The U.S. U17 Women’s National Team head coach B.J. Snow announced his 21-player roster for the 2016 U17 World Cup earlier this month. Who are the players that made the squad?
Out of the thousands of players eligible for this age group, these 21 players made the roster after a two-year process that included over a dozen camps. While some came into the picture late, others have been there since the start.
TopDrawerSoccer interviewed the current club coaches for nearly every player who made the roster with the intention of telling the story of these talented players prior to USA’s first game at the global event on Oct. 1.
Featured in the first part of the series are goalkeepers Laurel Ivory and Meagan McClelland as well as forward Lia Godfrey and midfielder Alexa Spaanstra. Check back throughout the week for more features on the U.S. U17 Women’s World Cup roster.
There was a point in time when Meagan McClelland wasn’t even good enough for the first team at her club in her age group. Now, she is one of the three best goalkeepers in the U.S.’s talent-rich player pool for the U17 Women’s National Team.
McClelland’s story is one of determination, commitment, and mental toughness. The 16-year-old from Kearney, New Jersey found her club very early on, and she never left depsite the hurdles she faced to get to this point.
“She came to PDA when she was eight,” PDA Gunners coach Nick Heinemann told TopDrawerSoccer. “She played every position except goalie during her first few years at the club. She was the leading scorer too. At U12, she started playing goalkeeper.”
McClelland told TheObserver that it was a Secret Santa gift of goalkeeper gloves that set her down the path to that position.
She was quite the goalkeeper early on as well, but she did not have the size of some of her teammates. As McClelland’s club team, PDA Gunners, succeed, she began to face greater competition for her spot at goalkeeper.
“At the U13, she was cut from Gunners and moved to the second team at PDA,” Heinemann said.
The conversation happened while the team was at the 2013 U.S. Club National Championship in Aurora, Colo. It was not a planned conversation. PDA’s coaches assessed the roster for the next season and realized that McClelland was likely the third keeper for next year’s team, which meant she was going to be sent down to the second team.
On the cusp of winning a national championship, McClelland was being told she wouldn’t be with this team next season. McClelland, to her credit, responded with a determination that revealed her character. She decided then and there that she was going to improve in every way possible so she could earn her spot back on the first team.
“She was walking around the hotel with ankle weights on,” Heinemann said. “She dropped down to the second team for the following season and did just what she said she was going to do. She impressed us so much and she earned her spot back with the Gunners.”
As the only keeper on the second team, McClelland received those extra repetitions in goal, which helped refine her game over the course of the season. Midway through the season, the coaches realized that if she grew a bit, they would have a tremendous keeper in McClelland.
“We look at the mental side of it,” Heinemann said about the strengths of the goalkeeper. “We realized how strong of a person she is. Not many kids have the mental toughness to come back and do it again. The strong will ones are the ones that make it.”
There was no wallowing in McClelland’s approach. She came back to Gunners and did better than anyone could ever imagine. Last season, she completed the ECNL campaign without giving up a goal until the playoffs.
Her standout play at the club level helped her land a spot on the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team for a camp in August. She did enough there to secure one of the last spots on the World Cup roster. After all, there is no holding McClelland back once she has her mind set on a goal.
“She has been level headed and hard working,” Heinemann said about the goalkeeper since the time with the national team. “She has never been a spoiled kid. She realized how hard she worked for everything and kept that mentality. She has become more of a leader of the team.”
From the second team at her club to making the World Cup roster, McClelland is proving that mental toughness is an invaluable asset for any player.
Laurel Ivory, Goalkeeper, West Florida Flames
Laurel Ivory is among the best goalkeepers in club soccer, yet she continues to get better. She joined the U.S. U17 WNT midway through the process and has been a mainstay with the team ever since.
She’s a relative recent arrival at her club, West Florida Flames, but she has made a big impact there and a large jump in her national profile since arriving there.
Ivory joined West Florida Flames in 2014, the club’s ECNL Director Jorge ‘Yoyo’ Zavala told TopDrawerSoccer.
“Before joining our club we saw Laurel Ivory at an ODP trial event during a training session and saw that she had the potential to make it to the next level,” Zavala said. “Her athletic ability was tremendous. She was quick and agile with great hands. We could see that she needed some more technical work and her playing environment needed to be more challenging.”
“As she continued through the season we had her attend an ID event where she was selected as one of the top GK’s,” Zavala said. “When she went onto the National Event it was at that moment you could see she had separated herself as a GK from others and was ready to take the next step onto the National Team.”
It did not take long for the West Florida coaching staff to realize Ivory could be special.
“We saw it in her first season game playing one of the top teams in the country,” Zavala replied when asked when he realized she had national team potential. “She had five different moments in the game that were significant difference-makers and an impact to the game not just from the saves but her communication, distribution, and overall presence in goal. She was miles ahead of any goalkeeper we had ever seen before at out club.”
Ivory’s first camp with the U.S. U17 WNT was in Sept. of 2015. Her growth and development since then has made her the only goalkeeper to be a part of every camp since then.
“She has become much more of a leader,” Zavala said when asked what differences he noticed in her game since joining the national team. “She is a commanding presence in the back. She is a consistent leader throughout the match and gives her teammates confidence and belief that they are capable of competing with anyone at any level. She makes players around her better by demanding more from her teammates.”
Tasked with helping one of the best goalkeepers in club soccer reach the next plateau, Zavala and his staff have focused on the environment at the club.
“Create an environment that is always competitive, positive, and provides more leadership opportunities while holding her accountable for not being the standard of excellence on and off the pitch but always keeping the environment fun with a positive relationship,” Zavala said.
Lia Godfrey, Forward, Jacksonville FC/Clay County Soccer Club
Lia Godfrey is another late arrival to the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team. Her first camp was in July of 2016, but that might have been on purpose.
Godfrey is the youngest player on the team. She was born in November of 2001. The 14-year-old combined a hungry appetite for the game along with a bit of luck. Godfrey’s coach since she has been five years old has been Luis Torres, the Director of Coaching at Clay County Soccer Club and U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Morgan Brian’s former coach.
“Godfrey joined my club at five,” Torres told TopDrawerSoccer. “We took our entire 01 team from Clay County to Jacksonville to help with the ECNL. She has been playing for me for a long time.”
Over that time, Torres has seen a good deal from Godfrey to suggest she could be something special. Even to someone who has coached 11 players who have been with the youth national teams, Godfrey is a bit different.
“I think she was nine years old,” Torres said when asked when he realized that she had national team potential. “I was training Lia with a college player that summer. Lia was doing everything that the college player was doing and then she was outdoing her.”
Godfrey was on the ascension to greatness from the start, it seems. But she holds the characteristic of every player on the U17 Women’s National Team. She wanted to do more. She wanted more than just training with her club team.
Feasting on the process of improvement helped Godfrey separate from the dozens of players who look special at the youngest ages, but tend to fizzle out. Now, she holds a special place as the youngest player on the 2016 U.S. U17 Women’s World Cup roster.
“She is the fastest player I’ve ever coached,” Torres said. “Morgan Brian is different. She had the best soccer brain. Lia is athletically better than anyone I’ve coached. She has the most potential of any of them.”
Torres has been singing the praises of Godfrey for a long time. He told Virginia head coach Steve Swanson that he had the next Morgan Brian as soon as Brian arrived on campus. Godfrey was not even 10 years old at the time.
However, he has also been calculated in his approach. He held her back from certain ID events because she was not mentally mature enough yet.
“I held her back,” Torres said. “She was not emotionally ready. We held her back about nine months.”
Godfrey’s first camp with the U.S. U15 GNT came in June of 2015. She spent a year as the star of that age group before Snow and the U17 WNT came calling.
“I noticed that she is more detailed,” Torres said about the difference in Godfrey since her arrival with the youth national teams. “She is more efficient. She is learning to play between the lines and the seams of the defense.”
Godfrey played as a center midfielder and an attacking midfielder with the U15 GNT. She is going to play out wide with the U17 WNT.
“She played left wing with the U15s and the coaches remarked that she is the best lefty that we have,” Torres said. “She is not left footed though. She is completely balanced and can do everything with either foot.”
It’s difficult to predict the development path, but Godfrey certainly seems to have found the golden road. Her first coach and one of her neighbors since birth was the guiding hand for Morgan Brian, one of the most promising U.S. Women’s National Team players. Godfrey was not given anything though. She earned it with her devotion to the game, and now she looks to make her name in Jordan next month about two years ahead of schedule.
Alexa Spaanstra is one of a few two-sport stars on this World Cup team. Spaanstra is an elite runner as well as a top club soccer player. Her track exploits put her on the national radar before her soccer talents brought into the discussion.
Spaanstra finished third in the 200 meter dash for 10-9 year olds in 2009. She was the only nine year old in the top eight. In typical Alexa Spaanstra fashion, the third place finish was not good enough. She went back the next year and won the event by over a second.
Her love for the track did not dissipate over the years. She is still running strong and picking up honors along the way. Last year, she was named to the county girls track team after her freshman season with Brighton High School. Her high school track coach described Spaanstra as having the heart of a lion and the speed of a cheetah.
“Alexa actually feeds off the competition and performs better the greater the stakes,” Brighton High School Track coach Geri Gree told the Livingston Daily in 2015.
Spaanstra’s club coach Doug Landefeld also noticed the teenager’s ability to raise to the occasion when he began to believe she had national team potential.
“It was at the U13 level when she started scoring goals in big games that we thought she could do something at the next level,” Landefeld told TopDrawerSoccer.
Spaanstra’s knack for thriving in the big moments has made her one of the regulars with the U.S. U17 WNT since the first camp. She has only missed three camps since 2014.
The qualities that have impressed the youth national team coaches have been present since the start with the Michigan Hawks.
“She was always the fastest player and hardest worker in the age group,” Landefeld said about the Brighton, Mich.-native, who joined Hawks at the U11 age group.
Since her arrival with the national team, Spaanstra has only increased her training so she could be ready to go once those big moments come up in games.
“Alexa has always worked hard to get better,” Landefeld said. “With the World Cup coming up, we have seen her putting even more into every workout to make she is ready to help her team. She has always been a great teammate while striving to be the very best she can be.”