U-17 women storm through CONCACAF tourney
She travels a minimum of 6,000 miles a month, lugging a week's worth of homework and several years of expectations on her shoulders. The glossy new driver's license in her wallet is practically negligible because she's got a different set of a wheels -- the kind that earned her a spot in the elite, still-pigtailed ranks of women's soccer.
A new American Girl story is in the making. Not yet women, the members of the U-17 national team possess an adroitness and tactical acumen beyond their years. The "girls" who take the field are mostly in the 5-foot-7 range and still growing. Broad shoulders and 50-yard goal kicks are right at home in a sea of gleaming braces.
Before heading to Macoya, Trinidad, for the recent CONCACAF U-17 Championship to secure one of the last berths in the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, head coach Kazbek Tambi gathered his young protégés away from the big lights of New York City. The girls battled for the final 18 spots during a 100-degree heat wave at Robert L. McNulty Memorial Field, home of Division II New Jersey City University Knights, in a weeklong training session held June 6-13. The team usually trains in Sunrise, Fla., but Tambi switched it up to give the girls the opportunity to play against Northeast competition and catch U.S.-Argentina live at Giants Stadium.
"Kaz wanted us to watch [the U.S. men] because that's how he wants us to become, like guys -- in a good way, though," giggled Kristen Mewis, the team's starting midfielder.
Tambi underscored the reason behind the team's attendance at the game: "We wanted them to see the intensity. It was a friendly game, but there was such a high level of intensity out there. We want our kids to come out every single day with that same kind of intensity."
Coach's words hit home, as the U-17 team went into CONCACAF group play with white-hot fire, knocking opponents clear off the pitch. The lopsided scores the U.S. girls left in their wake demonstrated the kind of zealous goal-scoring one finds in pee-wee soccer matches: 6-0 against Costa Rica, 9-0 over El Salvador and 9-1 against tournament host Trinidad & Tobago.
In Group B, heavily favored Canada took the top spot over Mexico, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
Costa Rica upset Canada 2-0 in the semifinals, preventing an exact re-enactment of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament earlier this year when the senior U.S. women's team toppled Canada after a thrilling penalty kick shootout. Instead, the U.S. U-17s narrowly beat Mexico 1-0 in the semifinals and captured the championship with a 4-1 win over Costa Rica.
"I've looked up to all the women that won the World Cup in the past, so I just feel really honored to be able to try and continue on those accomplishments," said Courtney Verloo, the team's leading scorer and the unofficial MVP of the tournament.
The United States, Costa Rica and Canada advance to New Zealand for the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in October, where 16 squads will battle it out for youth supremacy. The Yanks will play in Group C, where they'll face new opponents Japan, Paraguay and France.
From now until the world's greatest stage is erected, the U-17 girls will traverse the invisible field into adulthood.
"On the world stage, you have Germany and North Korea -- probably two of the big names in this age group," Tambi said. "The traditional strong teams in our [CONCACAF] region are Canada and Mexico."
The U-17s are also coming off an impressive showing from the Future Stars Tournament in New Zealand earlier this year, defeating Australia, New Zealand and powerhouse Germany. With the World Cup final roster selection deadline months away, Tambi has to feel good about his 26-player pool, which already boasts some fledgling, soon-to-be heralded players.
"With all these players in our camp, it's hard to say two or three years from now who's going to be the next Mia Hamm," he said. "My hope is that we're going to have several future Mia Hamms in this group."
Or Lindsay Tarpleys and Heather O'Reillys, who broke through the youth ranks to become major contributors for the U.S. women's senior national team. In fact, nearly half of the national team players have been groomed through U.S. youth teams, all the way back to the U-14 identification camps. Tobin Heath, Amy Rodriguez, Rachel Buehler and Lauren Cheney are the latest young guns to boast the U.S. development pedigree. The group has done well to contribute to the stat factory, most recently adding the Olympic team to their growing résumés.
Here's a quick glance at some rising stars for the next FIFA-award-winning cast:
Kristen and Samantha Mewis (midfielders): The Mewis sisters look like the next big 1-2 punch since Hamm and Lilly, except their on-field chemistry is driven by a sibling rivalry. Kristen and Samantha are 18 months apart, even more remarkable given the last U.S. national team duo to suit up at the same time were twins Lorrie and Ronnie Fair, back in 1997. Junior midfielder Kristen, the eldest of the two, has already committed to Boston College, allowing her to remain near her hometown in Hanson, Mass. The Mewis sisters combined for six goals in four games at the CONCACAF tournament.
Julia Roberts (defense/midfielder): Roberts carries her megawatt star name well. An extremely intelligent player, Roberts' versatility has put her smack in the middle of the park, after initially getting called up to the U-17s as a defender. After honing her leadership abilities on a nationally ranked Maryland club team, Roberts has become the organizing presence on the field. Top programs were salivating over the accomplished student-athlete and Maryland Gazette Player of the Year, who has verbally committed to the University of Virginia.
Erika Tymrak (midfielder): The Detroit native has been playing away from home since she was 12. A top player at IMG's Bradenton Academies, Tymrak is practically a young professional. The starting center midfielder can dish it out; she had a breakout tournament with four assists, all against Trinidad & Tobago. When Tymrak doesn't get on the board, she's still creating multiple scoring opportunities with her tireless work ethic and field vision.
Tani Costa (forward): U.S. Soccer has a new Hawaiian striker on the scene, following in the wave swells of Big Island pioneer Natasha Kai. "[Kai is] so good. She's a beast -- I would love to play with her. I have her number, we talked before camp," said Costa, who scored four goals in the CONCACAF tournament, two of which came in the championship game. But one thing that stands out about Costa aside from her 5-8 Kai-esque physical presence is her commitment to the team; the 24-hour round-trip flights that come with training camps have become routine for this young jet-setter. Costa doesn't let it faze her -- she'll be trading her surfboard for a Penn State jersey, after verbally committing for the fall of 2009.
Victoria DiMartino (forward): If there was ever a pure American soccer family, the DiMartinos are it. The youngest of three nationally accomplished sisters, Vicki is paving her own way on the U-17 scene. She credits backyard pickup games with Christina, a UCLA forward and U-23 member, and Gina, a Boston College striker and recent addition to the U-20s for her creative playmaking. At the rate she's going, Vicki will have a World Cup under her belt before older sisters Gina and Tina -- and that backyard rivalry just might get even more heated.
Courtney Verloo (forward): The rare Northwest soccer star is arguably the best player in Oregon, winning the state's Gatorade Girl's Soccer Player of the Year the second year in a row as a junior. Entering her senior year of high school, Verloo is a pure striker with top-level finishing abilities, speed and strength. Verloo put in a tournament-leading performance with six goals and four assists. Her flair on the field drew high praises from her coaches and designates her as a player to watch.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.