U-20 World Cup: A Glimpse Into the Future

U.S. players celebrate their U-20 World Cup win over Germany in Saturday's final.
 

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — I love watching athletes celebrate. It’s that moment of pure joy in accomplishment and extreme relief that the nerves, fatigue and struggle were worth it. Seeing these celebrations gives me chills every time. As the young American women ran to embrace — sweaty braids and ponytails swishing across their faces — they acknowledged the fact that together they had achieved the ultimate feat: being the best in the world at what they do.

I followed most of the women’s under-20 world championship on Twitter because of a busy schedule and iffy Wi-Fi. But the final was a must-see. Germany had defeated the United States handily in group play, and now it was time for a rematch.

After training, I went with Cami Levin, Anita Asante and Olivia Schough (a U23 Swedish national team player) to find a place to watch. Over cappuccinos, we shared thoughts on women’s soccer and the players involved in the game.

First half: Watching the teams walk out and begin the game brought back memories from my experiences with youth national teams. Steve Swanson, the U20 coach, was my U16 national team coach. I reflected on the feeling of being in some of my first camps — the nerves, and the anticipation of seeing what the best from around the country looked like. Then I thought of my experience with the U19 national team (it was changed to U20 the tournament after I participated) and going to the world championship in Thailand. We played Germany in the semifinal and lost, 3-1. I remember Anja Mittag, whom I just played against on Malmo, being very dangerous. We went on to beat Brazil, which featured Marta and Cristiane, 3-0, for the bronze medal. I didn’t get to play in either of those games, but I tried to remember what the level looked like, and my mind-set, when analyzing how this tournament might compare. That was in 2003, but I distinctly remember what it was like to first participate in a major FIFA event, and hope that I would one day do that again. My youth national team experience prepared me well in terms of what it’s like to travel with a team, face international competition and play with some of those who have gone on to represent the United States on the senior level, like Rachel Buehler, Stephanie Lopez (now Cox), Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez, who were all on that team with me in Thailand. I’m sure that many of the U20 players feel that their experience was just as valuable. Plus, they can call themselves world champions!

Winning play: I was very proud to see the University of North Carolina play a huge role in the win. In my opinion, Crystal Dunn was the game’s best player at right back. She was very solid defensively, and got forward many times, causing a lot of trouble for Germany’s left-sided players. She assisted the winning goal, with a good ball across to Kealia Ohai (another U.N.C. player). Bryane Heaberlin (U.N.C. as well) was wonderful in goal, displaying a lot of confidence and coming up with several important saves in the last few minutes.

Stoppage time: This game led me to believe that the future of women’s soccer is very promising. It’s easy for a championship game to dip in quality because of players’ nerves, especially with those who are relatively inexperienced at the international level. A handful of the German U20s have played with their full team, and a good number start for professional clubs. You could see their experience during stretches of the game, as they calmly executed the typical German style — impressive organization, perfect spacing and wonderfully timed counterattacks. The United States women also displayed a level of maturity, remaining disciplined on defense, and creating some good chances, as well as possessing the ball well once they won it. Over all, the quality of this game says a lot for what we can expect in the future.

This tournament increases my optimism that when these players are integrated into the senior team level, they will continue to push the women’s game to new heights. Congratulations to the women involved in the final game, and especially the Americans for bringing home the championship. It is always great when I can watch a women’s game and feel thoroughly entertained — and impressed — by the talent and level of play.