This is a story of two young girls who dreamed of one day playing for their country. Just two of the millions of players across the United States shooting for a spot on the National Team, who picture themselves standing in a line, hands over hearts, with 10 other women in sparkling white uniforms, listening to the Star Spangled Banner reverberate through a huge, packed stadium. It’s a summit so high that few ever get to breath the rarified air of international soccer.
Except these two actually make it. And they made it together.
How many girls have collapsed in exhaustion on a hard dorm room bed after yet another physically draining training session at yet another ODP Regional Camp and daydreamed of being the next Mia Hamm or the next Kristine Lilly?
Lindsay Tarpley and Leslie Osborne were two of those girls.
They met when both were shy, naïve and unconfident 11-year-olds, playing “up” with older girls at the Region II camp in DeKalb, Illinois. Tarpley, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Osborne from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, bonded instantly. They would each have a friend to help navigate their way through the high-pressure world of youth soccer and the challenges of always trying to make that “next” team. That summer they both made that “first” team, getting selected to the Under-14 Midwest Regional squad, spawning a friendship that would provide support and strength through high school, into college, on to a youth world title and all the way to the full U.S. Women’s National Team.
“One of regional coaches told me when we were 12 years old that Leslie and I had the potential to do something extraordinary,” Tarpley remembered. “He said, ‘You and Leslie have the ability to be on the National Team one day.’ I was stunned that someone thought so highly of us, but I wasn’t quite sure I should believe him.”
It has played out like a soccer fairytale really, but with many more pages still to be written. Tarpley and Osborne played on the U.S. U-16, U-19 and U-21 teams together, and now, they are with the full U.S. Women’s National Team in China for the 2004 Four Nations Tournament.
“To be honest, I think it wasn’t even about soccer,” said Tarpley of her friendship with Osborne. “Our personalities matched and from the very beginning we had so many things in common. I think we were kind of friends before we even met.”
“We don’t have the exactly the same personalities, but we get along so well,” said Osborne. “I’m probably more outspoken and Tarp is more quiet and soft-spoken, but we’re both kind of shy in a way. What we really have in common is that we are both really enthusiastic and competitive. I think that competitive fire drew us together.”
The pair talked on the phone all the time, but being from different states, only saw each other at soccer events, which was often, as both were consistently making state and regional teams.
Over the years, they shared their high school experiences and gossip, talked about boys and school and everything else, helping each other through the trials of being a teenager and always picking up right where they left off at regional and national camps. Heck, even their families became good friends and are to this day, following their daughters to soccer tournaments just like they did then they were 11. In what shouldn’t be a surprising confluence of events, Tarpley’s parents recently moved back to Madison, Wisconsin (her birthplace), so they now both go home to the same state as well. But despite the obvious drive to succeed that has pushed them to the brink of soccer stardom, neither of the two ever wanted to outshine the other, a unique situation in the often cutthroat world of girl’s elite soccer.
“We were never competitive with each other,” Osborne admitted. “We play different positions and we are too good a friends to be competitive. I’m happy when something good happens to Tarp.”
When they entered high school, they made the U-16 National Team, and with that came the letters, phone calls and pressure of college recruiting. Both were born in 1983, but Osborne is a year ahead of Tarpley in school and thus would choose her college first. They had always planned to go together, live in the dorms together and then get an off-campus apartment. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
“We wanted to go to the same college, but I always knew I was going to Santa Clara,” said Osborne, who had her heart set on the tiny West Coast university as a high school freshman. “I knew she probably wouldn’t come west, but I could keep hoping.”
Tarpley’s heart, however, took her to North Carolina.
“I always thought we would end up in the same place and when I found out she was going to Santa Clara, I was devastated, because I knew I couldn’t go out to California,” said Tarpley, the 2003 ACC Player of the Year. “Being from Michigan, I just couldn’t go that far away. I’m more of a homebody and wanted to be closer to Kalamazoo.”
While the two friends would attend separate colleges, the U.S. Under-19 National Team, and its ambitious and rigorous schedule to prepare for the first-ever FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship brought them together almost as much as if they were on the same campus.
They soon became key players and leaders on Tracey Leone’s team that would prove to be one of the most special in U.S. Soccer history, never losing a game in its age group over the two years it was together. With Tarpley as part of the “new Triple-Edged Sword” with Heather O’Reilly and Kelly Wilson, and Osborne dominating the midfield, the USA famously won the world championship in resounding fashion over Canada. In the title game, Tarpley scored the “golden goal” in front of almost 50,000 stunned Canadians in Edmonton. Predictably, it was Osborne who started the play with a world-class pass that sliced open the Canadian defense. Tarpley served as the captain of the world champions, Osborne was the co-captain. Both of their families were there to share the experience with them.
“We’ve played together since we started really, and to accomplish something like a world championship with someone who has always been there by your side was really special,” said Tarpley.
“That goal was just typical Tarp,” said Osborne of Tarpley’s game-winner. “She’s the hardest worker all the time. Her first shot was blocked, but then she got it back and scored on her second effort. She deserved to be the one who scored that goal.”
The pair first started thinking that they might have a shot to make the full National Team while playing exhibitions for the U-19s against WUSA squads. They saw, a bit to their surprise, that they could hang with the pros. Stellar performances at the U-19 world championship, combined with dominating college careers so far (both have won NCAA titles, earned All-American honors and been named their conference’s players of the year), earned them call-ups to the full national team.
Their first trip together for April Heinrich’s squad was last July in New Orleans when the USA took on Brazil. Tarpley played, but Osborne didn’t. They may get a chance to play their first game together at the senior level in China.
“We both always dreamed about (playing for the USA), but would make jokes about it and stuff because it seemed so far off,” said Tarpley. “Julie Foudy came to talk to us before the U-19 world championship and she was so funny. We just wondered what it would be like to play on her team.”
Now they know.
“Even though they’ve been with the younger national teams, everything here is so new and fresh for them and their enthusiasm is awesome,” said Foudy of Tarpley and Osborne. “Tarp is tough and gritty, but at the same time technical and has a great nose for finishing. I see those same qualities in Leslie. She tackles hard, plays big and is great on the ball. In the past, you might get one or the other, but to have all the elements -- toughness, technical ability and good finishing, those are the qualities I see in the younger kids that I love.”
To no one’s surprise, the forward and midfielder love playing together, finding a rhythm on the field that only comes from years of camaraderie on and off the pitch, much like the U.S. veterans who have played together on the national team since the late 1980s.
“We have a great connection on the field,” said Osborne, who along with Tarpley helped the USA win the U-21 Nordic Cup last summer. “We seem to just know where the other one is going to be.”
“On the field, we see things differently sometimes, but that’s a good thing as we compliment each other,” added Tarpley. “I want to go forward all the time, but Leslie is great at changing the pace and slowing it down, and not forcing the ball. She’s good for me on the field.”
Now they both enter a new world, that of the full Women’s National Team, which includes World Cups, Olympics, professional players, international travel, high stakes and the game played at such a quick pace that you must be at the top of your game all the time.
It’s those new challenges that they will embrace together, just like when they were trying to make the U-14 regional team.
“Being around Tarp gives me confidence, I can go to her for anything,” said Osborne. “That’s why it’s really helpful to have her here when we are starting out on the National Team. She’s a calming presence for me.”
“We’ve been through so much together, but there is still so much we want to accomplish,” added Tarpley, who plans to make up for the lost dorm time by living with Osborne should they be invited to USA’s expected four-month residency camp for the Olympics. “We don’t know what’s ahead, but so far, we’ll cherish each opportunity we get to play together and grow closer. Hopefully, we can help each other gain the experience we need to excel at this level.”
There is precedent.
Seventeen years ago two young players got their first taste of international soccer together in China with the U.S Women’s National Team. Their names? Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly.