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Center Circle Extra: Four Vets Look to Lead U-19 WNT

Four players on the U-19 WNT roster have a unique perspective going into qualifying as they know exactly what it means to play for a world championship. Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, defender Rachel Buehler, midfielder Angie Woznuk and forward Kerri Hanks, were all members of the 2002 team that won the FIFA U-19 World Championship and were all born after the cutoff for the 2004 World Championship, which is Jan. 1, 1985. Harris and Buehler were starters for the USA in 2002, while Woznuk and Hanks were key reserves.

Two years later the girls are all back and are hungry for the chance to win back-to-back world championships, but they know they first need to get past the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. The girls sat down with and discussed how their experiences from two years ago can help the entire team succeed in qualifying, how they’ve been utilizing their veteran role to help their teammates and how the team looks as they close in on their first match against the Dominican Republic.

What do you remember most about playing in the 2002 U-19 World Championship?
Ashlyn Harris: “The thing I always think of is all the hard work, all the pressure, all the tears, and all the sweat that came in the end and worked out so well. Playing in front of 60,000 people and beating Canada on their home turf, you can’t forget something like that. To win and just to realize it was all worth it in the end, that is the greatest feeling anyone can feel.”

Angela Woznuk: “The game against Australia was what really sticks out in my mind. I came off the bench in that game and there was a huge crowd for Australia cheering them on. Australia also had a really good team and the competition was great, which made it a really fun atmosphere.”

Rachel Buehler: “The part I remember the most was walking out into the stadium and there were so many Canadians in the stands. I remember they sang their national anthem and it was just so loud. Then we sang ours - and I always sing no matter what - and I was so happy. It was the coolest thing ever. You looked up into the crowd and there was one little American flag that our parents had. Also, I got to take a penalty kick against Chinese Taipei. The coaches wanted to test me to see if I would be able to take one under pressure because I never volunteered to take them. I got like the fifth goal or something, but I was smiling the rest of the game. That was fun.”

Kerri Hanks: “The thing that I realized is that we had such good friendships during that time. We probably saw each other more than some of the girls saw their brother or sisters. We were always together and were like sisters to each other. Winning the final stands out a lot as well, but the friendships that we made were the most important thing. Walking up on the stand and getting the trophy is something I will never, ever forget though.”

What experiences did you take from playing in the world championship?
“It was an amazing experience and definitely brought me to where I am today. Playing with the best players in the world day in and day out at the age, I was at gave me a huge head start to my career. I was the youngest player on the team. I was a starter and played in goal, which is one of the most demanding and important positions on the field. It was pretty difficult at first having the team put on my shoulders, but it gave me a lot of confidence which is helping me out now.”

AW: “I am definitely more confident playing in front of a crowd. It is a big deal, but after playing in front of 60,000 people it doesn’t get to me as much. I also feel more mature as a player after getting more experience.”

KH: “My experience at the World Cup was as a reserve, so my job was to push the starters at practice and make them work harder. That was my responsibility. From that cycle to this one though, I’ve learned a lot. As one of the leaders now, I’ve taken the role of encouraging the players to work their butt off in every training and every game and just give 110 percent. I’ve taken the leadership that the captains in the previous cycle showed me and use it with our team now.”

RB: “The experience helps you to handle all the travel and playing in a big event like this, but I’m still nervous and it’s not like it changes that much really. I feel like I’m a leader more by example. I try to offer advice, but they usually are just asking comparative questions between now and then. I just try to tell them what I can and hopefully it is helpful.

How does the experiences you obtained from the last world championship benefit this year’s team?
AH: “I know what to expect. I know what it takes to be the best in the world because I’ve been there, I’ve done that. So now, I’m trying to pick this team up and lead them to back-to-back world championships. Whether it’s on the field, off the field or with their personal life, I am here to help them just like my teammates (in 2002) helped me.”

Do the other players look up to you and what advice have you given them?
AH: “I was definitely a follower on that team and looked up to the captain like Lindsay Tarpley. I just sat back and watched them and noticed how they handled things in different situations. Now coming to this team and not being three years younger than everyone else and being a leader, I’ve been able to help the team as I was helped when I was young. When I was playing and I would be so stressed out and not playing as well as I wanted to, I would go to them and ask them, ‘What do I need to do better or what do you see that I don’t.’ And now, players are coming up to me and asking me the same things to enhance their game.

AW: “I enjoy handling the role of a leader. A lot of players come up and ask what it was like to play in the final and how I handled the crowd. I think that is good because I definitely learned from it and I want to help them. I think back when I was one of the younger players and try to remember what the veterans told me that helped and tell them the same thing. I just tell them to tune out the crowd and just concentrate on the game instead what is going on around you.”

KH: “Some players will come up to us and ask advice and you give them the best advice we can. And if we don’t know we will go to (head coach) Mark (Krikorian) about it. I even still have questions and ask Ashlyn or Angie at times, which I think is great because we have such a great team chemistry that we can help each other out.”

Do you feel any more pressure on you this time around now that you are considered a U-19 veteran and leader of the team?
AH: “There’s pressure, but I’m in control of my individual performance. I have to make sure I get the job done and not worry about everything else I can’t control.

AW: “I feel like I always have to prove myself. For me, (having pressure) really motivates me.”

KH: “I feel some pressure, but I don’t really dwell on it because if I go out there and give 100 percent, that is all anyone can ask of me. If I know I don’t have any regrets than that is all I could ask for.”

After the first few days of training how does the team look so far?
AH: “The team looks really good. We came in the first day and we’re a little jet-lagged, but since then we’ve had some really good training sessions. We’re headed in the right direction, we’re rolling right now.”

RB: “I feel like the past couple days we have had the intensity we need coming into at tournament like this. It felt like we understand what we need to accomplish. I think everyone is really excited and everyone is aware that this is not just another tournament, but that it is big time.”

KH: “I think we are looking really good right now, but we can’t look ahead and have to go game by game right now. I hope that everything will turn out the way we want it to and we will get to the final and win the entire tournament. I think so far, we’ve been picking up the intensity at every practice, so hopefully we can keep it up.”

What intangibles do you see this team having?
“We have great chemistry, which goes a long way. If you don’t have the chemistry there it doesn’t matter if you have the 11 best players, it just depends how we play together. This team has played together so well in the past year and a half, I’m not too worried about our chemistry. We have so much fun together and when we step between the lines it becomes serious and we all know it’s game time.”

AW: “I think we are pretty confident. I just hope we aren’t overconfident. We need to make sure we take every team seriously.”

Do you know much about your opponents?
AH: “I’ve played a couple of those teams last year, and it’s not going to be easy. Every team we play is going to be different in their own ways, and we have to be on the toes for every game because we did win the world championship, so everyone is going to be out to beat us.”

AW: “I don’t know a lot about them, but we need to be careful about their counterattacks, and if we are sloppy then we could give them a chance to score.”

What will you tell your teammates before the first match against the Dominican Republic?
AH: “We need to come out calm and not be overly nervous. We just need to go out and play our game like we normally do, like it is a home game at our field. It will be important for us to come out relaxed.”

AW: “I would say that we can’t take our opponent lightly and that goal differential is a big factor, so we need to score as many goals as we can. We need to really work on our finishing, as it hasn’t been as good as it could be during the first few practices that we’ve had. We definitely need to improve on that and really focus.”

KH: “First I would say, leave no regrets behind. We need to play hard, play as a team and do the very best we can. And we need to have fun doing it.”

RB: “You have to respect every opponent because you never know what can happen on any given day. I think we need to just set a precedent for yourself to always play at a high level, no matter what team you are playing as you should always achieve that high level of play. That way you go in playing well and continue getting better and better, until the end of the tournament you are playing amazing, maybe better than you ever expected yourself to play. Everyone needs to just go in and be prepared to play her best.”