was a bit different.

“I wanted to get those minutes and that was the initial idea. But in my first game, after 15 minutes, (a) goalkeeper fell on me. Completely shattered my ankle pretty much. So I was out for about six weeks I think.

“At that point, my main focus was rehabbing for the Copa America with the national team. I was able to get ready for that but then by the time I got back from the Copa America, the coach felt he had his line-up set.

“So I wasn’t able to get many minutes. I struggled again with getting the playing time I wanted or deserved. In the end, all of that made me a stronger person mentally and physically.”

‘We are a team to watch out for’

Wellington are enjoying their best ever start to a Liberty A-League season and it is largely thanks to new coach Paul Temple and a recruitment rule change.

For the first two seasons of Wellington’s foray into the A-League Women, the club were required to fill their squad with players from New Zealand and Australia; there was a quota of Australian players in the squad that had to be met, and any foreign signing would have come at the expense of a slot in the squad reserved for a New Zealander.

Those restrictions were relaxed heading into 2023-24, allowing the Phoenix to bring in players like Speckmaier, who had the chance to move to the A-Leagues the season prior.

“I had a small opportunity to come play for Perth I believe. I had an old teammate who played for Perth and she asked me if I was interested. The timing just wasn’t right,” Speckmaier revealed.

She continued: “It’s been a lot of fun (playing for Wellington). You can see how much we’re trying to possess the ball but possess with purpose.

“I love having the freedom to be up high but also come off the line to connect with the eights.”

Wellington, who have never finished in the top four, are shaping as a genuine finals contender this season.

The Phoenix are third after five rounds, four points adrift of top spot.

“I think everyone really believes that we can make a run in this league this season,” Speckmaier said. “But also, our main focus in the next game in hand. We’re not focusing on three games in a row kind of thing.

“I definitely think there’s a belief in the squad. We have the talent. The talent within the team is incredible. We are a team to watch out for this season.”