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Apr 24, 2008

Fortune stars for Brazil U-20s

Marta has a new protégé who can dance with the ball: a green-eyed blonde with freckled skin as bright as her smile. Her name is Leah Lynn Gabriela Fortune, and she's an American teenager raised in the Chicago 'burbs.

But Leah, or as the Brazilians call her, "Lay-uh," was practically milk-fed on "joga bonito" -- the beautiful game. She was born in San Paulo, Brazil to American parents, so it was only natural that Leah Fortune would subliminally absorb the game before she learned to walk. She has the futbol bloodline too, with a Brazilian grandmother and a father who was raised in the Amazon as a missionary child. Even if Leah hasn't learned to speak Portuguese fluently yet, she reflects a new generation of transnational soccer players in the United States. There's Tina Ellertson, who plays for the women's national team but could have played for Ghana or Nigeria; Jozy Altidore, who could have represented Haiti; and Giuseppe Rossi, who recently decided to play for Italy over the U.S. after coming of age.

"My whole family is crazy about soccer," said Fortune. "My dad introduced me to the game. He played when he was a teenager, and my mother owns a soccer complex. I was born into the game -- I just love it."

Apparently, the love is mutual. For the first time in her life, Leah finds herself signing autographs and staving off excited Brazilian fans like a regular Beckham-ess. Turns out dual citizenship is a blessing in disguise: Leah can play with one foot in each continent, straddling playing time between her club, Team Chicago, and the U-20 Brazilian national team. However, all bets are off once Leah turns 21, when she'll have to commit exclusively to USA or Brazil.

But for now, as the youngest player on the team at 17, Fortune is taking full advantage of the opportunities that come with a starting role for Brazil. That includes owning a trick the Brazilians had never seen before -- a flip throw-in in which she levitates the ball into the box with her hands. "Leah Cambalhota Mortal" was the headline streaming across Brazilian televisions and newspapers during the CONMEBOL South American U-20 championships this past March.

"The Mortal Somersault" even earned time on Brazil's "SportsCenter" highlight reel following the U-20's win over Argentina. The cambalhota is a front handspring from the sidelines that slings the ball into a box teeming with targets. Fortune's flip allows her to hone in on a roving player -- a move that can turn the game on its head. After a year of gymnastics as a child, she transferred the skill to soccer and has been executing the flip throw since she was 9. The closest thing to a corner kick, the cambalhota leaves most defenders slack-jawed at the sight of a throw-in with 20 extra yards of firepower.

In her second game in the CONMEBOL, Leah connected with forward Pamela on a flip throw for the team's first header goal in a 5-0 rout of Paraguay. "The Brazilians had never seen anything before like it, so they were going nuts. The crowd loved it," said Leah. Her father and Team Chicago program director, Hudson Fortune, was also on hand to see the games. "Every time Leah had an opportunity for a throw-in, the crowd would stand and chant her name in hopes she would do a flip throw. The Brazilians play beautiful soccer, and it was exciting to see Leah fit in and be a key part of the team." The elder Fortune captained the Indiana University soccer team in the late seventies and also played for two teams in the NASL and MISL leagues, both now defunct. He is also responsible for instituting the adjunct Team Chicago Brasil, emphasizing cultural exchange between his players.

The youngest of three girls, all of whom boast the Fortune soccer pedigree, Leah has made a name for herself, guided by her faith and passion for the game. "Her father, Hudson, has coached and developed national-caliber players for years, over 12 playing for three different countries," said Leah's mother. "To finally have one of them as his own daughter is amazing."

But for all the flash and dazzle of Fortune's cambalhota, even Brazilians recognize talent when they see it. While traveling last year with her region II ODP team in Brazil, Fortune was recruited by a national team coach who was aware of her citizenship status. A tryout in Brazil, a two-month-long training camp, a starting job and minor celebrity followed. To start, Leah isn't even playing her natural position, which is forward. Head coach Kleiton Lima designated her as a "lateral" for the U-20 team, the Brazilians' equivalent of left midfielder, or attacking flank defender. "You are the last defender, but our job is to attack and get in the box and cross the ball in as well," explained Fortune, who credits Lima for helping her transition into the new position.

As for the communication barrier? Leah dismissed it as a minor hiccup, saying, "I became really close with the girls. They were all really supportive and encouraging. They helped me speak Portuguese and taught me a lot. We all had the same goal, and we built very strong relationships. They're very happy and passionate about the game as am I -- so we shared that in common."

With a 30-goal surplus against opponents over the course of seven games, Leah and her teammates stormed through the CONMEBOL Tournament as if every game was a carnival. Following in the big footsteps of her idols, Marta and Kaká, Fortune and her teammates will travel to the U-20 World Cup in Chile, which will be staged Nov. 20 to Dec. 7.

In the meantime, the savvy junior will bring her newly acquired Brazilian samba, or jinga, to her Wheaton Academy high school team and Team Chicago crew in between training camps. Fortune recently orally committed to Clemson University, after considering Notre Dame and West Virginia, both top-notch programs. In regard to his new recruit, Tigers' Head Coach Hershey Strosberg wrote via e-mail, "I cannot imagine how tough it is for her to balance school, full-time training, living in Brazil and being away from family and friends. It speaks volumes to her courage and determination."

Just wait till next year, coach -- when you've got Fortune on your side.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.

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