The winter of 2017 brought the first bad news. Forwards Lia Godfrey and Jordan Canniff, two FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup veterans, had both gone down with torn ACLs.
Both were poised to be key figures in the new cycle, yet both could expect six to 12 months of recovery from the injury. They would certainly miss out on World Cup qualifying in April, and November’s World Cup also stood in doubt.
It wouldn’t be the last injury blow the U-17s would take. But no matter how much adversity the team faced, what mattered most was its response.
“It was really sad for all of us that we’re missing those players, but once they were gone, I think all of us knew that we had to rally, get behind them and just do it for them” said midfielder Astrid Wheeler. “I think everyone on this team knows what we have to do now. I feel confident with people looking up to me to be a leader, because I know that I would do anything for the girl next to me, and I’m going to work my hardest to support everyone on this team.”
Following the 2016 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan, the U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team looked primed to bring a veteran core into the new 2017-18 cycle. Four players from Jordan were age-eligible to return for the 2018 tournament, the most-ever for a U.S. team at the competition, and all four had logged minutes on the world stage in the Middle East.
Over the course of the cycle, a group of new leaders have emerged to guide the team into Uruguay. With a 23-2-6 record over the last two years, the U-17s stand poised for success at the World Cup.
Goalkeeper Angelina Anderson became one of the first to step up, wearing the captain’s armband in the USA’s first game at the Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship in April.
“Losing starters, it was definitely kind of scary at first,” Anderson said. “We all didn’t really know what to expect going forward. I feel for those players. But I think going forward, all the girls on the team already have what it takes to step up and be a leader it’s just about stepping up and being a leader now.”
The setbacks didn’t stop after the USA punched its World Cup ticket and took home the confederation title at that tournament. During the semifinal against Haiti, midfielder Croix Bethune was roughly taken out by the Canadian goalkeeper, struck by yet another ACL injury.
And after the competition, the USA’s two-most experienced players went down. Defenders Kate Wiesner and Kennedy Wesley, both with 30-plus U-17 caps, also succumbed to torn ACLs within two weeks of each other.
“Seeing Kate on the field, just go down, and then all the other girls, hearing about them, it took a toll on all of us. Personally, I was very devastated,” defender Natalia Staude said. “We know how much we all work on this and how much time they put into it. To see that taken away from them is very hard to cope with.”
The setbacks could deflate a less-united team. But in the aftermath of World Cup qualifying, the U-17s emerged closer and more confident than ever. The loss of Wiesner and Wesley cut deep, but the team knew that it meant others needed to continue to take on larger roles.
“Since qualifying, people have found a new confidence within themselves,” Wheeler said. “We all have come together because we know that the World Cup is so close and we just want to do everything we can to win it.”
Staude enters the World Cup as the USA’s leader in minutes played this year. The Atlanta native has provided a steady presence at center back since the start of this age group’s 2015-16 U-15 Girls’ National Team cycle, but it’s always been of the strong and silent variety. Now, she’s had to help fill the leadership void with her voice.
“Before Kennedy hurt herself, she was the powerful, vocal leader, and I led more as an example,” Staude said. “Now that she’s hurt, I think I need to step up and fill that role of controlling my back line and making sure that we stay on top of things. We have this team dynamic that we all work together for this one goal.”
The core of the U-17 squad spent the summer traveling around the country and the world – to Kansas City, Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea -- for World Cup prep, but Anderson undertook some additional preparation. As she readied to join the U-17s at a training camp in LA, she got a call from the U-20 WNT coaching staff, just days before the kick-off of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France. The team’s third goalkeeper had gone down with injury. The U-20 coaches needed Anderson to step up and fill in in France.
“Being able to go in with the 20s for their World Cup was such an amazing experience,” Anderson said. “It definitely taught me a lot about how to work hard and how to constantly improve every single day. I think I learned a lot of things personally about what I have to improve on, but I also learned that the World Cup will not be easy for us and that every single game matters.”
With one World Cup under her belt, Anderson has a better idea on what it takes on the world stage. And Jordan Canniff, one of the first U-17s to fall, completed a determined comeback to make a late push for a spot on the World Cup roster. They’ll help lead a resilient USA squad in Uruguay, one that hasn’t lamented the loss of its leaders , but rather, rallied back from every roadblock.
“Each and every girl has to step up and be better than they were to give the team the best chance to win the World Cup,” said Anderson. “It’s becoming real now. We all have this sense that now is the time to play our best to it’s been great to see how we’ve come together and built up this team chemistry. That will continue to carry us through what we know is going to be a very difficult group stage, and hopefully, to fulfill our ultimate goals.”