CHICAGO -- Leslie Osborne might be a new face on the United States women's national team, but there are old stories hidden behind a fresh smile.
Osborne is a relative newcomer who already has weathered a career's worth of ups and downs on the soccer field. She's a defensive specialist with a glittering offensive résumé and a penchant for making plays. And she's a likely substitute who will have a starter's impact on how the United States fares in the World Cup.
A walking plot twist, Osborne is just another reason the current women's national team is worthy of standing on the merits of its own stories rather than being measured as the sequel to a blockbuster from eight summers ago.
A 24-year-old midfielder nearly three years removed from the end of a stellar college career at Santa Clara, Osborne is making her first appearance on a World Cup or Olympic roster. And she's not alone. Of the 21 players on U.S. coach Greg Ryan's final roster for the upcoming tournament in China, 12 are making their first appearance in a World Cup. Excluding the inaugural event in 1991, that's a record number of first-time participants for the United States, which won titles in the first event and again in 1999 but lost on home soil to Germany in the semifinals four years ago with a roster still littered with the names made famous on an afternoon in the Rose Bowl in front of 90,185 fans.
A few familiar players remain in key roles, including stalwart midfielder-turned-forward Kristine Lilly in her fifth World Cup appearance, but this year's team is distinctly Ryan's creation. Six of the players on the final roster earned their first cap of any kind with the senior team for him, and while Osborne made her debut a year before he took over, she is as much an example of his hand as anyone.
Four years ago, Osborne was a highly-regarded college player and youth international star coming off her debut with the senior national team and trying to make an impression during residency training before the Olympics in Athens. The overall reception wasn't what she hoped for from a coaching staff sorting through a crowded midfield of holdovers and new arrivals, but she recalled Ryan, added as an assistant after the 2003 World Cup, always was there to pull her aside and offer encouragement and advice.
After being cut from Olympic consideration, Osborne returned to Santa Clara for her senior season and won the Honda Award as the nation's top player in 2004, despite ultimately needing reconstructive surgery on her right ankle after the season. For all that success, her sour experience with the national team left her unsure if she wanted to go back or go across the Atlantic to continue her soccer career.
"It wasn't giving up the game; it was not knowing if I wanted to play for this U.S. team," Osborne said of her prospects following college. "I was going to go to Europe and play, so I knew I was going to play, but it was whether or not I was going to play here. It was just a tough time for me ... I love this game, and I'd be playing wherever I could right now, but sometimes the experiences you have -- I felt like I didn't know if I wanted to do it again."
But while she was recuperating from surgery, Ryan took over as head coach of the national team. He had called Osborne before and after the surgery, urging her not to give up on that avenue, and his promotion sealed the deal in her mind.
She played just two games with the national team in 2005 while coming back from surgery (the team itself played just nine games that year) but gained valuable practice time. And when Shannon Boxx, regarded by many as the best holding midfielder in the world, went down with a knee injury early in 2006, Osborne found herself starting throughout the team's run to World Cup qualification in the Gold Cup. She not only held down the fort for Boxx, she played well enough to warn consideration as the team MVP.
Asked how she would describe the duties of a holding midfielder to those casual fans who might tune in to soccer only for major events like the World Cup and who were raised to believe holding and football only add up to a 10-yard loss and replaying the down, Osborne sounded a little like the Favre-loving cheesehead that her accent still betrays her to be, years after leaving Wisconsin for the soccer climes of California.
"It's being a quarterback," Osborne explained. "They're responsible for possession, switching the point of attack, winning tackles, winning headers -- they see the field. Besides the defenders, you're the focal point. You get the ball and you create the offense or you keep the ball. Being a holding midfielder -- especially at Santa Clara, too -- you have a very significant role. That's what is great about this position is you have responsibility offensively and defensively. You need to be vocal; there is a lot of responsibility to it, let's just put it that way."
Osborne scored 44 goals in college and has two with the national team, but she knows her role is largely defense first.
"That's our main job," Osborne said. "And I like to keep possession, too, so I get to try and do a little bit of both, and that's where [Boxx and Osborne's] styles are different. But my job is to not let that ball in the back of the net, so I'm going to do anything to keep that ball out of the back of the net. And I credit Shannon for helping me a lot and helping me with the confidence to be in that position while she was gone."
With Boxx back at full strength after returning this spring, Osborne has been a part-time starter during the summer domestic schedule. But Ryan isn't ignoring the fact that he just might have the world's second-best defensive midfielder in his midst.
"She's handled it very well," Ryan said of Osborne's role in the rotation. "In fact, against Norway [on July 14], we played Leslie in the starting position the whole game and didn't even bring Boxx on, because we had a specific role that we felt Leslie was best suited to, which was shutting down one of Norway's top midfielders and players, [Solveig] Gulbrandsen.
"So Leslie knows that she is still a player that we view as a starting player for us. If she's coming off the bench, she's OK with it, and if she's in the starting rotation, she's OK with that."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
|U.S. women's schedule
|U.S. vs. North Korea,
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN2
U.S. vs. Sweden,
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN
U.S. vs. Nigeria,
Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN