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Dec 28, 2008

U.S. U-20 women eye future with senior squad

For the American women, the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Chile turned out to be such stuff as dreams are made of. But as much of a fairy tale as the World Cup played out to be, there were also some real stories behind the success of Tony DiCicco's young squad.

It started with a group of players willing to sacrifice college seasons and NCAA glory. It started with a team determined to bring back a U-20 World Cup trophy that hadn't touched U.S. soil for six years. It started with a celebrated former U.S. senior women's national team coach.

The 2008 U-20 FIFA Women's World Cup championship title began with all this -- and more.

"I think Tony was a huge factor in guiding us to a World Cup victory," captain Keelin Winters said in an e-mail. "He knew coming into this tournament what it takes to be a world champion. [Tony] helped build our team chemistry, which is definitely one of the reasons why we won the World Cup."

As much as DiCicco played his part in shaping an extremely talented group of youngsters, he also acknowledged the sheer talent and drive of his protégées, citing this tournament as "one of his greatest coaching challenges" -- with a huge emotional payoff.

"This championship was extra-sweet because we didn't win our region [against Canada]," DiCicco said in a phone call from Florida, where he was scouting the WPS combine as head coach of the Boston Breakers. "Six, maybe seven teams could have won the tournament. We were fortunate to have won the gold medal -- there were a lot of good teams, so that added to the quality of the tournament."

Despite posting close to a perfect score sheet over the course of six games, the U.S. women stumbled against China in the final leg of group play. The 2-0 score might have turned out a bit differently if DiCicco hadn't drastically altered his lineup, giving seven starters a rest in what proved to be to be more of a shakeup than he expected.

Ironically, the squad benefited not only from the jolt of the defeat going into the quarterfinals against England, but also from sharing the wealth of playing minutes with defender Elli Reed and midfielder Christine Nairn -- both of whom came off the bench to play key roles.

"I think our players felt that every one of those games was at a higher level than a college game, because there were different challenges each team presented," DiCicco said. "From a player-development standpoint, [it was] a wonderful opportunity to prepare our players."

Golden Ball and Golden Shoe winner Sydney Leroux was a striking example of one player who grabbed opportunity by the horns. According to DiCicco, Michelle Enyeart, who was the team's starting forward and leading scorer at the time, came into the tournament with a concussion. Knowing she wasn't 100 percent, DiCicco decided to give Leroux a shot and sideline Enyeart as a reserve. Leroux practically blew up, making an immediate impact on the game with two goals and an assist to propel the United States over France 3-0 in the World Cup opener.

Things didn't just click for Leroux -- she made connections all over the field.

"At one point during this past year, Becky and I were kind of battling for a starting position," starting midfielder Winters said. "But then Tony decided to play us together and see how it worked. Lucky for us, we were able to really connect and work together. Both of us are 'ball winners' which I think was definitely one of our strengths at the World Cup. I think one of the things that made us so successful in the midfield was the fact that we had plenty of options."

Defenders Lauren Fowlkes and Nikki Marshall also proved to be an unbeatable tandem in the backfield, as the two, along with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, turned a middling back four into a stellar defense that allowed only three goals all tournament. Citing the semifinal game against Germany as the Americans' best overall effort, DiCicco pointed out that the U.S. defense prevented an offense-driven Germany from getting any close-range shots off in the first half.

Apparently, the U.S. also might have earned a jump-start on the intimidation factor, as the two sides met in an unconventional setting. "There some strange things, like before the semifinal game, the hotel that Germany and the United States team were staying was not a traditional hotel," DiCicco said. "It was kind of like a -- well let me put it this way, there was a pool in between two banks of the apartments. On the right were the Americans, and on the left were the Germans, and we were staring across the pool at each other for about two and a half days."

But DiCicco acknowledged the South America staredown was respectful, which later became apparent in the two squads' joint celebration at a local restaurant in Chile after the U.S. won the gold medal (and the Germans won the bronze).

If there was one thing the U-20 women set out to do, aside from making German friends, it was a common determination to bring home the last (and the only) of the three Women's World Cup titles for this current cycle. "We definitely wanted to make a statement to the world," Winters said. "We wanted the world to know that the U.S. is still one of the top teams in the world, and still producing some of the best players in the world."

Winters, who will be a junior at the University of Portland next season, has never played on a national team until now. Speaking of her confidence in the USSF youth program as setting the competitive standard, Winters also noted: "When I was younger I knew there was something more to strive for -- a youth national team."

Even with a newly appointed Women's World Cup title, a youthful ideal may not be enough. The women's U-20 program has long suffered from a lack of consistent coaching -- and unfortunately, DiCicco, who is stepping down from the U-20 head coach position, will be the latest in a long line of truncated coaching shifts.

Because of contractual WPS coaching duties, DiCicco's focus will turn to the 2009 inaugural WPS opener. Even with the small window imposed by restrictions on age and the short two-year cycle of the U-20s -- a program inherently in flux -- U.S. Soccer needs to institute a longstanding coach who might provide some semblance of continuity for such a critical age group. With a replacement search already under way for the head coach spot, the U.S. Soccer youth program will also soon be casting a wide net for new U-20 recruits and, ultimately, an entirely new team. Only Sydney Leroux, Christine Nairn and Cat Parkhill will be eligible for the next World Cup in Germany in 2010. On the brighter side, expect to start seeing some familiar U-20 faces show up in the senior national team camps.

Until then, for all the magic of the U-20 World Cup, one story's global ending is another's local beginning: "I, along with my Portland teammates Elli Reed and Michelle Enyeart, now know exactly what it takes to be champions," Winters said. "We have won a World Championship, but now we want to win a national championship with our team at Portland."

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 soccerdols@gmail.com.

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