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FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup: A Look Back

In the relatively brief history of women’s soccer across the globe, the United States has paved the way in many regards. Winners of the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, the U.S. Women built on their legacy by hosting the most successful women’s sporting event ever – the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Three years after the USA captured the world title, FIFA launched its first women’s event at the youth level.

Canada served as hosts of the historic FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Cup in 2002. As the first tournament of its kind, it was difficult to predict what would unfold over the course of the three weeks in Canada, but suffice to say, the competition set a high precedent for what would become one of the most exciting events on the FIFA calendar.

Though it is always hard to distinguish clear favorites at any youth event, the USA has the pressure of carrying on the tradition of the best Women’s National Team in the world, and expectations for that team were high.

“We knew we had the tradition of U.S. Soccer in our favor and our mentality going into the tournament was that we expected nothing less than winning the whole thing,” said Heather O’Reilly, a two-time gold medalist and current member of the full Women’s National Team. “We knew we could win. We’d put in so much training and the way that (head coach) Tracey Leone molded our mentality, we just knew.”

With a perfect 3-0-0 record in group play, the USA advanced to the knockout phase. The Americans continued their impressive run with a 6-0 win against Denmark in the quarterfinal followed by a 4-1 victory against Germany in the semifinal, a match in which the USA trailed 1-0.

In one of the biggest games in U.S. youth soccer history, the U.S. entered the final against host Canada in front of more than 47,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. In a classic game that saw excellent chances at both ends of the field, the teams headed into overtime scoreless.

“We were all pretty nervous and anxious – it was the biggest stage any of us had ever played on,” said O’Reilly. “There were so many people cheering against us. I think we’ll always remember walking out onto the field and just seeing people decked out in their support of Canada. It was an emotional game from start to finish.”

With under a minute remaining in regulation, the tournament’s Golden Boot winner, Canada’s Christie Sinclair, found herself alone in front of goal. Instead of scoring what would have been the game-winner, she sent the ball just over target – a rare miss for the player who would go on to become one of the best forward’s in the world.

In sudden-death overtime, Tarpley put away her own rebound to score a historic goal that secured the world title for the USA. It was the fourth title overall for the Women’s National Team and the first at the youth level.

“It was just euphoric,” said O’Reilly. “I was pretty much face down at the near post when she scored, but I just remember every second of it. Looking back at the pictures of Tarp celebrating that goal – she was about six feet off the ground and that pretty sums up the feeling.”

THAILAND 2004 and RUSSIA 2006
One year after the winning the 2003 Women’s World Cup, Germany emphasized their stamp on the sport by taking the U-19 title as well. After trouncing their competition in the first round, Germany nearly met its match in a quarterfinal bout with Nigeria, but scored a late goal to tie the match and then advanced to the semis on penalties.

A semifinal match against the reigning champion Americans loomed for the Germans. After their shaky win over Nigeria and the USA’s nearly flawless performance up to that point – 10 goals for and only one against – the German’s pulled a minor upset to advance to the final and sent the U.S. to the third-place game. Germany would go on to take the world title with a win against China in the final. The 2004 event also marked the coming out party for Brazilian superstar Marta, who was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s most valuable player.

Two years later, the tournament was expanded to 16 teams and changed to a U-20 event as Russia played gracious hosts. In what was considered an upset, Korea DPR defeated reigning-champions Germany on the first day of competition. Thought at first to be beginner’s luck – North Korea was, after all, playing in their first U-20 Women’s World Cup – it would prove instead to be a foreshadowing. The final match was played between two Asian sides, North Korea and China, in a rematch of their regional championship and the North Korans soundly trounced their neighbors to the west. China earned their second-consecutive second place finish at the event.

At that tournament, the USA made quick work of Group D to advance to the quarterfinals with a perfect nine points. In a rematch of the previous tournament semifinals, the Americans dispatched a strong German side 4-1 to advance to the semifinals. There the USA faced China without several starters that were rested through the first half and when neither team could produce goal in the second half or overtime, the match went to penalties. China edged the U.S. on from the spot by a 5-4 score and the Americans again found themselves in the third-place game. Against Brazil, both teams’ defense held strong to once again send a scoreless game into penalties. Needing extra shooters to decide the outcome, Brazil won the shootout 6-5 and took third. It marked the first time that a U.S. Women’s National Team failed to earn at least third place in a world championship.

Eight players who represented the United States in one of the previous three tournaments went on to win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Another player, Leslie Osborne, missed the Games this year, but was part of the 2007 Women’s World Cup team.

“I think what stands out the most is that we were all the best players on our respective teams, and when we were put together with the best of the best, we had to find a way to step up that much more to show who we were as players,” said O’Reilly. “We had to search for what separated us and fight to be on the field.”

Though they went on to win world championships at the senior level, both O’Reilly and Tarpley believe that their experience in Canada helped them greatly in their professional careers.

“I think any time you can play in a big tournament like that it teaches you a lot about playing under pressure,” said O’Reilly. “Playing on that kind of stage at such a young age goes a long way for a player.”

The current crop of U-20 players are well aware of the opportunities that this tournament can present. Team captain Keelin Winters, who played alongside former U-20 player and now Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Cox (nee Lopez) at the University of Portland for one season, sees the tournament as a bridge to the Women’s National Team.

“It’s great to think that we’re doing the same thing that so many great players have done before us,” she said. “Knowing that Stephanie and so many other players on the World Cup and Olympic Teams came through this tournament, it’s easy to see it as a stepping stone.”

“It’s just such an honor to be in the same position that those players have been in before,” said U-20 defender Meghan Klingenberg. “Obviously this tournament wasn’t around for people like Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy, but to be able to put on the U.S. jersey like they did – at any level – is just an amazing feeling. Hopefully it will help us reach our ultimate goal of the full National Team.”