“It’s always an honor to represent the crest.”
Those words come from U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team midfielder Brianna Pinto, who is more familiar with that honor than almost any player in the USA’s Youth National Team history.
When she took the field against the Dominican Republic in the second game of World Cup qualifying tournament on Feb. 22, it marked her 34th appearance for the U-20s, the sixth-most all-time. The 2019 U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year is the most-experienced player on the U.S. roster at the Concacaf Women’s U-20 Championship.
In Santo Domingo, she aims to qualify for her third youth World Cup. To compete at a National Team standard has become the norm for Pinto, but this tournament presents a special opportunity to reach the world stage again, this time armed with greater experience and with much more to prove.
“We need to find a way to win because I want to get back to a World Cup,” Pinto said. “It starts with qualifying. For the players that haven't played in a regional event like this, I want to convey how high the stakes are and how important this is because this isn't an opportunity that comes every day.”
Pinto was one of the younger players during both of her previous youth World Cup appearances. Born in 2000, she played up a year during the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan and was two years younger than the age cut-off during the 2018 U-20 WWC in France. Despite her age, the midfielder served as a key contributor for both teams.- She played every minute for the U-17s in Jordan and appeared in all three games for the U-20s in France. But in both tournaments, she only had the opportunity to play in three games, as the USA failed to advance from the group stage both times.
“Being on the younger half of the 17s and the 20s, I got to learn a lot from the older players,” Pitno said. “Now, I get to bring that experience to the younger girls and it's great to be a leader. I loved both of those experiences because they provided new challenges and some hard lessons, so now I hope that this can be even better. I'm so thankful for all the opportunities U.S. Soccer has given me because they have shaped me into who I am today.”
Those opportunities have also included training stints with the senior Women’s National Team, which is the ultimate goal for every player called into a YNT camp. Pinto made her first appearance with the full WNT as a 17-year-old during the team’s 2017 January Camp and also was on the roster for that year’s SheBelieves Cup, but did not see action.
“My experience during the SheBelieves Cup was unique because I was like a sponge,” Pinto said. “I really learned what it's like to be a professional. You're responsible for your own recovery, your nutrition, how you spend your time, because at the end of the day, that's their job. Learning from players like Carli Lloyd, she puts every ounce of energy into ‘How can I perform my best today?’”
More recently, Pinto and three of her current U-20 WNT teammates earned call-ups for December’s WNT Identification a Camp, an opportunity for head coach Vlatko Andonivski and his staff to evaluate some of the nation’s most-talented up-and-coming young players.
“I’m super excited to be here with the 20s because I can use what I learned there and apply it to this environment,” Pinto said. “At the end of the day, we're one program on the same path. We wants to grow in the same way and continue to have global success in the women's game.”
Outside of camp, Pinto’s day-to-day environment has also ratcheted up from previous cycles. She just wrapped her second season at the University of North Carolina under legendary head coach Anson Dorrance as the Tar Heels reached their second NCAA College Cup Final in as many years. Pinto has grown accustomed to a certain level of intensity from National Team camps, and at UNC, that tenacity has become part of the daily routine.
“It was a lifelong dream of mine to go to the University of North Carolina and play for Anson,” Pinto said. “It's so cool to learn from him on a daily basis and learn how to compete. I think that's the most important thing, because when you compete every day, it becomes a habit. Then when you get to game day, it's no different. I'm expected to compete, raise the level and bring the professionalism that you get from representing the National Team.”
While Pinto has taken strides to internalize that National Team mindset, ultimate success on the biggest stage of the international game has eluded her. For the USA and Pinto, group stage exits at the World Cup aren’t good enough. The midfielder’s past experiences with the National Team, both the highs and the lows, have made her even more driven to qualify for this year’s 2020 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup which will be held Costa Rica and Panama.
“I will be laying my life out on the line to get back to a World Cup so that we can perform at the level that we know we can,” Pinto said. “We are the United States and we should be performing at the highest level and competing against the best teams in the world.
“It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be handed to us. We need to treat every team that we play in qualifying as if it's the World Cup Final because that's where we want to go. If we don't train at that level, if we don't compete at that level, it's not going to translate to win the games that actually matter. It's going to be extremely difficult, but I'm excited. I'm extremely motivated because we've got something to prove.”