SEATTLE — Two years ago, the U.S. U20 Women’s National Team made a memorable run to its second title in three U20 Women’s World Cups. Set in Japan, the Americans scraped through the group stage on goal differential before ripping off wins against North Korea, Nigeria and finally Germany. It was the third time the U.S. had won the tournament in six tries since its inception in 2002.
Current U.S. U20 coach Michelle French’s message to the 27 who assembled for her final camp before the cup starts in Canada on Aug. 5 was simple. It’s a new cycle. You haven’t won anything yet.
“They’re not really defending anything,” said French, who's been on the job since February 2013. “It’s a new cycle every two years. There’s an overall general expectation that the U.S. is going to come in and play well and get to a certain point in the tournament. But just from what I’ve seen from Germany, Brazil, France, you can name a lot of different teams, I think there are a lot of teams that have a target on their back as well. The reigning champs part, I’m not letting that fly with this group, because they haven’t done anything yet.”
The U20 WNT gathered for its final camp this week on the University of Washington campus in advance of next month’s World Cup spread across Canada. The U.S. will break camp on July 23, when French will have to whittle her roster of 27 down to 21. The U.S. opens play on Aug. 5 against Germany, its opponent in the 2012 final and winners of the 2004 and 2010 tournaments. That opens up a group gauntlet the U.S. will have to run that also features 2004 and 2006 runners-up China as well as Brazil, a constant font of talent.
It’s not a stretch to call the U.S. favorites to recapture its crown from two years ago. The amount of talent on this team is substantial, stretching from the primarily defensive Notre Dame trio of Cari Roccaro, Katie Naughton and Morgan Andrews to 20-year-old Paris Saint Germain attacking phenom Lindsey Horan. But with that monster of a group waiting, the team’s mantra isn’t unlike that of the U.S. senior men’s national team from its recent World Cup odyssey in Brazil.
Survive and advance.
“It’s exciting,” Horan said. “We’re playing against good teams. Obviously last World Cup cycle, I wasn’t there, but our team, we had a tough group too, and we ended up coming out of it and winning the tournament. So I think no matter what we’re coming into each game and we want to win. We know we’re the U.S., and we know we’re good, and I think we’re confident.”
It may be a new cycle, but two familiar faces return from the 2012 run. Roccaro and Stanford defender Stephanie Amack were both included in the World Cup roster two years ago, and both bring back experience to the fold. Roccaro especially. She’ll carry the captain’s armband and slides back into central defense after typically featuring in the midfield for Notre Dame.
French will have some difficult decisions to make elsewhere. While a number of players who featured in the team’s unblemished CONCACAF qualifying campaign in the Cayman Islands in January are safe bets, there are plenty of players in Seattle fighting rabidly for a spot in the final 21. Few positions look more stocked than forward. Hermann Trophy semifinalist Makenzy Doniak (Virginia), SEC Offensive Player of the Year Savannah Jordan (Florida), record-setting scorer McKenzie Meehan (Boston College) and Ivy League Player of the Year Margaret Purce (Harvard) are just some of the players who join Horan as legitimate options to start.
French will also have to decide what to do with a contingent of youngsters who haven’t yet reached the college game. Andi Sullivan featured in qualifying and won’t start up at Stanford until after the World Cup. Carlyn Baldwin (Tennessee) and Kaleigh Riehl (Penn State), both with Virginia club side Braddock Road, are in the same boat, with Baldwin starting later this year and Riehl yet to begin her senior year in high school. PDA U17 starter Taylor Racioppi won't reach Duke until 2015, while Real Colorado’s Mallory Pugh is still playing with her U16 club side in the ECNL. She's still two years away from UCLA.
With all this talent at hand, French is faced with a coach’s dream conundrum. In just a month, she’ll get to unleash it on the world.
“There’s some players that have continued to perform and excel that were in that initial core group, and I think there were some that needed to be challenged a little more this camp,” French said. “On the same hand, there’s players that’ve been playing well in their spring season in college that’ve been recommended by their college coaches, and the majority of them are players that have been in before and are just revisiting.
“It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure, because everybody has a little bit of a distinct skill set that play the same position. It’s going to be tough to make those decisions.”