The U.S. Under 17 Women’s National Team didn’t reach last month’s U17 Women’s World Cup, but that doesn’t mean players from U.S. clubs didn’t factor in the competition.
Mexico, which knocked the U.S. out during last year’s CONCACAF qualifying tournament, featured seven players from clubs based in the United States during the World Cup in Costa Rica.
Emily Alvarado (Texas Rush), Vanessa Flores (Albion Hurricanes FC), Kim Rodriguez (Texas Rush), Eva Gonzalez (Dallas Texans), Janae Gonzalez (Galaxy Blues), Aylin Villalobos (El Pasco Galacticos FC) and Jacqueline Crowther (Legends FC) all made the squad, representing one-third of the 21 players named to Mexico’s World Cup squad.
The number would have been higher, but forward Briana Woodall, who scored against the U.S. in qualifying, tore her ACL in a warm-up match against Venezuela ten days prior to the tournament starting.
Regardless of that early setback, the tournament was a success for the Mexican U17s.
“It was a dream come true,” forward Janae Gonzalez told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “As a soccer player representing a country in a World Cup is one of, if not the highest honor a soccer player can achieve. I was part of history. Mexico U17s made the quarterfinals for the first time and I'm blessed to be a part of it.”
Said defender Vanessa Flores: “What I experienced in the World Cup was really something special and unique. Getting to do what you love at the highest level and getting to play in a tournament people only dream of being in was amazing. I miss it daily, being with my friends and the coaching staff, seeing how we all came together for one goal. It taught me a lot and allowed me to grow as player and a person. I loved every minute of it."
Simply making it to the World Cup was a substantial accomplishment for the U17s. They did it by virtue of a shootout win against the U.S. in Jamaica back in November 2013. Woodall opened the scored early in the first half before Madison Haley equalized, and Mexico hung on for the draw. Alvarado, Mexico’s first choice goalkeeper, made two saves in the shootout to secure a spot in Costa Rica, as they converted all four of their penalties.
Once there, the first two games in Costa Rica couldn’t have gone better for Mexico, as they opened up group play with a pair of 4-0 wins over both Colombia and China. The second win over China secured qualification to the quarterfinals, a historic achievement for the program. Alvarado backstopped both shutouts, while Crowther and Janae Gonzalez scored once in each game.
The win over China was particularly memorable for Gonzalez.
“My second goal was also very special because we made history in that game by becoming the first U17 Mexico [women’s] team to advance to the quarterfinals,” she said. “I also got two assists that game and I'm more proud of the assists than my goal, especially the first one because that's what got our team going in that game. I am also blessed to have received the ‘Player of the Match’ award in one of Mexico's most important games in history."
Because of her injury, Woodall wasn’t a part of the early triumphs, but she watched the games with great pride in her teammates, while in the opening stages of rehab in Mexico City.
“It was very tough missing the World Cup because of all the hard work you put in and the sacrifices that you make,” she said. “Especially since my team and I had trained so hard for this tournament, but everything happens for a reason…I watched as my team played awesome games, they played every game with such passion and aggressiveness which is what they always do. Overall they represented Mexico in such a positive and inspirational way for all our fans.”
She wasn’t forgotten by her teammates, however. When Janae Gonzalez scored one of her goals, she celebrated by racing over to the Mexican bench, and hoisting aloft Woodall’s stuffed red monkey - aptly named Chicharito - the team had brought with them to Costa Rica. The celebration made the front page of newspapers in Mexico.
Mexico’s third group match didn’t yield the same success, as they lost 3-0 against a tough Nigeria team. A second place finish in Group D meant a matchup against Japan, regarded as one of the top women’s sides in the world, and the eventual champions.
They would lose that game 2-0, though Japan had a small slice of fortune, scoring off a saved penalty and an own goal. That didn’t diminish from the impression they made on Mexico.
“It was a very intense game, Japan was superior to us technically and that allowed them to maintain possession of the ball and create scoring opportunities,” Alvarado said. “I was called into action many times during that game. Japan is definitely the most technical team I have ever played against.”
The Japanese would go on to capture the U17 Women’s World Cup title, beating Spain in the final.
But it’s safe to say the tournament was a success overall for Mexico. According to the players, the team came together as a family despite the slight differences in background between the Mexico and U.S.-based players. There wasn’t much of a language barrier to overcome, as most players spoke English and Spanish.
A level of play most hadn’t seen before tested those on the field, and there was plenty to learn from three weeks in Costa Rica.
“The overall experience has helped me as a player by opening my eyes to all the different ways the sport is played,” midfielder Eva Gonazlez said. “It makes you realize that you do not really know how soccer is played until you see how different parts of the [world] actually play.”
Added Flores: “The experience helped me improve because it pushed my limits. I had to work harder than ever to be an asset to the team. Also to be able to play at that level you really have to be a well-rounded player, so that made me work to improve on my weaknesses.”
Each and every player knows that the experience has left them better off, and no matter what lies ahead, will always fondly recall the experience, despite the tough ending.