On the Field with Tracey Leone (Part 2 of 3)
U.S. Under-19 Women's National Team at the World Championship in Canada
As an added service, each week U.S. Soccer will be producing an "On the Field" article on ussoccer.com from one of National Team coaches or players. Still basking in the glow of the first-ever world championship for youth women, U.S. Under-19 head coach Tracey Leone talks about some of the key technical factors from the tournament over the six matches and what challenges the team overcame to win the historic title in front of almost 48,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Sept. 1, 2002. In the first part of the series, Leone focused on the team's preparation and in part three she breaks down the players.
All six matches of the 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women's World Championship carried its own separate challenges for our young women. In looking at the overall picture, in our first four matches, three group games, and the quarterfinal, we faced teams we had never played before. In the semifinal and final, we played familiar opponents that we had faced at least once in the past year.
USA 5, England 1 - Aug. 17, Victoria, B.C. - Centennial Stadium
Certainly, in any first match of a world championship, there will be plenty of nerves and anxiety, especially with 16-to-19 year-olds playing in their first-ever world event. If you look at all six games in total, our team was the epitome of poise under pressure, but at the beginning of that England match, you could tell we were a bit on edge. Still, to the players' credit, they showed great patience in breaking down England's organized flat back four and a confident goalkeeper. It took us a while to score the first goal, which might have rattled an inexperienced team, but all 11 players kept insisting, remained persistent and kept their composure on the ball.
Finally, we broke through and scored three goals in the last eight minutes of the first half. After what must have been a great halftime talk by myself, England scored two minutes into the second half, created by Ellen Maggs, who to me was one of the most dangerous forwards in the tournament. Once again, the team did not lose their cool and went about putting the game away, getting goals in the 64th and 74th minutes from Kelly Wilson while letting England get very few chances.
USA 4, Australia 0 - Aug. 19, Victoria, B.C. - Centennial Stadium
Australia, which had won its first game handily against Chinese Taipei, came into our match with tremendous confidence. We faced a team that had excellent overall athleticism, especially in the back, and a team that believed they could beat us, which is always a dangerous quality. Australia
decided to stay in their 3-4-3 system, even though they knew of the talent of our three forwards, so the fact that both teams played 3-4-3 formations made for a wide-open game.
On the attacking side, we were forced to possess the ball under extreme pressure, as the Australians were 100% committed to the match and tackling with heart and ambition like we had never seen. I can honestly say that it was the most physical match we had played as a team to that point. Once again, the poise of the team showed through. We limited them to just a few scoring opportunities and even though it was physical, we stuck with the game plan and didn't get rattled. It was very mpressive how the players didn't let the physical play get in their heads, didn't retaliate and stuck to the task at hand, which was possessing the ball and getting our forwards in position to score. We were fortunate to score a goal in the 14th minute off a Kelly Wilson header, which gave us confidence and helped us deal with the adverse conditions, because we had the advantage.
It was a tactical game because their backs were very athletic and played a very high restraining line, trying to squeeze the game and make it hard to possess in midfield. Our team showed great composure to possess the ball in tight spaces and the skill to play under that pressure. Then once again, due to our patience and commitment, we broke the game open with three goals in eight minutes in the final 15 minutes of the game. Two goals were from restarts, both by Kelly Wilson, and Leslie Osborne and Heather O'Reilly scored brilliant individual efforts. To get a 4-0 win over such an excellent team, which would go on to give Brazil all they could handle in the quarterfinals, was a tremendous result. In addition, Australia (as well as Canada, Germany and Denmark) were all extremely tall teams. We had 17 corner kicks against Australia and they managed to clear them all, even though we did get a goal off a re-service of a cleared corner kick, but they were very difficult to break down directly off a ball in the air. In the end, I must congratulate their head coach Mike Mulvey and his players for giving us one of the most competitive games we've ever played.
USA 6, Chinese Taipei 0 - Aug. 21, Victoria, B.C. - Centennial Stadium
Going into our final group the team had put themselves in the best position possible. Because of the success in the first two matches, we were able to get every single player on our roster (except for our back-up) goalkeeper, some experience before going onto the knockout rounds, which would be a huge benefit by the end of the tournament. Playing the entire roster is great for chemistry, but the value of going into the second round having 17 of the 18 players having played 90 minutes or more, cannot be underestimated.
That experience paid off in the knockout rounds because everyone had proven to themselves, and us, that they could succeed in the world championship whenever called upon. So we had an entire team with confidence because they had gotten their feet wet, and we were able to rest players, which was also vitally important. Kelly Wilson, Heather O'Reilly and Lori Chalupny sat out the entire game, and Jill Oakes, Lindsay Tarpley, Kendall Fletcher, Jessica Ballweg, Leslie Osborne and Manya Makoski only played 45 minutes, while Keeley Dowling, Sarah Huffman, Kerri Hanks, Angie Woznuk and Megan Kakadelas, all of whom hadn't played much to that point, all got 90 minute games. In addition, Stephanie Ebner, who joined the team the day before to replace the injured Amy Steadman, played 90 minutes and scored a goal. We had great possession and rhythm in the game, while playing different personnel in some different positions, and still scored six goals and got the shutout. It was a great game to launch us to the quarterfinals. We went into the quarterfinals having played every player except our backup 'keeper, having rested key players and having won the group in convincing fashion, which is all you can hope for when you enter a world championship.
USA 6, Denmark 0 - Aug. 25, Victoria, B.C. - Centennial Stadium
Once again, we faced a team with some daunting physical size. They actually had two forwards, Johanna Rasmussen and Sandra Jensen, who played extremely well in the first round and were both very fast, strong and dangerous. The Danes played a 4-4-2 and really came after us, which perhaps was a bit unusual as we were used to teams playing low pressure and bunkering. They were extremely dangerous off the counter-attack and created some scary moments throughout the game, but especially early on. From the opening whistle, they came at us. We had to absorb some dangerous chances before we scored on our first chance in the 11th minute through Heather O'Reilly, which was a key to the game, as once again, it gave us confidence and the upper hand. Denmark did not mess around with the ball. They played very direct and ran at us the whole game, making it somewhat of an end-to-end game, but once we won the ball, our forwards were much faster than their backs, and that enabled us to get behind the defense and eventually score six goals. Heather O'Reilly scored twice herself, and had two assists, as Kelly Wilson scored a hat trick. It was a dominating win and we made our three subs, to again add to our experience and rest. It must be noted that this was our first knockout game, so to handle that pressure and win so convincingly, I am sure it helped us in the next two games, where we would make history.
USA 4, Germany 1 - Aug. 29, Edmonton, Alberta - Commonwealth Stadium
For the semifinals, we left our quaint town of Victoria and the 6,000-seat Centennial Stadium for the big city of Edmonton and the 60,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium. The change of sites was very positive because it was refreshing, new and exciting, but could have been overwhelming to walk into the biggest stadium we've ever played in. Certainly it helped that we talked extensively about the new conditions before we arrived and that we trained the day before at Commonwealth.
Germany was an excellent team. The match started and here we were, in a new stadium, with a huge crowd, playing a semifinal game (win or go home) … and then we go down a goal. That can be incredibly deflating, as we had rarely, if ever, gone down a goal to start a game, but our players huddled after the goal and to a woman, they looked into each other's eyes and knew they would be okay. It's almost as if the goal hadn't happened. They had an air of confidence developed over the past two years, and the past four games, which had matured and hardened them, and that carried them through. It took us only 12 minutes to tie the game through a great run by Heather O'Reilly and a world-class finish form Lindsay Tarpley, which came right after we switched from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3. We almost started the game in a 4-3-3, which we had played against Germany in our 2-1 win during the summer, but chose to go 3-4-3 for the semifinal, before making the decision in-game that our team, and our personnel, was more confident in a 4-3-3 against a team like Germany. It was a game that with every minute we gained more momentum, and two minutes after Tarpley tied it, we went ahead as Tarp played a perfect through ball that beat the German back line for Kelly to score on a breakaway. That goal deflated Germany and they went even further down when Kelly scored off a header off a corner kick just before halftime.
We went into the break at 3-1 and in control of the game. It just shows how the emotional rhythms of a soccer game can change so quickly, but unless a team is mentally tough, you cannot reverse the momentum of a game, and since both teams were so mentally tough, it made for an extremely entertaining match. We knew Germany would be in the semifinals and that the road to the world championship would likely go through them, so it was incredibly satisfying to get a 4-1 win over a team that was one of the best in the world. Jill Oakes scored the final goal on a fantastic shot from distance at the end of the game. It was our second goal from a defender in the tournament with the first being a penalty kick by Rachel Buehler in the first round, and we were on our way to the final, or the "'ship" as the players called it, short for "championship."
USA 1, Canada 0 (overtime) - Sept. 1, Edmonton, Alberta - Commonwealth Stadium
The field in Edmonton was definitely smaller than the one in Victoria, and Canada made it even smaller in the championship game by playing a 5-3-2 formation. Canada had played all of their games in Edmonton so they were very comfortable on that field, which was truly their home. But getting one game under our belts at that stadium in the semifinal was critical to us and helped us adjust for the final.
Canada's formation was extremely defensive, which paid a great compliment to our attack, but by sitting their three midfielders almost on top of their five backs, it made it extremely difficult for our forwards to find any space in their attacking third. And when our forwards did get possession in that tight space, those five backs dropped and made it challenging to get behind them. In short, Canada had a great game plan, and knew that they had to limit the impact of our three forwards, who had been practically unstoppable all tournament. In addition, they had two great counter-attacking forwards in Christine Sinclair and Katie Thorlakson, and certainly created enough chances to get a goal. They were extremely organized and committed to the 5-3-2, which was a massive challenge for our team, along with playing in front of 48,000 screaming Canadians.
In addition, we lost Rachel Buehler, who had played every minute thus far, 10 minutes into the game with a serious knee injury and we had to juggle our lineup. This is where our versatility paid off. We put in Jessica Ballweg for Rachel and moved Leslie Osborne to left back. We put Leslie, perhaps the most versatile player on the team, at left back because we knew our backs had to get forward and play-make because the only open space was on the wings in front of their back line. We also moved Kendall Fletcher to the attacking midfield slot, which ended up being more of a battling midfielder, and moved Lori Chalupny to the holding midfield spot. We wanted our best passers, Chalupny and Osborne, to be able to play-make in the area that was open to them, which was a bit withdrawn from their defensive bunker, and it was from there that the goal came in overtime.
Osborne played a ball to Megan Kakadelas in the left side of the penalty area and she let it run by her body and raced in on goal. Megan had just come into the game four minutes earlier so her legs were fresh. Megan had scored two goals in 30 minutes against Canada earlier in the year and we were struggling to get behind their defense. One of Megan's best attributes is the ability to get behind defenses. She took Osborne's pass and burst into the penalty area and played a cross through the six-yard box. Heather O'Reilly kept the ball alive with a thundering near post run and the ball ran to Lindsay Tarpley, who had her first shot blocked before pushing through a tackle to finish the rebound. That's just Tarp, always fighting for the half chance and then finishing it. For our captain, our emotional leader, to score a golden goal in a World Cup Final, well, it was the stuff storybooks are made of.
If you look back at a lot of world soccer championships, when teams get into the semifinal or finals, it's often a reserve player that will come in and make a difference in winning. Shannon MacMillan did that in 1996 Olympics, sending the team to the gold medal game on almost her first touch of the game in overtime. We tried to always keep reminding Megan of Shannon Mac and what she accomplished off the bench. We wanted Megan to stay focused because she might be the ifference
in winning the world championship. To her credit, she stayed the course and in the end, she was the difference.
We talked a lot about the big "little" things. "Little" is in quotes because they are far from little in impact, in that they will make the difference between winning and losing. Heather O'Reilly making that near post run and not allowing them to clear that ball was a big "little" thing. Tarpley following up her own shot was another one. It just goes to show how small the margin is between winning and losing at the elite levels, because without those two plays, those two extra efforts, maybe history would be different.
Finally, for teenagers to have the opportunity to play in that environment, literally us against the world, and to come out champions, was truly remarkable. It's something, they will never, ever forget. Nor will I. The moment of thrill when the golden goal went in was the culmination of a wonderful journey of special people who bonded in a way that will see them as best friends for the rest of their lives. You cannot go through an experience like that and not be changed. Really, what this team did, was rise to the occasion. It is very difficult to be the favorites. You will get the best shot from every team in every game, but every time, and faced with every challenge, this team grew in mind and body. And the end result of that growth was a team of world champions.