US SoccerUS Soccer

Oh So Close

The U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team is currently encamped at the The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., during the very early stages of its preparations for qualifying for the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. After experiencing the highs and the lows of a run to the title game at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, defender Cloee Colohan (left) is preparing for another shot at lifting a trophy.

Thirteen minutes.

That’s how close the USA was to winning the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup last fall in New Zealand.

Thirteen minutes and a dream would have been fulfilled. Thirteen minutes and history would have been made. Just 13 minutes to achieve something you might never again get a chance to do.

Cloee Colohan knows that. As one of the USA’s captains in New Zealand, the starting central defender was on the field with the USA leading 1-0 when Korea DPR equalized with 13 minutes remaining to send the match to overtime. Then just when it looked like the game would be headed to penalty kicks, the Koreans scored again with seven minutes remaining in OT and held on to win the first world title for U-17 women.

To be so close to ecstasy and instead experience agony makes the pain, if possible, even more cutting.

“When you work that hard, and you work two years with the same girls and get that close,” said Colohan her voice trailing off momentarily. “Oh gosh, that was one of the worst days of my life. Close to it, at least.”

Even worse for Colohan, she had to experience it alone, without her teammates, having been randomly selected for the standard post-game drug testing following the final.

“It was an awful feeling,” said Colohan, as she recalled sitting in a small room at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland, sweaty and emotionally drained, her chugging of a sports drink likely barely keeping pace with the loss of hydration from her tears. “I was crying and just sitting there for an hour by myself, sobbing for probably half that time. It was hard to believe it was all over and we didn’t win.

“I’m not going to lie, they were better than us, but I thought for sure we could hold on,” said Colohan. “They got tons of chances, but after we scored in the first minute (a wacky wind-aided goal off Colohan’s throw-in that bounced into the goal) I thought it was our day. I definitely thought we could pull it off.”

The positive thing is 17-year-olds tend to be quite resilient. The six months since the crushing loss have given Colohan some perspective. She’s had time to process the experience and is planning to milk all she can from it as she embarks on a quest for a spot on head coach Jillian Ellis’ squad that will attempt to qualify for the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

Although the tournament is more than a year away, Colohan is hoping that her experience in New Zealand will help her not only make the World Cup Team, but contribute to taking that one last step to the top of the podium.

“I learned a lot of things in New Zealand,” said Colohan. “I learned about the small margin between winning and losing at the highest levels. On the flip side, I also learned that winning isn’t everything because I still had a blast even though we lost. It was just a great experience to be in a wonderful country that embraced the tournament, to play against the best of the best and it was a real challenge to come back after we lost the opening game to Japan.”

In truth, the USA stuttered to start the tournament, falling 3-2 a wonderfully skilled Japan team, then went down 1-0 to minnows Paraguay before rallying for a 3-1 victory. The USA needed at least a draw against France in its final group game to even make the second round, and they did just that, earning a hard-fought 1-1 tie.

“In Trinidad for qualifying, it was so easy because we dominated every team,” said Colohan. “Then we come out during the World Cup and get beat in the first game. It was a big shock to us. We had to figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to turn it around. As a group, we needed to focus and find ways to win. Losing was almost like a blessing, it was something that made us work harder and for sure helped us make the final.”

The resident of West Point, Utah, is enjoying the fresh start with the U-20s in 2009, having traveled with the team to Spain for three matches earlier in the year. She is starting to settle into a role as a leader in defense for the USA.

“I am looking at it as another opportunity to potentially play in a World Cup that we could win,” said Colohan. “We lost to Germany in Spain last March and that wasn’t fun, but we know we are working towards winning a world championship. Losing in the U-17 World Cup, well, I don’t ever want to feel that again. I don’t ever want to lose a game like that again.”

Colohan is taking nothing for granted, but she is planning on doing everything she can not only to make the team, but to make the team better. The University of Portland-bound high school senior knows that Ellis wants her to be a leader, to be a communicator and to be someone who can organize a defense. Possessing good leadership qualities on and off the field and owning what is known as a “big personality,” the bubbly Colohan seems just the person for the job. When asked what her goals are for her own game, she lists more accurate long balls, better one-on-one defending, better communication, crisper passing to the midfield, winning more headers and improving her fitness.

Sounds like a motivated young lady.

“I love it,” said Colohan of her experience so far with the U-20s. “We are playing a different formation (4-3-3) from the U-17s and a new style. Jill is all about technical work, and I am feeling more involved in the game.”

Even though the current U-20 team is in its formative stages, Colohan knows the time will come when the team will need a reality check. After having been figuratively slapped in the face in New Zealand, she will be ready to educate her teammates with tales of the realities of the most elite level competition.

“New Zealand made me tougher for sure,” said Colohan. “Just pushing through games that are the hardest games of your life, experience-wise, nothing could be better for your development as a player. This U-20 cycle and making the team are pretty darn important to me. I want to win a World Cup, and this will be my last chance at the youth level. It just means a lot. We have a long way to go, but we are doing the work right now.”

The work for those last 13 minutes, and all that precede them.