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Best of friends

Their acquaintance was made more than a decade ago, back when the two were preteens learning the rigors of their first Olympic Development Program camp. Both had been singled out from the array of talented players to practice with an older team at the Midwest regional camp in DeKalb, Ill. Intimidated, and unsure of the process, Leslie Osborne and Lindsay Tarpley stayed close.

"It was all new to us," Tarpley recalls. "We were both younger, and we both kind of just stuck by each other and helped each other get through it."

Neither girl could have foreseen that the encounter would one day be told and retold to others. But each knew she had found an ally.

The next few years, they learned more about each other as they continued to play on the regional team, then the U-16 and U-18 national teams. Osborne was the jocular extrovert from Menomonee Falls, Wis., who could chat with strangers easily and was comfortable with crowds. Tarpley, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., was quieter, had trouble staying still and was fiercely competitive. As a pair, they seemed to hit a balance where Osborne could get Tarpley out of her shell and Tarpley had a way of calming Osborne.

When they weren't practicing together, they were rivals on their respective club and state teams. Tarpley was a star for the Michigan Hawks, and Osborne stood out on the Milwaukee Kickers. They grew accustomed to facing off on the field, then greeting each other's family afterward. Frequent phone calls and e-mails filled up the time between practice and games.

When it came time for college, Osborne, four months older than Tarpley and a grade ahead, went west to Santa Clara University. Tarpley thought about doing the same but opted for the University of North Carolina. They remained tight despite the expanse, talking long distance about relationships as much as soccer. When Tarpley helped her team to a Division I title in 2003, Osborne was just as excited as when her own team had won in 2001. And in 2004, when the Broncos knocked out the Tar Heels in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Tarpley wished only the best for Osborne.

"I remember thinking, if we're gonna lose, I want them to win it all," Tarpley says. "As disappointed as I was to lose and as upset as I was, it still felt OK, because they were going on."

This kind of unfailing support came easily since Tarpley and Osborne were still teammates, playing on the U-19 and U-21 teams during college. In 2002, they made history by bringing home the inaugural FIFA U-19 World Championship title.

"That's probably our favorite memory," Osborne says. "[Lindsay] scored the winning goal, and that moment -- spending two years of our lives training together for that -- was awesome."

But they also bonded from experiencing adversity as athletes. When Tarpley had to miss her senior prom because she was training with the national team, and when she was suspended by the state of Michigan for missing so much school, Osborne could relate. And when Osborne dealt with hardships such as having to undergo reconstructive surgery on her right ankle and just barely missing the cut for the 2004 Olympic team, it was Tarpley who empathized.

"I've spent more time with her and gone through more things with her than I have a lot of people in my life, on and off the field," Osborne says. "Injuries, relationships, family -- we've been there and seen each other go through a lot."

Osborne's father, John, was witness to what the camaraderie offered. "It was really important because they were on this relatively large stage at a very early age," he says. "Having each other to lean on and having a similar set of circumstances and a very competitive environment -- you're in uncharted water for yourself, and to have somebody else you trust, somebody that you respect, I think [that's] huge."

"They went through all those really important stages you go through in middle school, high school and college," says Tarpley's mother, Barb. "They really drew on each other."

It's the kind of relationship Tracey Leone, 38, has had with former U.S. national team coach April Heinrichs for more than 20 years. Now a volunteer coach at Arizona State, Leone coached Osborne and Tarpley on the U-19 team and noticed a dynamic that reminded her of her own college and national team days when she played with Heinrichs.

"It's a little bit reminiscent of my and April's friendship," she says. "They have like a sixth sense of where each other is on the field, and they feed off of each other's leadership. You can tell their friendship is very deep. I was fortunate enough to have that, too. You're really lucky if you can rely on that and you can have that as a part of your life."

Now Osborne and Tarpley are both 23 years old and playing for the U.S. women's full national team. Coach Greg Ryan is very cognizant of the way the duo harmonizes.

"Leslie's strengths are winning balls in the air and her defending presence in the midfield," Ryan says. "Tarpley is more of an attacking midfield player. She's a very good goal scorer, running out of the midfield, making runs through the defense, and she always seems to find ways to score goals in big games. So they're actually a great pair of midfielders. You need different types, and their strengths complement one another quite well."

For now, Tarpley is a starting player -- and has contributed goals in major games, including at the recent Algarve Cup -- while Osborne is a spark off the bench.

"My role's definitely different than hers, but she helps me when I'm struggling with it and I think I help her when she's struggling," Osborne says. "I don't play that much, and so when I do come out and she's on the field, it helps me just knowing she believes in me. I feel her confidence rubbing off on me, so it really helps."

And when Tarpley comes off the field, the first thing she wants to hear is an assessment from her friend. "I look to Les to see what she thinks, and I respect what she has to say. I always try to implement what she says to me and try to change."

The twosome believes, however, that it's more than team spirit and a love of the game that unites them. It also has something to do with those Midwestern accents.

"The way we grew up in the Midwest, I think, has helped us [deal with] all these situations that we've been in with this team," Osborne says. "I think being from the Midwest you really do have a certain friendliness and you are nice to people. We have similar traditions and values: We like being at home, [and] we're really close to our families."

When their national team gig eventually comes to a close, neither one is sure what the future will hold. Tarpley recently got engaged and is contemplating a career in coaching. Osborne hopes to put her communications degree to good use.

Whatever happens, they doubt they'll be too far apart. "It's crazy to think about and look at how much we've been through," Tarpley says, "and hopefully how much we have to look forward to."

Corina Knoll is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She can be reached at corinaknoll@mac.com.