The verdict is in: the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup is an invaluable development opportunity and legitimate proving ground for future stars. The USA’s participation in the first seven events – of which the Americans have won three - gave an early glimpse of young talent, many of whom have gone on to make major impacts at the full international level. The first two tournaments were held as Under-19 events before FIFA moved it to a U-20 competition in 2006.In 2011, U.S. Soccer Women's Technical Director April Heinrichs and head coach Steve Swanson began to oversee the program with focus of qualifying for the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, which was to be held in Uzbekistan. The tournament was later moved to Japan, and the USA made a magical run through the competition, losing to Germany in the final match of group play before rebounding to beat three group winners in the knockout stages, downing Korea DPR 2-1 in the quarterfinal, Nigeria 2-0 in the semifinal and then flipping the result on the Germans, winning 1-0 in the World Cup Final in Tokyo on a goal from Kealia Ohai.
IN THE BEGINNING: The History of the U-20 WNT
Originally created in 1998 as an Under-18 program, the team moved up an age level to the U-19 level in 2001 in preparation for the first FIFA-sanctioned world championship for youth women, before becoming a U-20 program in 2005 for the first FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2006.
2012 was one of the best years ever for the U.S. program as the team went 16-2-1 in international matches (17-2-2 overall) and won perhaps the most competitive U-20 Women’s World Cup in history. The USA rolled through CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to earn a berth to Japan by winning all five games by a combined score of 18-1 and pulled off a dramatic late-game comeback to defeat Canada by a 2-1 score in the championship game on a game-winner from Chioma Ubogagu. U.S. head coach Steve Swanson fashioned a team that had speed and skill all over the field, which when combined with tremendous heart, gave the Americans a unique squad that overcome adversity to reach the top of the podium in Tokyo, Japan. The U.S. team featured several players who could have bright full National Team futures, and the victory further cemented the USA’s youth programs among the best in the world. U.S. captain Julie Johnston, who would be named the U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year for 2012, won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player in the tournament, a rare honor for a defender.
2011 was a transition year for the U-20s as Swanson took over the program and played only a handful of international matches, going 6-2-1 overall and 2-1-1 against other countries. Still, the year was highly productive as Swanson refined his player pool and started to develop a team that would go on to win the World Cup. He saw several veterans of the U-20 level continue to mature while numerous young players showed their ability to play and prosper at the international level. The schedule included two matches with the Japanese U-20 squad, which the USA split with the visitors during a camp in Chula Vista, Calif.
In 2010, Jill Ellis led the team to a 16-3-5 overall record and 13-2-3 in international play, winning the title at the CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying Tournament in Guatemala. The U.S. team went undefeated against international competition until its final two friendlies before the U-20 Women’s World Cup, then fell to Germany and Japan on a pre-World Cup trip to Germany. At the Women’s World Cup, the USA was surprised by Ghana in the opener, a 1-1 tie, before rebounding to defeat Switzerland 5-0 and South Korea 1-0 to win the group and earn a berth in the quarterfinal. The USA played a hard-fought match against Nigeria with regulation time ending at 1-1. A scoreless overtime led to a shootout, where the U.S. goalkeeper Bianca Henninger twice saved penalties that were ordered retaken, and the USA fell in the shootout for the earliest elimination in history for a U.S. team at a Women’s World Cup. With five goals in the 2010 tournament and 10 in her U-20 career, Sydney Leroux became the USA’s all-time leading scorer in U-20 Women’s World Cup tournaments.
In 2009, Ellis led the team to a 9-2-3 overall record and 4-1-2 in international play as she narrowed down the player pool in preparation for CONCACAF qualifying in early 2010. The schedule included wins against the Norway, England and Canada U-20s teams as well as draws with the always-talented France and Germany. Kelly Cobb, Maya Hayes and 2008 U-20 Women’s World Cup star Sydney Leroux led the USA in scoring with six goals apiece in all matches.
In 2008, despite taking over as head coach from Ellis fairly late in the cycle, Tony DiCicco molded a team that would win the USA’s seventh women’s world title. DiCicco’s side experienced some growing pains during the year, but it all came together in brilliant fashion during the Women’s World Cup as the USA scored 12 goals and allowed just three, controlling every match (aside from a meaningless 2-0 loss to China in group play), on the way to a convincing 2-1 defeat of Korea DPR in the title game. The USA won three matches by 3-0 scores, including the quarterfinal against England, and then outplayed a talented German side to win the semifinal by a 1-0 score. Leroux became just the second U.S. player to win the Golden Ball at a FIFA event and also won the Golden Shoe as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals. Alex Morgan also had a great tournament, scoring four times and winning the Silver Ball and the Bronze Shoe. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was world class, allowing just one goal, that in the waning moments of the final match, a performance that earned her the Golden Glove as the tournament’s top ‘keeper. The U-20s finished 2008 with an overall record of 20-7-0 while going 14-4-0 in international games.
In 2007, Ellis took the team through some excellent preparation during the identification stage for this pool of players, eventually winning the silver medal at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, an achievement that included defeating the full Women’s National Team of Canada in the semifinal, 2-1. In the gold medal game, the USA ran into a Brazilian buzzsaw in front of a packed house at the famed Maracana Stadium, but that experience will no doubt benefit the players as they moved forward in their national team careers. The U-20s finished 10-5-1 on the year, but four of those losses were to full Women’s National Teams.
In 2006, the U.S. U-20s played an amazing 50 matches before the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship in Russia, eventually compiling an overall record of 39-10-7 for the year. The USA’s 16-2-3 international record was stellar, although the year ended on a down note with the fourth place finish at the world championship. The USA got some big-time goal production from several forwards during the year, including Jessica Rostedt (24 goals, 7 in international play), Lauren Cheney (21/9), Kelley O’Hara (20/10) and U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year Danesha Adams (18/7). The USA qualified for the world championship with an undefeated run at the CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Final Qualifying Tournament held in Mexico in January of 2006, downing the hosts 3-0 for a berth to Russia and beating Canada 3-2 in the championship game.
In 2005, the team had a quiet year of activity due to the transition of head coaches.
In 2004, under head coach Mark Krikorian, the USA went 17-7-2 and 11-5-2 in international matches, but lost its first ever match to a team in its age group, falling to Japan, 1-0. The USA finished second in CONCACAF qualifying, falling 2-1 to Canada in the championship, but they had already secured a berth to Thailand by virtue of a clinical 6-0 win against Mexico in the semifinal. The USA put together four excellent matches to open the U-19 Women’s World Cup, starting with a rousing 3-0 win against Korea Republic followed by a 4-1 domination of Russia. The USA finished group play with a hard fought 1-0 win against Spain. In the quarterfinal match against a plucky Australia, Angie Woznuk came off the bench to help set up the USA’s two goals, both of which were assisted by Stephanie Lopez, sending the USA to the semifinal. In the semifinal, the young Americans ran into a German wall. Tied at 1-1 at halftime, the USA took control of the match’s pace only to see the Germans score on a lightning counter attack. With the USA pressing forward, Germany scored another to secure the final 3-1 margin. The USA earned third-place honors with a 3-0 win against Brazil.
In 2003, the U-19s went 7-4-1 overall and 6-2-0 in international competition, getting wins against Mexico, Japan, Germany and Holland during the year.
In 2002, the U-19s went 22-2-2 overall and 17-1-0 in international matches, including six wins at the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup in Canada. The victory in the title game of the first-ever U-19 WWC was another in a long line of “firsts” for the U.S. Women’s National Team program, which includes the first Women’s World Cup championship and the first Olympic gold medal. Team captain Lindsay Tarpley scored a 109th minute “golden goal” against host Canada to win 1-0 on Sept. 1, 2002, in front of 47,784 fans at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.
In 2001, the USA went 10-4-4 overall and 4-0-1 in international matches as the nucleus of the 2002 world championship team started to form.
Under Steve Swanson in 2000, the U-18s went 10-2-3, including 3-0-2 in international competition, all against senior women’s national teams.
The first season of U-18 competition in 1999 was a banner year, as the team went 14-0-3 overall and 8-0-2 internationally, winning a gold medal in the Pan American games to clinch an unprecedented “treble” for the U.S. Women’s National Team, which also won gold at the 1999 Women’s World Cup and U-21 Nordic Cup.
Shannon Cirovski, a veteran of the USA’s 1991 Women’s World Cup championship team, was the first coach of the U-18s but stepped down to take the head coach position at the University of Maryland. She coached the U-18s halfway through 1999 before U.S. Women’s National Team assistant coach Jay Hoffman took the reins and guided the team to gold at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.