In April of 2017, under the looming shadow of the Slovenian Alps, the course of the Kennedy Wesley and Kate Wiesner’s careers took a turn.
The Southern Californian identically-initialed duo had travelled the world together as a part of the U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team. They had ventured across continents, made it through the grinder of Concacaf World Cup qualifying and competed at the age group’s highest level at the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. Despite playing for rival clubs, Wesley for the SoCal Blues and Wiesner for the LAFC Slammers, they had become best friends through the journey.
But in the alpine atmosphere of the Torneo Femminile delle Nazioni, they were provided a different challenge. After a U-17 cycle in which they played up as 15-year-olds, working to earn roster spots and on-field minutes while learning from older players, the start of a new cycle meant Wesley and Wiesner were two of the current team’s most-experienced players. Now, they were called upon to stand as leaders.
“I was wearing the captain’s armband for that tournament final,” Wiesner said. “I just remember walking out on the field going ‘Man, this is my team now, this is my chance, my opportunity to help lead this team and help be an inspiration for the younger players. It’s my responsibility to make sure we represent the U.S. as best we can.’”
In Nicaragua for their second shot at World Cup qualifying, Wesley and Wiesner are the two most-capped players on the roster, with 28 and 29 U-17 appearances respectively. They’ll look to rely on that accumulation of experience to guide this year’s U-17 squad to a World Cup berth at the Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship.
“Last time in Grenada at the 2016 Concacaf Championship, Kate and I were the younger ones on the team,” Wesley said. “We were just kind of going with the flow, trying to make an impact as much as we could. This time around, we’re more of the leaders on this team. We need to help out everyone as much as we can with our experience and make sure everybody fully understands what’s on the line and what we need to do to achieve our goals.”
Wesley and Wiesner’s first U-17 call-up came in January 2016, just two months before the 2016 Concacaf Championship in Grenada. After strong performances with younger age groups, they were thrown into the fire at a camp where every player was battling for a spot on the qualifying roster. The experience bonded them together, and a strong showing in camp earned the duo, along with forward Jordan Canniff, places as the only three players on the Concacaf squad born in 2001.
Concacaf qualifying can be volatile at the U-17 level, as 15 and 16-year-olds compete in their first tournament with World Cup berths are on the line. In 2016, the specter of a disappointing finish to the previous confederation championship loomed. The USA missed out on World Cup qualification by the narrowest of margins in 2013, falling in penalty kicks after a hard-fought 1-1 semifinal draw in regulation with Mexico. The ensuing World Cup would be hosted in Costa Rica, which meant only two Concacaf berths were up for grabs in qualifying.
When the U-17s reached the 2016 semifinal after an undefeated group stage, the stakes were immense. The chance to qualify for the World Cup coupled with a match-up against rival Canada provided a valuable education for Wesley and Wiesner in the pressure of a major international tournament.
“Being a rivalry game and being what would put us into the World Cup, that really drove us for that semifinal,” Wesley said. “There were a lot of emotions going into it, knowing that the previous cycle didn’t qualify, so we knew that we had to change that and make it through. I think we wanted it more than them. That really pushed us through.”
“We kind of welcomed that pressure and just said ‘bring it on, we can handle it,’” Wiesner said. “We wanted to prove to everybody that we could win a Concacaf championship.”
Wesley and Wiesner helped the team to a dominating 5-0 victory over Canada. Two days later, they took home the Concacaf title with a 2-1 victory over Mexico. After a few more months of preparation, they both made the World Cup roster and headed to the other side of the world for the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. While the team didn’t perform as well as hoped, failing to make it out of group play, it provided important experience and insight into how slim the margins of victory and defeat are at the highest levels.
Wesley and Wiesner after winning the 2016 Concacaf Women's U-17 Championship
“It’s invaluable to have players who have gone through it before,” said U-17 WNT head coach Mark Carr. “It can help a lot of the young players who haven’t. They can lean on them. When things are tough or there’s uncertainty and unknowns, you’ve got players like Kate and Kennedy who can say ‘It’s going to be ok.’”
And so when the new U-17 cycle began at that Torneo Femminile delle Nazioni, so did the new roles of Wesley and Wiesner. They embraced the challenge of being leaders for a fresh group of players.
“That’s when it clicked that we had a job to get done, we had to lead this team,” Wesley said. “That was my role. I wasn’t really just sitting back and going with everything, I was supposed to take charge and lead this team.”
“Last cycle, I was pretty shy, pretty nervous and I didn’t really know what to expect out there on the field,” Wiesner said. “This time I’m coming in a lot more confident, a lot more ready for the obstacles we might face.”
Wiesner and Wesley after the Torneo Femminile delle Nazioni
Even with almost 30 U-17 caps each, plus a World Cup and CONCACAF qualifying tournament under their belts, the duo has continued to grow with their new roles. Wiesner has developed a more vocal presence on the field, but the real power of her leadership comes by example. She set the tone early in the cycle during a scrimmage at a domestic camp. A diving goal-line clearance made her teammates take notice.
“I showed my competitiveness and just put my body on the line and showed I would sacrifice for the team,” Wiesner said. “A lot of people saw that and were like ‘Wow, that’s what it’s going to take to be on this team, that’s what it’s going to take to win titles with this team.’ Getting into hard tackles, being able to put my body on the line, that inspires the people who are playing next to me to do the same thing.”
Wesley shares Wiesner’s affinity for game-changing aggression. She prides herself on aerial ability and tough tackles. That ball-winning ability complements an on-field voice that continues to rise in volume. From her position on the back line, she works to coordinate the players in front of her.
“A leadership role requires me to be much more vocal,” Wesley said. “Leading on the field is a strength for me, making sure everyone knows where to go, when they need to go there and how intensely they need to go there. I have the eyes for the whole field, I can see everything that’s going on so I’m able to give everyone really clear instruction.”
The two World Cup veterans have led the USA through a successful cycle so far, helping the U-17s compile a 16-1-4 record. The journey has predictably provided more ebb and flow between the highs and lows. One of their toughest tests came at the U-16 CFA International Women’s Youth Football Tournament in China last summer. A match-up against Canada spawned a frazzled first half, but Wesley rallied the team in the locker room to draw on its internal resolve.
“Everyone was really frantic and we were able to calm everybody down and focus in on what we needed to get done in order to get a positive result,” Wesley said. “I said that we needed to stick to what we know and stick to what we’re comfortable with because that’s what will work out best with us. We didn’t need to worry about the other team, we needed to focus on our principles.”
Across the cycle, the U-17s have also had to deal with a barrage of untimely injuries. Fellow World Cup veterans Jordan Canniff and Lia Godfrey as well as Ainsley Ahmadian all had the potential to represent the USA in Nicaragua but suffered ACL injuries in the run-up to the tournament. Those losses positioned the burden of leadership even more squarely on Wesley and Wiesner’s shoulders. As the U.S. prepares to kick off the 2018 Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship, the U-17 veterans are focusing on the things that they can control.
“Kate and I know the do’s and don’ts of the tournament,” Wesley said. “We tell the newer players how much of a battle every game will be. Everybody’s going to be fighting. We want to make sure we’re scrapping for everything, winning every ball, winning every tackle.
“We need to stay focused on us. On the field, we give everyone our very best respect, but if we stick to what we know, we’ll be able to get results.”