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On The Field - by Tracey Leone (Part 1 of 3)

On The Field with Tracey Leone (Part 1 of 3)
U.S. Under-19 Women's National Team at the World Championship in Canada

Less than a week after winning the first-ever FIFA Under-19 Women's World Championship, U.S. Under-19 head coach Tracey Leone talks about some of the key factors in her team's preparation that eventually resulted in her team's 1-0 "golden goal" victory over Canada in front of a partisan crowd of almost 48,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Sept. 1, 2002.  Next week, Leone will break down her team and their game-by-game run to the inaugural FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship.

It was an amazing day for an extraordinary and special group of young women.  In front of 48,000 screaming Canadian fans, the first group of U.S. U-19s to play in a World Championship came through under tremendous pressure and adversity, showing poise and composure far beyond their ages, which ranged from 16 to 19 years old.

But long before the 1-0 overtime victory over Canada, the pieces to success were laid out like a puzzle and it was up to the players and staff to fit them together, for the game was not only won on Sept. 1, but in the two years preceding the World Championship.

It is an intricate process to mold a team over two years to contend for a World Championship. The strength of the players to endure that arduous process certainly toughened the final 18 that were chosen, both mentally and physically.

The first key to this historic victory was the preparation put in by the players for two years and supported on the highest levels by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Every great dream starts with a vision, and the vision of U.S. head coach April Heinrichs and the Federation for this team was entirely ambitious and of the highest standards. In the two-year run-up to the World Championship, we put a priority on playing in international competition as much as possible, playing against both women and against boy's teams.

We played 24 matches over two years against other national teams, which is an amazing number of games for a women's youth team.  We were also able to play at least 10 matches against WUSA teams and many scrimmages against boy's teams, which always tested our players to the maximum. We constantly sought competition that would challenge us, and in the end, all of those matches paid off.

We also knew that we would need a good balance between training camps and games, and once again, were able to accomplish that through the great support of U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego, where we had seven different events.

During our events, we learned that it was important to play two matches a day on our game days whenever possible, so that each player could pretty much play a straight 90-minute game. This not only helped develop the player, forcing them to play 90 minutes and meet the mental and physical demands of a full game at the highest levels, but also the chemistry, as each player got to contribute on every game day.

We also put a great deal of importance on international tours to put the players in adverse environments and on long tours, which gave the team the chance to grow and bond as a family.  Our international tours opened the door to the real world of a national team player, traveling across the globe to play world-class teams in front of crowds cheering against them.

We needed, and wanted, to face foreign teams, styles, referees, crowds and conditions, to get that experience before we got to Canada.  It is obvious how that experience paid off, as we played for the championship under what may have been the most adverse and hostile conditions possible for U-19 women's match.

The importance of spending extended periods together as a team was also something we focused on, whether it was on foreign tours or in a two-week residency in San Diego.  The players grew as close as any team I've ever seen, and in the end, that tremendous unity and willingness to fight for the sister next to you was no doubt a key to our victory.

Once we got to Canada, the players were not surprised or shocked by anything. They'd been through it and seen it before. The maturity and experience they gained over the two years bred confidence. They knew they had done the work and they had left nothing to chance.  It was all about playing your best six games over the course of the tournament and they certainly met every challenge.

Another key was the chemistry between the staff and players as well as the love and respect the players cultivated amongst each other. The quality and character of the team and of the individuals as human beings was truly remarkable.  Of course, we evaluated the player pool over two years on technical, tactical, physical and psychological merits, but also spent much time and effort selecting those players who would contribute positively to team chemistry.

In that sense, we were enormously successful.

We developed a team that will be friends for the rest of their lives.  It was a team that almost defied human nature.  When you are competing for an 18-player roster for the U.S. National Team for an historic World Championship and you have 70 players going in and out of camps, it's human nature to have some bitterness or jealousies, because people are doing everything they can to make the team.

We never saw any of that.

Everyone was so positive and supportive of each other.  They would constantly keep in touch with each other, myself and the coaching staff even between camps and could not wait to get back together.  The team also showed extraordinary commitment in their focus and work to the mission we spelled out two years before.  It was almost superhuman the way the team went about doing the things they needed to do, many of which were difficult tasks, to build a team that would be world champions.

When you take this tremendously positive team spirit and add it to a group of enormously talented players, you have the makings of a special team.  It goes far beyond pure talent, although you must have that talent to win.  But, when you add the kind of mental strength and commitment that this team had to the amazingly talent, it produces a devastating team with the ability to beat anyone in the world.

The contributions of our Performance Enhancement Team cannot be overlooked.  We utilized nutritionist Dr. Kristine Clark, physiologist Mike Shannon, strength trainer Zach Weatherford and sports psychology consultants Dr. Deb Getty and Dr. Colleen Hacker.  All were instrumental in our preparation and contributed extensively in their areas.  It was a team effort.

One more factor that contributed to the world championship was the ability to overcome injuries.  On Aug. 1, I picked 18 players to represent the United States.  By Sept. 1, three had torn ACLs.  The depth on the team, and those players who stepped up to contribute, players who likely would have been reserves, was tremendous.  I will say this: the chemistry on the team made all three injuries almost more heartbreaking, but also contributed to the team's ability to get through them and support the injured players.

Focusing on our staff as well, the chemistry between the players and the support staff was tremendous.  Similar to our players, the staff was a group of people who were very competent in their fields, but also tremendous human beings who cared a great deal for the players as well.  They were willing to do whatever was needed to help make this team the best.

My assistants David Smith and Karen Richter were invaluable, not only in helping manage the team, which adored them, but also in giving me real feedback and helping make the thousands of decisions – some tough, some not so tough – over the two years.  I could not have asked to work with two finer people.

Finally, this World Championship was a dream of these players. Not only were they focused on that dream for the two years prior, but almost to a player they had dreamed of this their entire soccer lives. That was a very powerful factor in their success.  To give such a talented group the means to accomplish their dreams, stoked the fire even more.  These players were committed to being the best and the two years of programming catapulted them to another level in their quest for this dream.

But this cannot be ignored – when you do finally get to a world event, players will rise and perform or they will fall and not perform, there is not a lot in between.  I have run out of adjectives to describe how they responded to that pressure.  It is one thing to play friendly matches and even tough games overseas, but there is no way to truly simulate what happens at a world championship when everything is on the line. We did our best to prepare them, but in the end, they had to respond.  Boy, did they.