The very first venture into big-time international soccer for U.S. Women's National Team players Becky Sauerbrunn and Amy Rodriguez turned into a bittersweet experience.
Their participation at the 2004 FIFA Under-19 Women's World Championship was quite sweet because of its exotic location – Thailand – and the competition opened the eyes of both teenagers to the demands of one the highest levels of international soccer.
It was bitter as well, because the Americans failed in their quest to win the championship and due to the damage and loss of life the great tsunami caused a month afterwards.
The team had discovered paradise in Phuket, Thailand.
"I loved my experience in Thailand," Rodriguez said. "It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Actually, one of my favorite countries ever. Very exotic, very beautiful. It was gorgeous. It was amazing."
The team's first two group-stage games were in Phuket. The USA stayed at a beach hotel.
"We lucked out," Sauerbrunn said. "You look out your window and you're looking straight at the ocean. The first time I walked through the lobby I was like 'Oh my God. I had never seen this.' It was beautiful. I really wasn't expecting the turnout at the games, either. The Thai people really came out. We got 10,000 people for the opening matches and for a lot of us; we had never played in front of that kind of crowd before. The country did the tournament justice."
It might have been paradise, but the tournament was work for the WNT. The U.S. won its first four matches before running into a talented German side, losing them in the semifinals, 3-1. Germany would go on to win the tournament. The USA blanked Brazil and an 18-year-old Marta in the third-place match, 3-0.
Rodriguez said not winning "was quite disappointing," which only left the players hungry for more success.
"Most definitely," she said. "My goal, my ultimate career goal at this point is to win a World Cup. I'm hoping that I have a good year this year and I can make that World Cup team and hopefully get that World Cup gold that I haven't been able to get."
The tournament turned out to be a learning experience on several levels.
"It was a gut check," Sauerbrunn said. "It was kind of an expectation that we were going to win. For a lot of girls it was the first time, like, wow, we're not used to this. This is not a good feeling. What I carried on from the U-19s is that it doesn't matter how hard you prepare, what you're doing; you show up on that day, you take care of business."
Rodriguez remembered how fast the players and teams were.
"I was shocked as a 17-year-old playing against these great players," she said. "The speed of play was much quicker. I was still in high school at the time when I was brought in with the U-19s, so I learned to play a lot of faster and how to go against tough competition."
They also learned how fragile life and paradise can be. On Dec. 26, 2004, about month after the tournament final, a tsunami wreaked havoc in 15 countries. The Phuket hotel was destroyed. More than 230,000 people were killed, including almost 5,400 in Thailand.
"I felt very fortunate to be there when I did in such beauty and such an awesome experience, but it was sad to hear that it was destroyed by a giant tsunami," Rodriguez said.
Added Sauerbrunn "It just makes you put things into perspective a little bit about soccer. For us it's a passion, but it’s not an end-all, be-all of life. We were so sad about the people that we met, the hotel staff. We were still bummed about the tournament then it was kind of like well, there way worse things that can happen to us. We should be really fortunate for everything that we had."