Who is Lily Yohannes? The 16-year-old USWNT call-up making an impact for Ajax

Lily Yohannes did not want her father’s mispronunciation of the viral TikTok dance popularized by Allen Davis mentioned in this story.

We were discussing, over platters of calamari, whether she was the first player at Ajax Football Club to hit “The Griddy.” It wasn’t something she’d considered before. After consulting with her older brothers, Aethan and Jayden, they concluded that while she wasn’t the first player in the Dutch pro league to do it, she might be the first at Ajax and was almost certainly the first on the women’s team.

Less than a year after becoming the youngest player to sign a professional contract with Ajax when she was 15, Lily was dancing “The Griddy” after slotting balls into the back of the net for the Dutch side. Now, her photo hangs in the halls of the legendary Johan Cruijff ArenA, supporters swell at the sound of her name, she has signed a contract with Adidas, and last week, she earned her first call-up to the U.S. women’s national team for the SheBelieves Cup in Atlanta and Columbus — the youngest inclusion since Sophia Smith in 2017.

Having lived in the Netherlands for nearly seven years, she is not yet eligible to play for the Dutch national team, who have also expressed an interest in her, but she is in the process of applying for Dutch citizenship.

Daniel, Lily’s dad, suggested that when she scored her next goal, she should do the “giddy” again.

All three Yohannes kids went quiet, their lengthy frames sinking a couple of inches in their seats.

“You called it ‘the giddy.’ That’s wild,” said Aethan.

Daniel tried again, “The greedy?”

“Don’t include that in the story,” Lily said. But she smiled as she said it, and the sparkly studs in her ears caught the same light as her shining braces, appearing to widen her grin even further.

That night, the Yohanneses were celebrating Aethan’s 20th birthday. It felt like the only window of time for them to do so as a family without straying too far from the actual day he was born. The week before, Daniel was in D.C., where he travels frequently for work as an IT risk management consultant and other responsibilities, and in the coming week, Ajax Women would face off against Chelsea for the first leg of the UEFA Women’s Champions League quarterfinals.

Even two nights before kickoff, Lily was relaxed with her family. She’s proud of them. Few others have borne such close witnesses to each other’s journeys. Few others could understand the true weight of the risks taken and sacrifices made to get where they are now: living in the Netherlands, steadily navigating the ranks of Dutch professional football, having earned the right to speak of the Champions League at the dinner table as active participants, and, in Lily’s case, the youngest player, male or female, to start a group stage match in the continental tournament.

In an increasingly diverse set of pathways to competing at the highest level, Lily has blazed a fresh trail and arrived at the same place, if not further for her age. It’s one thing to go pro as a teenager; it’s another to take your talents overseas to cap off a shimmering collegiate career.

And then there’s what the Yohanneses did: traded their vibrant lives in Virginia for quieter, laser-focused ones in the Netherlands and injected themselves into its total football culture. Lily was just 10 years old at the time. The youngest and only daughter of three born to first-generation Eritrean-Americans determined to provide their kids with expansive multicultural experiences, her resume already carries the heft of a seasoned professional with two countries vying for her commitment — and still, she’s just getting started.

(Photo courtesy of Daniel Yohannes)

When it’s her turn to say something, Lily is careful with her words. Sitting at a table in the press room of De Toekomst, Ajax’s training facility, in an off-hours uniform of Fear of God ESSENTIALS sweatpants, an Adidas sweatshirt, and a North Face puffy vest — all black — she takes her time with each question, rolling it around in her head before sharing her response. She’s aware of how much she’s been spoken about lately, how closely her words will be clung to and seems to prioritize precision that much more because of it.

Her historic Champions League debut with Ajax alerted the U.S. soccer world that, up until that point, had largely not paid much attention to her. That added to the mounting pressure in the Dutch football world, which had long pushed for her to represent the Oranje. Even as she participates in the USWNT camp, she plans to absorb as many experiences as she can, potentially with both national teams, until she arrives at her decision.

“It’s obviously sometimes difficult not to think in the future and not think about what you want to achieve and everything like that, but I really try to just stay present and appreciate and enjoy all the moments that I’m experiencing right now,” she said. “I think that’s really important to do.”

Born in Springfield, Virginia, Lily spent her earliest years in the U.S. playing soccer in the basement of her home with Aethan, Jayden, who’s 18, and their dad, Daniel. Every Sunday evening, they took the competition to the streets with the Eritrean and Ethiopian community they’ve belonged to for the last 17 years. Daniel brought the kids to the sporting complex with him, joining dozens of other Habesha players and their families for pickup games, and sometimes a group dinner afterward. He started Lily out when she was around eight years old, bringing her on for the last 30 minutes of the two-hour games until she was old enough to play a full 180.

“There is no age limit,” said Ted Belay, one of those Sunday community members. “It’s a huge spread of ages — we’re talking about nine to 12-year-olds, teenagers, people in their 20s, 50s, 80-year-olds, all on teams playing together. It’s the joy of the game, and the joy of people with common threads.”

Lily, he added, was always the youngest on the field.

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(Photo courtesy of Daniel Yohannes)

They all knew she was gifted, even then. She played with a ferocity that comes naturally to the youngest and only daughter in a family, determined to prove herself and averse to the concept of intimidation. Belay laughed remembering how those unfamiliar with Lily’s game would assume the team she played with was the “easier” side back in the day.

“You’d see it all the time, new guys thinking the teams aren’t balanced,” Belay said, but before long, “they’d know what we’re talking about. It was very interesting to see them making assumptions with a young girl there. The ones who knew were like, ‘No, we want her on our team.’”

She has always played what another Sunday crew member Samson Demissie Teffera calls “walking football,” running only when necessary and making the ball do the bulk of the work.

“I grew up in soccer, so I know,” said Samson, whose father played for the Ethiopian national team (as did Lily’s maternal grandfather), and introduced him to the Sunday crew when he was a teenager. “The way she gets out of problematic areas, the direction, her peripheral view. She’s a very mature player.”

Most teen professionals stand out for their speed, whether they’re outrunning veteran defenders or committing dizzying sleights on the ball — but Lily’s pace is most extraordinary in her mind. She processes information about a game with remarkable efficiency and, as a result, elongates the time with which she must make decisions in midfield. It sometimes appears as though she’s playing on the cusp of the future — far enough ahead to know her next several steps and backup plans for each, but not so distant that she loses the rhythm of the match. Despite all she’s already been exposed to, she’s still in need of more experiences — more cutthroat competition in big games challenging her to rise to the occasion — which can only come with time.

She and her brothers have always had big plans for their careers, and her family has wrapped their lives around the game for as long as she can remember. Jayden currently plays with AVV Zeeburgia, an amateur club in Amsterdam, with plans to join the SC Telstar U-21 academy this summer in the northern town of Velsen-Zuid. Aethan is recovering from an ACL injury from earlier this year and will train with the U-21 reserve team at FC Den Bosh, about an hour outside of Amsterdam, once he’s finished his rehabilitation. As they dug into their pasta at dinner, they reminisced on the earlier aspects of their dedication.

“They probably wouldn’t be able to name you a cartoon character,” Daniel said, but as kids in Virginia, every Saturday at 7 a.m. they bounded into his and his wife Semhar’s room, three tiny alarm clocks ready to tune in to the first English Premier League match of the day. One summer, they “must have played in five or six tournaments,” he said, many of which took place in different states.

Semhar used to record their youth club games in Virginia on an iPad so that Daniel could edit the footage in to highlight videos, and also for them to analyze later as a family. (She eventually upgraded to a camcorder.)

“The kids showed us what they were passionate about,” she said. “We never had to push. All we had to do was support.”

In March 2017, Semhar and Daniel committed to showing their children a broader worldview and cultural experience than they believed they could acquire by living solely in the U.S. The decision was informed by their multicultural backgrounds as Eritrean-Americans: During the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, which lasted from 1998-2000, Semhar fled from Eritrea to Sudan with her sister, brother, and mother before seeking asylum in the U.S. and joining her father in Dallas. Daniel, also Eritrean but born in Addis Ababa, left the Ethiopian capital for Seattle, where he lived for 14 years before making his way to Springfield.

As they considered their options, Daniel said, they eventually settled on the country with a majority English-speaking population and a reputable youth football development system. That April, they took a trip to the Netherlands as a family, scouting international schools and football programs to give Lily, Jayden, and Aethan a feel for what life could look like there. Once back in Virginia, they talked it over and decided to try it out for two years. Daniel had also been angling for a new job with a consulting firm in the Netherlands, and by the end of that summer, all the necessary pieces were in place for them to make the move. Worst case scenario, they figured, the kids would gain the invaluable experience of living in another country and a diversified skill set as players to become top candidates for collegiate programs back in the U.S.

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(Photo courtesy of Daniel Yohannes)

Daniel received mixed reactions from his friends and family. They all carried the weight of the sacrifices and expectations of what they could make of life in the U.S.

“I was in the camp of people who were like, ‘Wow, what a gutsy move,” said Belay. “Especially the fact that we were all uprooted and came here [to the U.S.], and now this is like a second [move] with three kids and another job.”

Samson fell on the other side of the spectrum. “We called him crazy,” he said. “It was a big risk. I tried to talk him out of it.” But he was well-acquainted with Daniel’s convictions by then.

When the Yohanneses moved, Samson bought a piece of furniture from their yard sale. Now, when he looks at the elegant wooden bar cart in his basement, he’s reminded, “I have a piece of that history in my house.”

But they worried the Yohannes family’s plans wouldn’t work out, even as they threw all their support behind them.

“And we know the percentages, right? In terms of the success rate in soccer,” Belay said. “But I think the beauty in this thing is that sometimes you have to take a chance, especially when the numbers are so against you.”

Samson admitted most of their friends assumed Jayden or Aethan would make the first splash in the Dutch professional leagues. “But look what happened,” he said. “Lily got picked up.”

Most days, Lily wakes up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and heads off to De Toekomst to get taped up and check in with the team physiologist for morning training; her mom usually drives her there. Sometimes Ajax reviews film together following their field practice, but otherwise, Lily grabs lunch with her teammates. Then, depending on whether there’s weight training in the afternoon, she’ll either go straight to class or head there afterward. She takes the train back home when she’s finished with school.

When the Yohanneses arrived in Amsterdam, Lily and her brothers attended an international school, where everybody’s otherness was collectively neutralized. After signing with Ajax last year, though, Lily switched to the club’s education program, which combines at-home independent study with online classes she reports to school for. She’s fond of math and history.
Though her online courses are conducted in English, she speaks Dutch, having picked it up in the early days of her family’s move between her old international school and playing football with her friends.

By the time she signed with the senior Ajax women’s team, Lily had already trained with the club’s reserve squad and was well-acquainted with her teammates, smoothing over what might have otherwise been an intimidating transition. She owes a lot to the club for buying into her goals.

“These past two to three years now, Ajax has really trusted me and believed in my ability as a player,” she said. “They came with a really good plan for me and my future here, and I’m really grateful to be able to be making these steps at a young age.”

She’s usually exhausted by the time she sits down to her coursework but knows that’s as much a part of her job as her pitchside duties.

All the more reason to indulge in the little downtime she gets.

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(Photo courtesy of Daniel Yohannes)

“If I don’t have to do school work,” she began, “just going out with the fam, or chilling at home, really. I have a really close, tight-knit fam. We’re always together.”

Sometimes that means sitting around on the couch with her brothers and showing each other TikTok videos from their respective phones. Aethan said it usually means watching football or playing FIFA together.

As Ajax goalkeeper Regina Van Eijk told the media through an interpreter ahead of Ajax’s first-leg Champions League quarterfinal match, “I often forget that she’s 16.”

Lily is a longtime Chelsea fan.

So are Jayden and Daniel. Aethan supports Arsenal, and Semhar is largely a peaceful neutral who also said she “supports any team my kids play on.” As our pasta bowls were substituted for dessert dishes and the Yohannes kids chipped away at scoops of Aethan’s birthday ice cream, they reflected on the London club’s latest match, a highly anticipated league clash against Arsenal made even more compelling by the number of key absences of Chelsea’s players. Chelsea won handily, nonetheless, 3-1. “Chelsea will be Chelsea,” Daniel said.

Lily’s anticipation of the Champions League match against Chelsea had grown like a hot air balloon approaching from a distance, slow but imposing. However, there was still something mind-rattling about the contrast in magnitudes of that moment: a 16-year-old preparing to face off against her favorite club in the Champions League, while also stealthily checking her phone for football scores under the table and dodging playful punches from Aethan.

There was added intrigue swirling around that game, too: no way was Chelsea manager and incoming head coach of the U.S. women’s national team Emma Hayes not going to scout Lily, right?

When asked about Lily the day before the match, Hayes made it clear she’s been paying close attention, even though she won’t technically assume U.S. duties until Chelsea’s season ends in May.

“There’s no denying her. Lily has tremendous talent, and to play for a top European team at the age of 16 in the center midfield position just shows how much faith the coach and team have in her,” Hayes said. “Her final pass is exceptional. She’s got the ability, especially in tight areas, she can get out of pressure really well, but her vision, the quality of her execution is really, really high.”

Ahead of the match, Lily wrapped herself in her pregame playlist, a cosmopolitan mix of Drake and Gunna, French hip-hop, and Dutch slow jams. And then, in front of a record-breaking crowd for Ajax women of 35,991 people the following night, Lily earned what might be the first blemish on her glowing early career.

Ajax were flying from the opening whistle against Chelsea, and within the first 15 minutes had created two threatening shots on goal (one hit the post). Each one was orchestrated by Lily with the same lethal final pass Hayes had identified.

Then, a wayward ball from an Ajax central defender snuck out of Lily’s reach and into the wanting territory of Chelsea striker Guro Reiten. Sprinting over to mitigate, Lily overcorrected, extending her leg to prevent Reiten from intercepting the pass and landing on her foot in a crunching tackle, earning her a yellow card. Combined with two other cautions she’d been shown in earlier Champions League fixtures, she was disqualified from Ajax’s second leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the following week.

Emotions flooded out, souring Lily’s body language as she sulked away from the official. The momentum of the match shifted quickly after that; Chelsea was happy to take advantage and scored its first goal five minutes after Lily’s caution. Their tournament experience won out, ultimately, but after the game, Hayes commended Lily on holding her own.

“I think you need learning curves like that,” Hayes said. “She will be so much better for it [after] tonight.”

Chelsea went on to defeat Ajax a second time at home in London last week, ushering them out of the Champions League, but Lily already has opportunities to aim up from that learning curve. Following the announcement of the USWNT roster for the SheBelieves Cup last Tuesday, interim head coach Twila Kilgore shared that she’d been in communication with Lily over phone and Zoom calls and had seen her play live and that the team will continue to strategize the best ways to connect with multi-national players who could represent the U.S.

“We offered Lily an invitation to this camp and she accepted, and that’s a pretty big statement,” Kilgore said, adding that choosing which country to represent is “a really personal choice. I think that we look across and we see that there have been a lot more dual internationals on the men’s side of late, [and] we can look over to that side and look at how their processes have gone, what it’s been like for those players.”

Lily’s training in Atlanta with the U.S. for the first time this week, and may well earn her first cap in its fixtures against Japan and Brazil, or Canada, in the tournament. Because the event isn’t sanctioned by FIFA, her participation will not cap-tie her. She and her family have been clear that their primary objective is to accept as many opportunities as they can to allow Lily to explore her options — with the U.S. and possibly the Netherlands once she’s eligible.

Considering the big life questions she will soon have to contend with, such as where to play next after her Ajax contract ends in 2026, Lily’s serenity is all the more striking, and barely masks the pressure she’s playing under. Daniel was the first to admit how hard he can be on Lily and her brothers. He’s generous with his criticism and relentless in his push for them to realize his plans. Even after spending so much time with her, I’m still not quite sure how she manages it, but I’m reminded of a comment she made at dinner when her family was reflecting on what she called, with the slightest touch of sarcasm, their at-home “post-match analysis.”

Just as he did when they were younger, Daniel walks Lily and her brothers through painstaking reviews of their game footage. He and Semhar are still trying to strike the right balance between dispensing tough love in preparation for life in the professional sphere that is sometimes unforgiving and heeding their parental obligation to preserve their kids’ right to softness and ease — if only to offset the stress.

As they expounded on that, Semhar whispered something to Lily across the table that felt like it cloaked an inside joke. “What about the remote, Lily?”

Lily smiled and ducked her head down at the reference.

“I don’t like to rewind.”

(Top photo: Rico Brouwer/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)

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