On the Field - by Tracey Leone
We are looking at this tournament as if there are 12 favorites. Since this is the first-ever youth world championship for women, there is no reigning champion, and we really have nothing to look back on to judge how this tournament will unfold. Obviously, we've seen some of the teams in this tournament, but there are several countries like Brazil and Australia that not many have seen play, and then there's Nigeria, who no one has seen play.
One school of thought says that these youth teams will mirror the styles and strengths of their women's teams. It will be very interesting to see if that holds true for all 12 teams or if perhaps some of the younger players from these countries are even further along than the current senior players were at this age. Perhaps they have had the benefit of better coaching, more funding and more opportunities to play and train at a high level. For those reasons alone, the formation of this tournament by FIFA has helped reap great benefits in that it pushes the game to progress at an even quicker pace because the national federations are investing in their youth women's players, something that was almost non-existent 10 years ago.
It is quite possible that many of these federations have invested more time and money into these U-19s teams than they did for their Women's World Cup teams in 1991 - such is the massive growth of women's soccer worldwide.
Another factor that may help produce a high level of play in this tournament is that this is the first generation of young female players to grow up in a world where they have legitimate female soccer role models who they have seen play on the world stage. The senior players from around the world are truly pioneers in that they have set the foundation for these young players to excel.
To continue on that theme, and another wonderful benefit of having a youth world championship, is that these U-19s can now be role models for all of the young girls in their countries. Now, playing in a world championship is not such a far off dream for a 14-year-old.
There is no doubt that the experience of playing for a world title will accelerate the development of these players tremendously so that they will be far more prepared to climb the ladder to the full national teams. You can look no farther than Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley on our U.S. 2002 World Cup Team. Both of them got tremendous experience in U-17 and U-20 World Championships, and that was vital in their contributions to our World Cup Team in Korea.
Another factor that will be very interesting to examine in the coming years is whether success at this tournament will factor into success at U-21 and full women's national team levels. Who would have thought that Norway, China and Sweden would not be at this tournament? Those are three countries that are consistently among the top women's soccer nations. Do these countries not qualifying represent a sort of changing of the guard? Or is it just a matter of the strength of the 1983 and '84 birth years? It is highly possible that those nations failing to qualify was just due to a dearth of players those birth years and that it will not affect the success of their senior teams. However, much of that depends on the state of your senior team. If your core of senior players is made up of veterans in their late 20s and early 30s, than this age group is increasingly more important and your 17 and 18-year olds not having the experience of playing in a world event could impact your success down the road.
If you look at the United States senior team, the veteran players who are still active had the benefit of a world championship when they were about the same age as these players. Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy were teenagers on the 1991 Women's World Cup Team and that tournament no doubt set a great foundation for their future development.
Turning to the U.S. team, two years ago April Heinrichs and myself worked out a two-year plan for this age group to prepare for a youth world championship. The U.S. Soccer Federation deserves tremendous credit for their vision in their support of this team. They realized the importance of this age group to the present and future success of the U.S. women and made our priorities their priorities in giving us what we felt we needed to prepare this team in terms of programming and genuine support.
I hope our team will be fun to watch, and I know they will represent America as well as any group of young women ever could, both on and off the field. In that sense, we have achieved some great goals, but we still have many left. In the end, this is just a wonderful and exciting opportunity for these young players, and I can't wait to watch them work to fulfill their dreams.