When U-20 Women's National Team goalkeeper Laurel Ivory arrived in Jordan for the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup, it was a completely foreign experience. The team travelled to a new country to play in unfamiliar stadiums during the first FIFA WWC in the Middle East.
There won’t be nearly as many unknown variables when the U-20 WNT travels to France this summer for the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. The USA is in the host country this week for a pair of friendlies in World Cup venues against Les Bleues. As Ivory strives to make the World Cup roster, the opportunity to get accustomed to the tournament’s environment is invaluable.
“Narrowing down some of the unknown elements is huge. In a World Cup, if you’ve never played in one before, it’s hard to know what to expect.” Ivory said. “Being able to get that first look at the stadiums, the hotels, the people that will be around us, before the tournament even starts, is massive. It will calm the nerves once the event does come and it will help the team move forward through the tournament.”
This overseas trip marks the first camp for the U-20s since they punched their World Cup tickets at the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in Trinidad & Tobago last January. Their semifinal victory over Haiti didn’t book just one trip to France, but three, as the team prepares for success on the global stage. Along with this month’s matches, the team will travel to France over the summer for a U-23 tournament in Toulon.
In this current trip through the Brittany region, they’ll play at two of the four World Cup venues and stay at the competition’s official hotels. They’ll also take on some world-class competition in France, the European Championship runner-up.
“We know France is one of the top teams in Europe,” U.S. U-20 WNT head coach Jitka Klimkova said. “We love to find the most challenging games we can. Harder opposition will make us a better team. Playing France in France can only help this team prepare for the World Cup.”
Familiarization serves as just one element of the trip. It also provides an opportunity to reset after qualifying and zero-in on players’ individual development. Players and coaches have spent some serious time in France to lay out personal goals and how to reach them in the next five months.
“Right now, we’re not in a winning stage, we’re in a development stage,” Ivory said. “We can really hone in on what we need individually and how that can help our team down the road.
“We are kind of pushing the restart button. We qualified, we did our job and now it’s time to focus on building the team. We want to be developing and learning, and then once we get to the World Cup, we’ll be totally focused on winning and putting out our peak performances.”
The college season makes it difficult for the U-20s to convene much in the fall. Their major camps prior to qualifying -- December’s Nike International Friendlies, and soon after, World Cup qualifying -- all had an immediate event focus. Now, there’s a chance for the team to step back and focus on individual growth.
“If the players can improve a couple skills, we know they will get better and that can help the team to play better soccer,” Klimkova said. “We know we still have five months to go so we want to spend this preparation efficiently and focus on the things that are really important for the players. We felt we didn’t reach our potential in Trinidad. Our main focus is to play better soccer.”
This camp marks the first of several U-20 gatherings in preparation for the World Cup. It’s a serious slate of programming designed for international success in August.
The team’s maiden voyage to France also included a sightseeing trip to Paris. It’s part of Klimkova’s efforts to balance soccer and life. For her, understanding the country’s culture functions as an important part of the team’s World Cup journey. The familiarization not only with venues and facilities, but also the country and its customs, is vital.
“The World Cup will not be the first time we’re in France,” head coach Jitka Klimkova said. “We will know where we may play as well as understand a bit of French culture and what it means to come here. I hope during the World Cup, we will feel like we are home.”