At the 2004 FIFA U-19 World Championship in Thailand, defender Nikki Krzysik (pronounced Kriz-ick) found herself staring at two of the world’s best players in her first start in a world championship match. She handled the pressure with aplomb and has now developed into a leader on the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team that just clinched a spot in the 2006 FIFA U-20 World Championship in Russia. As the only player in the Women’s National Team program who can carry on a conversation in Polish, a trip to Eastern Europe along with some redemption would be a great way to end her U-20 career.
Every player wants to be on the field. But as the second youngest member on the U.S. team that traveled to the beautiful and tropical paradise of Thailand to play in the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship, defender Nikki Krzysik was truly happy just to be there.
Krzysik lived life on the bubble in the weeks and months before the world championship roster was chosen, but her gritty defensive style, big heart and ability to contribute to team chemistry with her infectious smile and bubbly personality led to a coveted spot on the roster.
The curly-haired defender out of Clifton, N.J., was in U-19 training camps in 2003 under former head coach Tracey Leone. Then Leone left to join April Heinrichs’ staff for the run to the 2004 Olympics, leaving Krzysik on the outside looking in for new head coach Mark Krikorian’s first training camp in January, 2004. She got called back to the U-19s in March, but didn’t make the roster for CONCACAF qualifiers. When another player opted out, Krzysik was brought in, and got some serious playing time in Canada, seeing action in the last four games while starting in the semifinal and final.
Suffering an injury with her club team almost derailed her world championship dreams, but she had played well enough before that to earn a roster spot.
In Thailand, however, she would watch from the bench until the last 15 minutes of the USA’s fourth match, a 2-0 quarterfinal win over Australia. The game was well in hand when she stepped onto the field, but Krzysik helped kill the remaining minutes and the Americans were onto the semifinals. She thought it would be her only playing time of the tournament.
After the crushing loss to Germany in the semifinal, Krikorian decided to make a few lineup changes for the third-place match against Brazil. He moved the always-steady Rachel Buehler, who had enjoyed a great tournament pounding on opposing forwards, to right back, and inserted Krzysik into the lineup in the central defense alongside veteran Becky Sauerbrunn.
So, let’s set the scene…
In her first start in a world championship match, Krzysik was charged with stopping Brazil’s Marta and Cristiane, who just happened to be the two starting forwards on Brazil’s 2004 silver-medal winning Olympic team.
Marta and Cristiane are players so skillful and crafty, so well versed in the Brazilian art of the dribble, that they might nutmeg a player going one way, then nutmeg her going back the other way…just to say they did.
And that’s after twisting them into a pretzel, popping the ball over their head, and chuckling as they run at the opponent’s goal looking for another defender to embarrass.
Scary for a 17-year old defender starting her first World Championship match?
“It was very intimating at first,” said Krzysik. “Marta was one of the best players at the Olympics and I had watched her on TV. It seemed like she had dribbled through the whole U.S. team a few times.”
Krzyski admits that Marta and Cristiane had their share of highlight moments. Krzysik, however, played an extremely impressive match, showing composure beyond her years and limited international experience, even though she humbly says it was good team defense that kept Brazil off the board.
“Once we started to settle down, as the game went on, you could hear them on the field and you could tell that they didn’t really have good team chemistry with the rest of the girls,” said Krzysik. “It was going to be Marta and Cristiane that were going to try to beat us by themselves and you know what? They almost did! With all the camps I’d been in, I had played a lot with (the back line of) Buehler, Becky and (Stephanie) Lopez, so I felt comfortable that if I made a mistake they would be right there. Brazil had their chances, but we really worked hard for each other to cover if someone got beat.”
It was in fact the USA that finished their chances, getting great goals from Angie Woznuk, Kerri Hanks and Megan Rapinoe to come away with a 3-0 win.
Krzysik explains her success in her first high profile world championship match as a matter of preparation.
“You just always have to be ready mentally and physically,” said the Virginia freshman who started the entire 2005 season for the Cavaliers. “At some point, you are going to get your chance, it’s just whether or not you are going to capitalize on that chance.”
With the USA now headed to Russia for the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship, Krzysik finds that her role on the team has turned 180-degrees, from wide-eyed young pup to team leader. She’s now one of the team captains.
“Weird,” is how she describes it.
“I think back to the last cycle and how I looked up to (goalkeeper) Ashlyn (Harris) and Hanks and Wozzy and Buehler, and now I am sort of in that role,” said Krzysik. “But we also have players who have been with the U-21s like Danesha Adams and with the full team like Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney and Stephanie Lopez. So I think that with the experience on this team, everyone will learn something from someone.”
Krzysik is excited and ready to embark on another journey to a world championship. She knows the time on the road and away from her family will be tough, but having been through the process before, she also knows that it will all be worth it.
Plus, she feels she has some unfinished business to settle.
“I can understand how someone might not want to go through the cycle again, because it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of travel and a lot of time away from school, but for me, that loss to Germany drives me,” said Krzysik. “I mean, how cool would it be to call yourself a world champion? How often does a soccer player get that chance?”
Not very often, and for Krzysik, she is going to make sure she takes advantage of every opportunity she gets.
“You don’t know what will happen in the future,” said Kryzsik who, as a 12-year old, attended the opening game of the 1999 Women’s World Cup at Giants Stadium in New Jersey and remembers being as excited about seeing N’Sync in the pre-game show as she was about seeing Mia Hamm. “This could be the last time I ever get to wear the national team jersey. You never know when you will get a second chance so you have to take it when you are given that opportunity.”
As a side note, Marta is still age-eligible for the next U-20 World Championship.
“Oh man,” said Krzysik. “I guess I better do some extra sprints.”
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