On the Field with Tracey Leone (Part 3 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. In the third part of this special recap of the U-19 championship run in Canada, U.S. Under-19 Women's National Team head coach Tracey Leone breaks down each of the lines - goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders and forwards, and how each of those units as groups, and as a team, won the first-ever world championship for youth women.
At 16, our starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was our youngest player and performed well beyond her years. You put thousands of people in a stadium, and her in goal, and that's where she thrives. She did it against Mexico in front of 25,000 earlier in the year, playing a spectacular game, and she did it again in the championship game. In short, Ashlyn was a difference in us winning. The difference between a good goalkeeper and a great goalkeeper is that while a good one will keep you in games, a great one will win you games. At only 16, Ashlyn is a great one. She came into the world championship as experienced as any young goalkeeper could be. She was in every event leading up to the tournament but one, and that was because of injury, and gained experience that normal 16-years-olds just don't get. There is no doubt that the first-round games helped her confidence, but what made the biggest difference were the Denmark and Germany games because for the first time in the tournament she was called on to make big saves and she came through. There were several moments in the championship game where she needed to save a goal, most notably when she denied Katie Thorlakson from close range, and she stepped up each time.
Megan Rivera was the backup goalkeeper and the only player not to play a minute. Ironically, she was the oldest player on the team, but Megan is one of the most unselfish team players we ever worked with. It is ironic that she was the only one who did not play, because without her, the course of history could have been different. She always supported Ashlyn 100% and exemplified a great lesson for all of us, which is the impact an individual can have on the team, whether she plays not. Every member of the team is critically important to do anything we do and Megan was always there supporting her team. We also knew that Megan had prepared to play and was ready at any moment to step in goal. As it turns out, we didn't need her, but her support as a teammate off the field helped us win.
That fact that we only allowed just two goals in six games in a world championship is a huge credit to the entire team, but even more so to the defense and goalkeeper. It is easy to forget that in four games and part of another, we played with only three backs, and you have to have some tremendously talented and athletic defenders to achieve results like that while playing a three-back. Jill Oakes played center back in all but one half of one game and was our pillar of strength back there. She was a wall. Her reading of the game defensively and her heading was world class. She won countless balls in the air and on the ground and showed some great composure on the ball in the back during the entire tournament.
Jessica Ballweg and Rachel Buehler played on either side of her for most of the tournament and were always difficult to get behind and as tough as you could ask of any player. Buehler just does not get beat, on the ground or in the air. And if by chance you get a step on her, somehow, she will recover and get her body back in there. Rachel is also one of the most disciplined defenders in the world in that she rarely makes defensive mistakes. Ballweg was one of our two most experienced players, along with Lindsay Tarpley, and just has a tremendous tackling presence. But the best thing of all about Jessica is that she really comes up big when you need her, and there is no better example of that than her tackle of Christine Sinclair inside the six-yard box during the championship game.
Keeley Dowling was a warrior. First of all, she came back from a serious ankle injury to make the world championship team. Her commitment was truly inspirational. When she played before the semifinals, she did very well, but when she came off the bench against Germany, she was awesome, and we decided to start her in the final. The fact that Keeley played in the final should go down in women's soccer legend. Keeley was very ill the night before the final and it was in question whether she could play. She spent two hours on the morning of the final on IVs getting re-hydrated. The doctors didn't think she would last 90, but she lasted 109. It was a heroic performance, because her and her heading ability was an important piece of the puzzle that allowed us to combat Canada's direct style.
Kendall Fletcher played some of the tournament in the back, as did Leslie Osborne, but was called on to play most of her minutes in the midfield after Amy Steadman got hurt. Kendall gave us a tremendous athleticism, defensive presence and heading in our midfield. She stepped up for us and was so willing to play anywhere, anytime, as a starter or reserve. She completely gave herself to the team and really played a key role in our success.
Osborne, along with the bonus of versatility, scored two critical goals for us. She played center midfielder, center back, wing back and wing midfield, and her willingness to play all those positions, and impact the game from each spot, was a key factor in our success. Lastly with Osborne, she is a great leader and a tremendous passer with both feet no matter where she is. She found a way to hit Megan Kakadelas with a precisions pass in the final that led to the goal, despite the lack of space in their defense. She is also a world-class header that allowed us to get possession of the ball on the ground after winning them in the air.
Manya Makoski brought us tremendous skill and athleticism. Off the dribble, she can slice and dice through defenses. She was one of the best on the team at penetrating off the dribble. She can run at defenses, serve the ball and get players in with her passing, giving us the ultimate flank player, which is a rarity in women's soccer. She played both sides of the ball extremely well and her ability to slide and win balls was the best on the team along with Tarpley.
Lori Chalupny is simply the best player in the world in this age group. She was one of our unsung heroes. In almost every game, she was clearly one of our best players. We had a lot of players play extremely well, but Lori was so consistent in performance at a high level that it was amazing to watch. On the defensive side, her work ethic and ability to cover ground and defend one-on-one as well as with the team was incredible. Despite being not being that big, she was one of the best at winning balls on the ground and has really improved in the air. On the attacking side, she is the picture perfect player on the ball. She is so clean and precise that she rarely turns the ball over and is a tremendous playmaker. In short, she ran the show for us, and took that show all the way from Victoria to Edmonton to the victory stand.
You have to be great in the midfield and great in the back to have the luxury of playing with three forwards, and we knew very early in the process of putting together this team that in whatever system we played, we wanted to feature three forwards. Our two primary systems were the 3-4-3 and the 4-3-3 and Kelly Wilson, Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly were three of the best forwards in the world. They were dubbed the new "Triple-Edged Sword" following in the footsteps of Carin Jennings, Michelle Akers and April Heinrichs from the 1991 Women's World Cup, and they certainly lived up to the billing.
Tarpley put it all together for us. She helped connect and link our team together, from the forward line or even when she dropped back into midfield, which she did for a large chunk of the final. What was exciting to watch was that on many of our goals at least two, and sometimes all three forwards were involved in the play. It just shows how they complimented each other so perfectly and Tarpley was a big reason why, as the middle peg, as the foundation for the front line. Along with being a tremendous leader, Tarpley brought two of the most important qualities that a forward can have, the ability to score and the ability create goals for others. With six goals and five assists in the tournament, I think you saw that balance right there.
After Tarp, you've got two great bookends in O'Reilly and Wilson. Kelly put a great deal of time into developing her left foot and was able to be productive for us coming down the left flank, which was key, as Heather is devastating on the right. Both Kelly and Heather's ability to get behind the defenses on the dribble or to run onto through balls were world class. They created havoc and fear in all the teams we played, so much so that Canada decided to play with five backs in the final. All three are goal scorers and also very creative, and obviously bring incredible athleticism. Heather might have been the fastest player in the tournament.
You just can't say enough about their impact on our winning. The world championship was at their feet. They took on that responsibility and ran with it. Go no further than to say that of the 26 goals we scored in the tournament, the Triple-Edge Sword scored 19.
All three reserve forwards also had an impact in winning the tournament, and consistently performed depending on what we needed in a particular game. Angie Woznuk was great at slipping balls behind the back line and helped seal that Australia game with a great pass to Heather O'Reilly. She also gave us some good minutes in the final as one of the youngest players on the field. Kerri Hanks, who played wing midfielder, center forward and on wing, helped us with her versatility. She went into the Denmark game because we needed someone to get in there and work hard and dig, which she did with great heart. She drew a PK against Chinese Taipei and also had a goal and an assist in that game. She did incredibly well with the limited minutes she got and is definitely a player for the future. Megan Kakadelas' bread and butter is getting behind defenses, and when she was called upon, she stepped up, and really gave us a lift in the semifinal and final. Her ability to slip through that Canadian blockade led to the winning goal in the championship game. All three did just a good job coming off the bench and giving us a lift and what the game and the team needed at that time.
Amy Steadman only played about 20 minutes of the first game before she re-tore her ACL. She was a huge loss for us and it was amazing how our team dealt with that. She had come back from her first ACL tear and was ready to start and make an impact for us. She was also a great lesson on how you can influence success when you are not playing. She stayed with us the whole tournament and was always so positive and supportive. The team wanted to win for her. She was a world champion and deservedly so. As far as Stephanie Ebner and Sarah Huffman, we said all along that it would take our entire roster, and as it turned out, more, to win the tournament. Huffman and Ebner played spot time for us, but again, contributed to our success on the field. Huffman is a tireless worker. She does so much grunt work that goes unnoticed, but without that, you can't win. Ebner's 90 minutes against Chinese Taipei was amazing as she had just arrived the day before, and then got a goal and an assist. Those two players were great examples of players who were willing to play roles to win.
The incredible work of our medical staff must not go unnoticed. Outside of the torn ACLs, not one player missed a minute of action during the entire tournament due to injury, and that can be attributed to our great fitness and to our trainers Sue Rowe and Julie O'Connell, as well as our team doctors Dr. Brett Barnes and Dr. Chris Amann, as well as our massage therapist Nestor Battung, who is the world's best. Our medical team combined to work behind the scenes to keep our talent on the field, and their work to get Keeley ready to play in the final was cutting edge. My thanks goes out to all of the staff, we couldn't have done it with you.
Finally, you must have the talent and the chemistry to win and we managed to blend those two things together so well. It was as close to perfect as you can get. We had versatility in terms of the ability to play different positions and the positive attitudes to play wherever they were need. Ever player, the starters and the reserves, embraced and excelled at every role we asked them to play. In the end, it was that ability to sacrifice themselves for the team that helped us win. It was a total team effort, which is why it was so special. I will follow these players careers closely as they play in college and hopefully move onto the higher levels in the U.S. Women's National Team program, but we will always remember Sept. 1, 2002, as one of the greatest days of our lives. The day we made history.