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Getting the Job Done: U.S. U-20 WNT Players Reflect on the 2010 CONCACAF U-17 Women's Championship

Heading into the 2010 CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship semifinals, the U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team was riding high. The team had outscored opponents 32-0 in the group phase, but unlike other CONCACAF tournaments where three teams from the region qualified for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, only two would advance this year due to Trinidad & Tobago hosting the tournament. Goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin, midfielder Morgan Brian and forward Lindsey Horan reflect on the scoreless draw with Canada that led to penalty kicks and eventually left a U.S. women’s team out of a World Cup finals for the first time in history.

It’s been two years since the game. Two years of “what ifs” and “could have beens” about a game that technically ended in a 0-0 tie. But U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin still thinks about the semifinal match of the 2010 CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship that ended in the most painful way possible for the USA: a loss in penalty kicks.

“The PKs that Canada took, I think about them every day,” Heaberlin said. “Being a goalkeeper, you can have a direct impact on whether or not you win PKs. So, for the past two years I’ve been working on PKs so much, and if anyone gets a PK in this tournament and I’m in, I am going to do my absolute best to keep that ball out of the net.”

Heaberlin was in goal for three out of five games in the 2010 CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship and she watched as the team steamrolled through the group phase, scoring an average of almost 11 goals per game. With the Group A title in hand, the U.S. was set to face the second-place team from Group B: Canada.

The U.S. players knew that they were heading into the most important game of their young lives. They had spent two years training, traveling and sacrificing time with friends and family to focus on becoming better players and qualifying for the World Cup. After dominating the match for 120 minutes in which Canada struggled to maintain any possession in the USA’s defensive half, the U.S. team could not manage a goal. The match went to penalty kicks, where anything can happen, and it did.

Canada made all five of its kicks, the USA made four. Heaberlin got a good piece of one attempt, but it skipped under her grasp. Suddenly, the U.S. was out of the World Cup.

“I’ve never been so depressed in my life,” said midfielder Morgan Brian, who at the time was in her second cycle with the U.S. U-17 WNT. Brian had qualified for the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup by winning the qualifying tournament in Trinidad & Tobago. “It wasn’t like we didn’t go hard. We worked hard all the time and that was the most upsetting thing.

“We gave everything we had, day in and day out, to work in camp. We missed so much, sacrificed so much. To then not even make our goal was probably the hardest thing. After that you just realize you have to work even harder, I guess, to focus on the little things like trying to break down defenses in different ways.”

Fast-forward two years later. Six players who were part of that U.S. U-17 squad are in Panama with the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team for qualifying for the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. It’s a new team, a new cycle and a new event, but those players share a bond that makes their drive a little deeper.

“We know what it feels like and we don’t ever want that feeling again, that is the bottom line,” said Brian, who has emerged as one of the team leaders. “It’s a new cycle and we’ve got to move on. It’s always going to be in the back of our heads, but it’s almost a good thing that we think about it, not negative in any way, but to push us even harder.”

This time around, the group is confident but quick to remind teammates that each game is important. The team refrains from talking about the World Cup in Japan until those tickets are booked. Rather, the focus is on the one game in front of them. It was a lesson learned the hard way, but it was a lesson well-learned.

“I think we came off that and realized that qualifying is, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Horan said. “I think that’s the mentality coming into this qualifying tournament.”

Brian echoes that sentiment.

“We’ve talked about it with our teammates – they know our story,” said Brian. “They know everything that’s happened to us so every time we talk about something in the future, we always bring everyone back, ‘hey, we have to qualify first.’ We know firsthand from our experience that it’s not a given.”

In fact, Heaberlin and defender Olivia Brannon, who was also on that squad, even etched their reminder in ink with matching tattoos on their right wrists.  Three tear drops – one red, one white and one blue – represent the blood, sweat and tears that the girls put into that tournament. Those three tear drops are placed over their heart every time the Star-Spangled Banner blares over stadium loudspeakers.

“When I put my gloves on, I put my left one on first and then my right, so I see it last every day,” said Heaberlin. “When I’m training at home or whatever, I see it and I’m like, ‘I don’t ever want to feel that again. I’m going to do everything I can in my power to not let that happen again.’”

With few days to go before their first match, these players will use their memories from Costa Rica as motivation in Panama. They know they can win games early and that they can win games late. They can play 120 minutes without a goal and still win. But…they must win.

A trip to Japan is on the line, and maybe in some small way, a continuation of a journey lost.