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Left to right: Taylor Racioppi, Ellie Jean and Mia Gyau.

Run Ellie, Run

U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team right back Ellie Jean likes to run. In fact, she loves it.

And to watch the lithe 5-foot-5 defender burst with energy while gliding up and down the flank, you see a player who embraces her role. Whether it’s tracking back to defend or looking for the moment when she can use her long strides to surge into the opponent’s defensive third, take on a player and send in a cross, Jean looks to be every bit the natural right back.

She’s a main cog in the U.S. team that is attempting to qualify for the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, and before the opening match against Trinidad & Tobago in Montego Bay, Jamaica, she was named captain by U.S. head coach B.J. Snow.

“Over the last few months, we’ve talked to the girls a lot about leadership and who they look up to and who they respect, and Ellie is the one that grabbed the reins very naturally,” said Snow. “That’s a big thing for a 16-year-old kid to be able to do. When you can talk and have all your peers listen, that’s a pretty important thing for us to have on our team, so it was a pretty easy selection for us.”

For Jean, stepping on the field to represent her country in a World Cup qualifying event while wearing the armband was an experience she can barely describe in words. Partly because two months ago she didn’t think she’d be in Jamaica. In fact, she could barely walk.

After a partial dislocation of her knee cap during the USA’s July training camp in Ohio sidelined her for several weeks, Jean returned to the squad but then developed severe back pain during the team’s trip to England in late August.

Diagnosis: a stress fracture in her back. Her spot on the qualifying roster was in jeopardy.

She was out for six weeks, a period that included quite a bit of self-doubt as to whether she could make it back for this tournament.

“It wasn’t fun, and I have to admit I wasn’t positive in any way,” said Jean of her injury. “I didn’t really think I was going to be ready because it hurt so badly. But I went to see a great doctor, got some treatment, did a lot of rehab and had a lot of rest. The rest was the hardest part, because who doesn’t want to be playing? But, my body was telling me I needed a break.”

When she started making progress, her mood improved and when she was able to start running again – one of her favorite things – she knew she would have a shot at the roster. She got cleared for action for the USA’s final camp before leaving for Jamaica.

“It’s an honor to go to any camp and play with the National Team, but being able to play in that Florida camp was a bit of a relief,” she said. “I was really happy that B.J. had enough confidence in me that he named me to the roster even though I hadn’t played that much.”

For Snow, it wasn’t a difficult decision. If Jean was healthy, she was going to be on that plane to Jamaica.

“I wouldn’t even classify her as a right back,” said Snow. “She’s a total soccer player. She’s versatile enough to play at least three or four positions, and we’ll probably see two of them in this tournament. She’s got the tactical nuances of an older player, she’s got the physical ability to get up and down the flank and the leadership that’s beyond her years.”

At training before the tournament started, Snow pulled Jean aside and asked her if she wanted to be captain. Her answer: “Most definitely!”

“Not too many people get to captain a U.S. Women’s National Team,” said Jean, who hails from the small farm town of Coventry, Conn. “I feel blessed and thankful to have the honor. I like being a leader, but honestly, I think everyone on this team could be a captain. Everyone brings their strengths to the team. That first game was an amazing experience and getting the win was even better.”

Jean is well on her way to rewarding her coach for that confidence, putting in a dominating performance in that first game of the tournament. She was the top runner on her high school cross-country team – she does the 3.1 miles in the 17:50s – and that showed as she repeatedly got into dangerous positions against T&T.

“I love to run. I feel like I can run forever,” said Jean, whose father Domingo played briefly in the major leagues as a pitcher for the New York Yankees in the early 1990s. “I like to get up the field as much as possible. I will put in the work on defense, but I love being in the attacking third. It’s so fun. The way we play, we have a lot of stamina and athleticism and that really helps us be successful. I think we are dynamic and can make a lot of things happen.”

Jean knows there’s much work ahead to qualify for what will be the USA’s fourth FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, but by embracing the moment fully, she feels that the long-term goals will come to fruition.

“We’ve all worked so hard for this opportunity to be in Jamaica,” said Jean. “We’re trying to take it all in but at the same time enjoy it. We’re young, so there’s so much going through our minds, but we’re just going to go with the flow, and I think we’ve all done a good job of handling this whole huge process.

“A few years ago, I don’t think any of us would have dreamed about what this opportunity is like. Just being here in the Caribbean at this tournament gets your heart pumping. We don’t even care about beach time. We’re loving it! And we’re really excited to see what we are capable of doing as a team.”