SHANGHAI, China -- The dream of playing in a World Cup usually goes hand in hand with the dream of representing your country. For American Tina Ellertson, pursuing either goal meant running the risk of placing the other permanently out of reach.
The daughter of a Nigerian mother and a Ghanaian father who grew up a few hours south of Seattle, Ellerston will suit up for the United States when it faces Nigeria Tuesday in Shanghai in each team's final game of pool play. Now the top defender off the bench for coach Greg Ryan after breaking through with a strong year in 2006, Ellertson is both a versatile option in the present and a potential star for the future.
But if not for an overloaded schedule in the past, she might have been on the other bench in Shanghai with Nigeria or awaiting a game against Norway with Ghana.
Preparing for her junior season at the University of Washington, Ellertson -- then known by her maiden name of Frimpong -- was approached by Ghana about teaming with her twin sister Crystal, then a rising senior at Florida, to play for their father's homeland in the 2003 World Cup. By virtue of her parents, she was eligible to play for any of Ghana, Nigeria or the United States.
All of a sudden, a chance to play on the game's ultimate stage was put in direct competition with a lifelong dream to play for the country in which she was born, but a country in which she had yet to appear on the radar of the youth national scene.
"I know that growing up, every girl wants to play on that U.S. national team," Ellertson said. "Seeing [Kristine Lilly] make that header in the '99 World Cup? I mean, come on! So I always had that dream, but at that time I was really just focusing on what I had at hand."
Precisely what she had at hand in the summer of 2003, in addition to her studies and soccer obligations at Washington, was daughter Mackenzie, then two years old. Originally signed by Santa Clara out of high school, Ellertson left the school before classes started her freshman year after finding out she was pregnant. After having MacKenzie, she enrolled at Washington to be closer to her support network at home and soon returned to the soccer field, leading the Huskies in goals in her first season.
Far from curtailing her soccer career, becoming a mother ultimately helped Ellertson focus in on pursuing that old dream of playing for the United States.
"I think she just really grounded me and made me really focus on school, soccer -- doing everything now just for her and doing everything to be an example for her," Ellerton said. "And if you set your goals and set your dreams, you can attain it, you can go after it, and don't let anything hold you down or hold you back. She just grew me up a little bit and really made me focus and go after my dreams with everything I have, because I want to show her the best."
All of which led to her passing up the opportunity to play for Ghana in the World Cup.
"My sister was having her senior season," Ellertson said. "And I was having MacKenzie, going to college and playing at that level, so I was like, 'I don't know if I can do it, sis.'
"And thank God we made that decision, thank God we decided not to, or then I wouldn't be here."
Not that the happy ending immediately fell into place. When Ellertson passed on Ghana's offer, she had scored a total of 14 goals in two seasons for Washington and hadn't played a game for any of the youth national teams that serve as a pipeline to the senior national team. But after winning Pac-10 Player of the Year in each of her final two seasons with the Huskies, totaling 29 goals as one of the nation's fastest forwards, and playing for the Under-21 national team in 2004, she caught the eye of Ryan's coaching staff.
Only they weren't looking at the prolific striker for her goals.
To make her case for a spot on the national team, Ellertson had to move from forward to defense, where her speed provided the raw ingredient around which defensive skills could be refined. And while she joked that her dad, still a youth coach in Washington and her official and unofficial coach throughout life, probably still hasn't entirely gotten over her move out of the goal-scoring spotlight, she loved the new position.
"I think what I love about defense is it just brought out a different player in me," Ellertson said. "It brought out the fight, the tenacious mentality that as a forward sometimes you don't have to have. The [forward] mentality is finesse, putting it in the back of the net, stuff like that. But at least on this team, [defense] is about being tough and being hard and making big tackles and making big plays."
And so four years after passing up what might have been the opportunity of a lifetime, Ellertson has earned the chance she wanted all along. With Mackenzie, who is more excited about coming to China than starting first grade, in the stands, Ellerton will enter the stadium for the United States in a game against her mother's native land.
A child of the United States who was raised with the traditions and values of both her home and her mother's home in that quintessentially American amalgamation, she hopes to pass along that sense of pride and diversity to her own daughter -- not to mention the recipe for fufu, the traditional Nigerian dish that Mackenzie begs her grandmother to make.
"I know it's hard for my mom and my dad," Ellertson laughed. "I know my mom is going to be having both flags. She says, 'I'm going to be cheering both of you guys on but know I'm cheering your team on.' But she has that pride for Nigeria, and she wants to show that as well."
Ellertson is proud of her background, but the choice between playing for her country and playing in the World Cup was never really a choice at all.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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|U.S. vs. Nigeria
Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China
8 a.m. ET, ESPN