At Ally Sentnor’s first U.S. Under-15 Women’s Youth National Team camp, the coaches asked the players to write down what they wanted to accomplish in their soccer careers. Sentnor, then a precocious 14-year-old, listed a few things you’d expect: Play Division 1 soccer. Make the next U-15 National Team camp. And one day, play for the senior U.S. Women’s National Team.
And showing a nice dose of chutzpah for a 14-year-old, Sentnor also wrote: “Play in four Concacaf World Cup Qualifying tournaments and four FIFA Youth World Cups.”
Today Sentnor, now 19, is on the cusp of playing in just her first World Cup qualifying tournament in the Concacaf region, made up of countries in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Long one of the most talented players in the USA’s Youth National Team system, she had a shot at three previous Concacaf tournaments, but life and the unpredictability of this beautiful game intervened.
“At that U-15 camp, we had just learned what a Concacaf tournament was, what a World Cup was, I didn’t even know any of these things until I was invited to a National Team camp,” said Sentnor, who is preparing with her teammates for the 2023 Concacaf Women’s U-20 Championship in the Dominican Republic that will send three countries to the 2024 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
For her first U-17 Women’s World Cup cycle, in 2018, Sentnor made a nice run at the roster. In the fall of 2017, she traveled to Germany with the U-15 Girls’ National Team and scored five goals in two wins over the hosts. A month later, she was called up with the U-16s and traveled back to Germany. In the end, she was just too young as she was competing against many players who were three years older. Although she was called into training camp right before the World Cup, that did not go so well.
“I didn’t play in any of the matches, I just sat there on the bench,” said Sentnor. “They told the players at the end of the camp who was on the World Cup Team and obviously I didn’t make it. I went into that camp thinking I could make it and I was excited for the opportunity so when I didn’t get chosen, I was super devastated. It was the first time I was kind of told that I wasn’t good enough and that was a turning point for me.”
Sentnor took a couple days to wallow in her discontent but then rallied, in body and mind.
“I decided if soccer was what I was going to do, if I wanted to be a top player, I needed to put in more work,” she said. “I needed to do more things than I had been doing to get to that next level, because that’s where I wanted to be. I was fully bought in. I realized that this was not going to be a breeze, that I’m not going to just get easy opportunities. Even though I would have been playing two years up with that group, age didn’t matter to me, I needed to be better.”
Sentnor hails from Hanson, Mass., the same hometown as Samantha and Kristie Mewis, both veterans of the USWNT. Once she got back into the swing of things, she started training more with a local boys’ team, the Boston Bolts. By her sophomore and junior years of high school, Sentnor was training and scrimmaging consistently with the boys and putting herself through countless finishing sessions on her own. The work paid off with more National Team call-ups, mostly to older youth age groups. She was named the 2019 Sports Illustrated Sports Kid of the Year and was a four-time United Soccer Coaches’ All-America selection.
When 2020 rolled around, Sentnor was solidly in the mix for that next U-17 World Cup cycle.
After she played well in two excellent wins over England in February of that year and had her sights set on making the squad that would compete in Concacaf qualifying in April, the global pandemic hit in March. The Concacaf tournament was postponed multiple times and eventually cancelled, as was the U-17 Women’s World Cup itself.
“That was really tough,” Sentnor said. “I felt super defeated. I had put in all the work and after getting cut from the previous cycle, I felt like I was going to be part of that 2020 team. In a sense, I felt like all my work didn’t have a payoff, but I knew COVID wasn’t going to last forever. I know that we would get on the field again, but that we would sort of have to start over.”
Sentnor was now oh-for-two on Concacaf tournaments. Her next opportunity to make a qualifying roster would be at the Under-20 level.
A perennial high-achiever, Sentnor graduated a year early from high school in 2021 to attend the University of North Carolina. She went into that 2021 fall college season feeling good about her game and full of high hopes for the future. Then, disaster struck. On Aug. 9, just 10 minutes into her first game with the Tar Heels – a preseason exhibition – she tore her ACL.
“That was devasting, I had put in so much work over the summer and with boys’ team, and I was so focused on college, so to get hurt in that first game, I felt like my world had fallen apart,” she said. “Seeing all my friends and teammates playing was tough, but when I look back, I got so much out of that situation, and I think it was important for my growth as a person and player. I learned about being a great teammate and doing the best I could to be supportive of everyone. I think I’ve been able to bring those qualities into this age group and to this U-20 team in a leadership role. So, there are so some major blessings in that.”
The injury also meant that she would miss out on yet another Concacaf World Cup qualifying tournament – oh-for-three! – but the World Cup was scheduled for August of 2022, a year away.
Sentnor got back to work. She credits her physical therapist at home – Julie Hubbard, a former soccer player at Penn State and UConn – for tremendous support with both her knee rehab and also her mental focus, and UNC’s athletic training staff for moving her along at a good pace in the process.
She waited a full nine months after the injury before jumping back into full play, and as fate would have it, she had built up enough cachet from her past YNT performances and her positivity as a person that U.S. U-20 head coach Tracey Kevins invited her to the final camp before the 2022 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup roster was chosen. It was a trip to France to play France, Mexico and Netherlands. Sentnor had one last chance.
“We knew that she was fully recovered from her ACL and we knew that she was really stretching herself to find opportunities to play games,” said Kevins, who will also lead the USA in this year’s qualifying tournament. “We knew the work that she had put in post-injury, the form that she was in, and we knew then what she could produce for us. She earned that opportunity to go to France.”
Sentnor was all set for the trip when the international flights for her and six other players were cancelled. Those seven players eventually made it to France four days later than the rest of the squad. The USA’s sports science staff rightly decided that the late-arriving players required additional recovery time from travel and shouldn’t play in the first match. Heading into the France trip, Sentnor had played in a few games – here first ones since the injury -- driving to New York to play against NJ/NY Gotham FC in a scrimmage with DUSC, an WPSL team, and in a scrimmage with boys. Now she would have two games at the most to prove herself World Cup roster worthy.
“Honestly, I was freaking out,” said Sentnor. “I had two games to show myself and all these players had been in the whole cycle and at qualifying? Yikes.”
She got the start against Mexico in the second game and played 60 minutes. It was her first game back after one of the most serious injuries a soccer player can suffer. No one expected her to be like her old self….no one except, perhaps, Sentnor.
“I played like crap,” she said. “I wasn’t myself. I didn’t defend like myself. When I got the ball, I just passed it, I didn’t take players on. I told myself, now I’ve GOT to turn it against the on Netherlands.”
She did not get the start against the Netherlands.
“Well, 60 minutes go by, I’m sitting on the bench and I’m still not in the game, and I’m thinking, ’Whoa, I’m cutting this close!’ she said.
She went into the match with about 28 mins left and something clicked. She played very well in the 2-2 draw, took players on, ran hard, and even converted a penalty kick in the shootout.
“I went home and was like, ‘Well, there’s probably not a great chance for me to make this team.’ But I was in a good place. I’d played well against the Netherlands, and I had my college season coming up. I felt good. I was not really stressed about the call from Tracey. Either way, I was going to be able to play soccer in the fall. My rehab took much longer than I thought it would, but at least I was back on the field.”
Sentnor was in the UNC weight room when her iPhone rang. The screen read TRACEY KEVINS. She stepped outside and thought, “Here we go….let’s get this over with.”
Kevins was calling with good news: Sentnor had made the roster for the World Cup in Costa Rica.
“In my mind, I knew I was good enough and I had confidence in myself, but I’d really only been to half a training camp, so I was realistic,” said Sentnor. “I hadn’t even brought my U.S. Soccer polo shirt to UNC, and we all know that’s an essential part of Youth National Team camps. I’m sure Tracey could hear the shock in my voice.”
It was a special moment for Sentnor. After attending so many Youth National Team camps – she’d been in the U.S. Soccer system since the 7th grade and was now entering her sophomore year of college -- she now had her first opportunity to represent the USA in a major tournament.
“Going to camps is one thing, it’s always an honor and privilege, but to put on the crest and play for your country against other countries in a World Cup environment, well, that’s something else entirely,” she said.
The U.S. team did not fare well in Costa Rica and was eliminated after group play, but Sentnor saw action in all three matches despite being one of the younger players on the roster and even achieved the rare and special feat of scoring in a World Cup, that coming against Ghana, in the USA’s first group match.
“From the outside, with me getting called into all these camps, it may have seemed like a smooth ride,” said Sentnor, who by her count is in her 26th U.S. Youth National Team training camp since her start at the U-14 level. “And I have lived this incredible soccer journey with the U.S. teams, but it’s been filled with crazy ups and downs. I’ve had four different coaches, played with every age group, different formations, different tactics, and I’ve been cut a LOT. One lesson I’ve learned is that it may look like a straight path, but it’s not. Far from it. And you know what? That’s ok. I’ve learned so much about soccer and myself and about overcoming adversity.”
When the USA opens World Cup qualifying in the Dominican Republic, Sentnor will be one of the older players on the squad. Named as captain by Kevins along with defender Elise Evans, she’ll also be wearing the armband in her first-ever Concacaf tournament, hoping to lead the USA to the World Cup next year.
“Ally has shown an appreciation for being a good teammate, and being out injured certainly added to that,” said Kevins. “She’s always been a very committed player in terms of what she gives on the field, being demanding and competitive, but now we’re seeing another side of her. She has a better understanding of the human side of the game and what’s it like to miss soccer. Now, she wants to make sure others don’t miss those opportunities and that they enjoy the ones they do get.”
“One thing I’ve really learned is that you have to cherish the journey rather than put all your emphasis on the outcome,” said Sentnor. “You can’t be stressed about the day-to-day, you have to buy into the whole process. You’re not guaranteed anything in this game. I thought I’d be playing in four World Cups and that’s just not how it turned out. But I believed it, and that’s important because you need to have confidence in yourself.”
What her cherished journey has produced is an experienced, savvy, mature and positive team captain who is brimming with energy to lead her team in what is shaping up to be a highly competitive Concacaf youth qualifying event.
“My goal as one of our team leaders is to share some of that experience and some of those feelings,” she said. “Even if you are an older player on the team, you don’t have it all figured out. You need the help of all the people around you supporting you. Every player is a star in their environment and heck, they are stars here. They are all incredible players but even to be put on a bench full of incredible players doesn’t feel so good. That’s why everyone has a role to play. I think sharing how I’ve dealt with those things and still enjoyed the journey and made it this far is going to help this team.”
Welcome to your first Concacaf tournament, Ally Sentnor!