Alex Morgan, Kealia Ohai, Sidney Leroux, and Christine Sinclair are all household names today, but each player first made a name for themselves at the Under-20 Women’s World Cup. The next edition of the tournament opens later today hosted by Canada and provides the stars of the future a huge international stage to launch their respective careers.
“It’s such an incredible opportunity and you don’t realize what a World Cup is like until you get there,” said Dash forward Kealia Ohai.
Ohai scored the game winner for the United States in the final of the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan. Two years later she was the first draft pick of the expansion Houston Dash.
“It’s so nerve-racking because there were 40,000 at our championship in Japan and the atmosphere was awesome,” noted Ohai. “That was the most that I had ever played in front of and it is such a different world.”
While the big international stage is a different world for each respective player to what they are accustomed, the second edition of this tournament hosted by Canada seems like it is in an entirely different world from when the country first hosted the then U-19 tournament. The 2002 tournament was FIFA’s first ever sanctioned youth tournament on the women’s side.
The 2002 Canadian team led by Sinclair and a then unknown ‘keeper whose mohawk would make Clint Mathis jealous named Erin McCleod advanced to the final against the United States.
“At the time Canada wasn’t a big soccer country and we played the US in the final and we had over 40,000 people,” noted the Dash Captain. “It was one of the highest viewed sporting events at the time and for the country to get behind such a young team was unreal as so many people were beginning to start watching soccer in general it has kind of come totally full circle.”
McCleod talked at length about the importance of that tournament in launching women’s soccer in Canada. However, the Dash captain expects this edition be much different.
“This World Cup, the game has evolved so much on the women’s side,” noted the Dash ‘keeper. “When I was that age it was fun and I was athletic, but the [players today] are so much more tactical. There is such a different understanding of the game today.”
That tactical understanding of the game and one of the most difficult Groups of Death in the history of a FIFA competition should provide plenty of tantalizing matches during the group stage. The Group of Death features the finalists for the last U-20 Women’s World Cup (the US and Germany) in the same group as two of the historically strongest teams (Brazil and China).
Those marquee matches along with the standard knock-out stage of the tournament will provide the pressure and intensity that only comes with a World Cup. It is that pressure and the players that best handle it that help define the future of the game.
“You are training for it for two years with this pool of girls and all of that goes onto the field,” noted Ohai. “You’ve played in college, but nothing compares to internationals when you walk out and they play your national anthem as it is a completely different world.”