Ashley Riefner soccer player

Pro soccer player Ashley Riefner goes the distance

September 1, 2023


Ashley Riefner was 6 years old when she smashed the ball off the crossbar in youth soccer — the only child who could kick the ball to the top of the goal. Her mother Laurie witnessed the feat, which quickly became family lore. 

“I always liked playing any kind of sport, but especially soccer,” the 2016 University of Richmond grad said. “It was love at first sight with soccer.”

Today Riefner still has that passion and prowess. She’s a professional soccer player on the Danish Fortuna Hjørring team, where success entails much more than being the fastest and most physical one on the pitch.

“Every part of the game, you have to be sharper,” she said. “The players in Europe are very tactical.”

Riefner — “Rief” to those who know her well — grew up in the Richmond area surrounded by an athletic family with a deep bench. Her dad Willie played recreational baseball and lacrosse, her mom ran track and played college tennis, and younger sister Lindsay played field hockey and track. All the Riefners played soccer.

Her grandmother Nancy Yarbrough, a 1958 Spider alum, lettered in field hockey, track, and basketball as an undergrad.

“That was before sports were a big deal for women in college, so it was really cool she played at Richmond,” Riefner said.

Ashley Riefner plays for Fortuna Hjørring in Denmark.

In high school, Ashley repeatedly made player of the year in the district, region, and state. Her standout abilities caught a UR coach’s attention and the University offered a full scholarship.

“My grandma went there, it was close to home so I knew my parents could see a lot of my games, it’s a really good school, and getting a full ride doesn’t hurt, either,” Riefner said. “It all fit.”

Spider fans still remember the 5’4” forward’s sensational athleticism, which kicked into high gear in 2014. She led the team in time on the pitch — 1,700 minutes — and became the only Atlantic 10 Conference player that year with nine goals and nine assists. In September, her hat trick defeated Princeton 3-2.

Off the field, Riefner tapped into her creative and communicative sides, majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing. That focus would become vital in a career where players often need to do their own marketing.

Assistant coach Mika Elovaara, now head assistant coach for the Richmond Kickers professional men’s soccer team, arrived Riefner’s junior year.

“He said, ‘Rief, I think you could go professional. You have a real talent at this,’” she remembered. “Just hearing those words can really be life-changing. They were for me.”

Originally from Finland, Elovaara organized extra training sessions for Riefner and connected her with the professional women’s team PK-35 Vantaa in Helsinki. In 2016, she became the fourth woman in Spider history after Jaclyn Raveia, Edda Gardarsdottir, and Olina Vidarsdottir to ink a pro soccer contract.

“The route that I took to get to where I am was definitely through Richmond,” she said.

Pursuing her dream overseas was rough at first, though. Riefner had to adjust to a new country, language, culture, and profession that required working other jobs to make ends meet. She credited her girlfriend, fellow soccer pro Tiia Peltonen, with helping her during the toughest stretches.

“She has been my support system and best friend through everything in my time playing,” Riefner said.

In 2019, while with HJK Helsinki, Riefner helped her club win the Finnish pro women’s league championship. The league awarded her Midfielder of the Year.

Currently, she’s heading into her second season with Fortuna Hjørring, based in Denmark’s northern region. Last season, the team reached the Danish Women’s Cup finals, but finished a disappointing second.

“Historically, this is a good Danish team that’s gone far in the Women’s Champions League in Europe,” Riefner said. “That’s what drew me to come here.”

Riefner pointed out that American soccer players generally stick to one position, but in Europe the players must be able to move around fluidly.

“Here I could be playing as a forward and then switch with the center midfielder,” she said. “One of my strengths is I’m really adaptable. I’ve always just gone with the flow.”