Sacrifice. The U.S. U-20 women have valiantly embraced this word at a time when their future soccer careers hang in the balance. A select few of these players will go on to represent the full women's national team in the near future, but most will return to their college teams to play out their varsity tenure. For those who graduate early from the U-20s, they'll follow the expedited path of newly crowned alumnae like Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney, Stephanie Lopez and Tobin Heath, who all played in the U-20 World Cup just two years ago and now have Olympic gold medals.
More than any other coach, two-time Women's World Cup winner Tony DiCicco knows how fragile and incredibly vital this age group is to the U.S. Soccer program. In a phone conversation Nov. 10, two days before the team departed for Chile, DiCicco acknowledged how bittersweet it was for many of the U-20 national team members, who had to leave just days before their respective college programs commenced campaigns for the 2008 NCAA College Cup.
On the upside, DiCicco spoke of his confidence in his squad's preparation, cohesiveness and adaptability: "I'm excited to see the personalities emerge. I want to give the players the opportunity to prove themselves -- there are a lot of players who could potentially be part of the 2011 World Cup team."
After a disappointing four-year drought during which the U-20s placed third in Thailand 2004, and fourth in Russia 2006, DiCicco has a talented cast of players with whom to orchestrate a successful run for the 2008 title.
"The strength of this team is our depth," DiCicco said. "Every player can make a difference in the lineup; every player can make the key play to win a game. We have lots of athletic talent this year, and the ability to play a number of different ways. To the team's [credit], we've played with consistency."
|U.S. U-20 schedule|
U.S. vs. China
Estadio German Becker, Temuco, Chile
2 p.m. ET, ESPN360.com
Here's a look at the key players on the U-20 squad:
Penn State first-team All-American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher stands 5-foot-8 and has captured the team's No. 1 keeper spot by virtue of her superlative hands and exceptional anticipation. "If Alyssa has a good tournament, we will be difficult to beat. She's one of the best in the world in her age group -- if she is on her game and confident, she will make the U.S. a better team," DiCicco said.
Minnesota's Cat Parkhill and Virginia's Chantel Jones are also quality options for DiCicco to substitute for Naeher between the posts.
Led by the tandem of captain Nikki Marshall (Colorado), who plays center back, and Meghan Klingenberg (North Carolina) on the left flank, DiCicco has plenty of options for his defensive unit. Marshall, who plays forward for Colorado, has exceptional speed and the tools to score as the rare offensive defender. Notre Dame's Lauren Fowlkes and Wake Forest's Kaley Fountain also have the goods to contribute to the U.S.'s shutout efforts. However, the back line will be sorely challenged by the brilliant array of international goal-scorers, and will likely be most susceptible to their South American and Asian opponents, whom they have yet to face in 2008.
Perhaps the iron-women area of the field, the center of the park is patrolled by two superbly experienced and versatile players in Keelin Winters (Portland) and Becky Edwards (Florida State). "Winters is another dangerous player," DiCicco said. "She can score goals; she's a very smart player, skilled from the midfield -- a lot of our play will go through her. Same with Becky Edwards: an excellent player who will be our quarterback in the game. She's an important player to us, and also a leader." Ingrid Wells (Georgetown), Gina DiMartino (Boston College) and Elli Reed (Portland) can be slotted in to any number of positions, and DiCicco will rely on them heavily for their creative firepower.
Nikki Washington, who plays forward for North Carolina, has found another home for her rocket foot on the wings of the U-20 national team. "She is a wide player; she can score and create goals. She's a take-on kind of player," DiCicco said. The attack claims bragging rights to one of the most prolific goal-scorers (10 goals) and decorated players on the U-20s: Michelle Enyeart (Portland). She leads a pack of gifted strikers that includes Alex Morgan (Cal) and Sydney Leroux (UCLA), the only member of the team with prior World Cup experience (she represented Canada in 2004 as the youngest player in the tournament at 14).
Despite the challenges that lay ahead, DiCicco will be holding his squad to golden standards. With the U-17 girls headed for the New Zealand World Cup final Nov. 15, it looks like it'll be up to the U-20 women to finish out an American sweep of world championships in 2008. Now wouldn't that be something?
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.