USA women's youth team aims to defend U-20 World Cup title
The only American world champions in soccer begin their title defense on Tuesday as the three-week Under-20 Women's World Cup kicks off in Canada. The United States will look to repeat their 2012 win. If they do, they'll win it a fourth time overall, starting with the inaugural tournament in 2002, and lift the biennial trophy a third time out of four, having taken it in 2008 as well.
This Under-20 tournament, played a year ahead of the 2015 Women's World Cup in many of the same stadiums, will offer a glimpse of next summer's potential breakout stars. In past U-20 Women's World Cups, the Golden Ball award for its best players has gone to such names as Christina Sinclair, Marta and Sydney Leroux, all of whom would go on to stardom. One Alex Morgan won both the Silver Ball and Bronze Shoe in 2008.
The USA is one of the tournament favorites along with the only two other countries to have won any of the prior six editions of this tournament: Germany (in 2004 and 2010) and North Korea (in 2006). They were handed a tough draw though, meeting Germany in their opening game on Tuesday - in a rematch of the 2012 final - and then facing Brazil and China in Group B - all of whom have well-established women's youth national team programs. Group A consists of the hosts Canada, Ghana, Finland and North Korea. Group C holds Nigeria, England, South Korea and Mexico. And, finally, Group D pits New Zealand, Paraguay, France and Costa Rica against each other.
Just two players remain from the USA's 2012 squad as the Americans have rebuilt a young - six players were still in high school last season and one of them was a sophomore - but talented team under head coach Michelle French.
"We have a good mixture of leadership, talent and great technical ability on all three lines," she said in a statement. "We have a lot of tactical understanding and creativity based on the way they read the game, and I see a lot of grit and bite in the way we defend. The combination of these factors gives us a very well-rounded team."
Their undisputed star is striker Lindsey Horan, the big, strong and skillful prodigy who became the first American woman to skip college and sign a professional contract in Europe with Paris Saint-German in France two years ago - reportedly for a whopping six-figure salary. She scored 20 goals for PSG last season and has 21 goals in 22 games for the U-20 national team, even though she missed the 2012 World Cup with an injury. She has already made her senior national team debut. Cari Roccaro is the defensive rock; Rose Lavelle the engine and distributor in midfield.
On other teams, Kadeisha Buchanan is expected to star for Canada. The powerful central defender of the University of West Virginia showed herself capable of helping to contain USA star Abby Wambach in a senior match last May. Germany midfielder Lina Magull has already won two German and European titles with Wolfsburg. Griedge Mbock Bathy, a central defender for France, is another major prospect and has a chance to make and play for France's team at the senior World Cup a year from now.
Success is far from a given for the USA, in spite of their impressive track record in this tournament. Because at the lower age level, the U-17 division, the American girls failed to qualify for their World Cup this year while the previous cycle did but didn't mange to survive the group stage.
The last senior Women's World Cup proved that the margins in the international game are getting smaller. American dominance is no longer assured by its moneyed college system. A year out from the next major test on the international stage, the next generation of Team USA players now gets the chance to show that the program's future is secure.