As it turns out, the butterflies, anxiety or just plain fear that accompany a first cap for the U.S. Women's National Team is much worse in the days (and years) before the actual event. At least that was the case for Sydney Leroux and Meghan Klingenberg, the most recent players to debut for the United States. Their emotions ran more toward pleasure than pain the first time they stepped on the field to represent their country at the full international level.
Both players, veterans of the USA's 2008 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup champions, earned their first career caps at the Four Nations in China a few weeks ago. Leroux and Klingenberg became the 191st and 192nd players, respectively, to earn a place in the uber-elite club of the finest soccer players in USA's 27-year history.
The minutes were dwindling away against Sweden on January 21 in what would be a 2-1 loss when U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage called on the speedy and powerful Leroux for a last-ditch run at a tying goal.
Leroux, who was born in Canada, became the USA's all-time leading scorer in FIFA U-20 Women's World Cups, heard her name called, peeled off her warm clothes in the 40-degree weather, went for a couple of quick sprints on the track bordering the field, and then reported to U.S. assistant coach Paul Rogers for some last-minute instructions.
"Paul showed me some stuff I needed to do and pretty much gave me the game plan," said Leroux. "He said stay high and do what I needed to do to try to create a goal. I was nervous of course, but I came into a good situation where I knew what my job was and I wasn't trying to do anything special. I had a set plan and that took the nerves out a little bit."
Leroux, who had been dreaming of playing for the USA since she was a young teenager, despite growing up in Vancouver, said the moment of a dream fulfilled was not what went through her mind.
"I was just focusing on making sure I was on their restraining line and then what I was going to do when I got the ball," said Leroux, who stretched the Swedish back line a few times in her six-plus minutes. "It was just like playing soccer any other time. Of course, the stakes are a little higher because you are with the full team, but I felt like I do any other time I step on the fieldâ€¦happy."
If Leroux was happy, it seems Klingenberg had reached some sort of soccer nirvana.
"I was warming up, and someone came to tell me I was going in, and I was like, "Yesssssssss!," said Klingenberg, who couldn't even remember who informed her of her impending entry into the match. "Definitely, I was nervous but I think I was more excited. It was pure happiness, pure joy. What gets better than that? Your first cap playing for your country, for the U.S. National Team, for the team I've wanted to be on since I was two. It was freakin' awesome."
Klingenberg looked pretty darn comfortable at right midfield, playing some solid defense and even making a few runs into the attacking third to help secure the important 2-1 win against the Canadians.
"It was really fun," said the Gibsonia, Pa. native. "The level is so high and playing against these people is hard every day in practice, so playing with them against an opponent is great because they make you look good and hopefully you can make them look good."
As is U.S. WNT tradition for players who earn their first cap, both Leroux and Klingenberg got game balls signed by the entire team. They of course hope that there are many more caps in their futures, but for now, they can always look at the ball and smile. Moral of the story: first caps are fun.