U.S. U-20 forward Sydney Leroux came from the North, but she’s found a home in the United States despite a somewhat tumultuous youth career. This is a story about a player fueled by an unusual competitive fire, a stubbornness to reach her goals and a big dose of (oft-tested) self-belief.
When Sydney Leroux was nine years old, she had the same dream as hundreds of thousands of girls across the United States. She wanted to play for the globally revered U.S. Women’s National Team.
There was one problem. She was in Vancouver, British Colombia, at the time. In Canada. And she was Canadian.
How she came to play for the United States is a story of perseverance and single-mindedness, qualities that are highly valued in strikers and ones that surely helped drive her to become one of the world’s top young forwards.
Leroux was raised as an only child by a single mom in the Surrey section of Vancouver. Her mother Sandi, who played softball for Canada at the Pan Am Games in 1987, and father, a former professional baseball player, separated when her mom was three months pregnant. They never married and she hasn’t had much contact with her dad over the years. He did, however, leave her with one great gift: He is American. And now, so is she.
Leroux’s attacking talents were identified early in Canada and at the age of 14 she was invited to train with the Canadian U-19 team. At first her mother balked. As a single, working mom, she had neither the time nor the finances to shuttle young Sydney to and from national team practices, even though they were in Vancouver.
Leroux’s youth coach at the time, Dom Mobilio, stepped up to make sure she got to national team trainings and she did well enough to be named to Canada’s squad for the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup in Thailand. She was the youngest player on the Canadian team and the youngest player in the tournament, but as it turned out, it was not a positive experience for young Leroux.
While she respects head coach Ian Bridge, appreciates the opportunity he provided and says it was important for her soccer development, she just did not mesh well with the team. And as a 14-year-old, perhaps she was not ready for such an experience. To make matters worse, Mobilio passed away during the tournament and Leroux returned home feeling like she needed something more, in soccer and in life.
GO FOR THE GOAL
It’s well known that the USA’s biggest women’s soccer icon has had an impact on several generations of young players across the United States, but perhaps she also gets some credit for her pull north of the border as well.
“I saw Mia Hamm and how she was the big star,” said Leroux about her pre-teen dreams, which apparently combined soccer reality with some Hollywood glamour. “We didn’t really have that in Canada. I knew even at that young of an age that the U.S. was where all the opportunities were for women’s soccer. That’s where all the famous people were and that’s where all the movies came from. I just wanted to be involved in that.”
She wrote an essay for school and drew a picture of herself playing for the USA by the age of 15, just like Mia Hamm had done. She longed to trade a maple leaf for stars and stripes and begged her mom to let her play for the United States. And what’s a mom to do when your only child makes such a passionate plea?
So soon after Thailand, she began the process of researching how to get her U.S. citizenship. She would not get approved to play for the USA until a few months before the 2008 FIFA U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In between came a bumpy and circuitous route to soccer success. It’s the story of a young girl with a dream and a combination of naïveté and stubbornness to actually make it happen.
Without any contact with the U.S. Soccer Federation, she moved to Washington State at the age of 15 to begin her journey to play for the United States. She left her mom, who has worked as a cashier in a supermarket for 26 years, and lived with a club teammate in Seattle. She was home-schooled for a time and played for the Eastside FC, but things did not go well on or off the field.
“I just had a bad year,” said Leroux. “I’m not sure if I was homesick or too young for that kind of a move, but I played poorly, scored only a handful of goals and it was worst year of my life. I thought that all the success I had to that point was just luck. I honestly thought that it was it for me.”
Her first call-up for a U.S. training camp also did not go as planned. She was invited in with the U.S. Under-16 Girls’ National Team in Boca Raton in 2006, but then U.S. head coach Kaz Tambi played her as a defender, and then told her she would not be getting called in again.
“I told him I thought he was wrong,” said Leroux, showing the spunk that helped her become the USA’s all-time leading scorer for the U-20s with 25 goals in 32 games leading into this World Cup. “I didn’t give up my whole life and my family back in Canada to be told I wasn’t good enough. But maybe I wasn’t at that time. It just made me work even harder.”
GROWING UP QUICKLY
Emotional, energetic, dramatic, vivacious and passionate are all words that describe Leroux. She admits though, that her intensity can be a double-edged sword.
“Every single time I have a bad game, every time I don’t score, I think maybe I’ve scored all the goals I’m going to get in my career,” she said. “Maybe, I think, I’m done … until I score again, then I’m OK.”
She kept battling after that bad year in Washington, even though there were certainly more obstacles to come. So over 2005 and 2006 she went back to Vancouver and back to school, but that’s when she hit a self-proclaimed “rebellious stage.”
“I was just hanging out with wrong crowd,” said Leroux. “They were my good friends, but no one was going to college, and I was falling into some bad habits. I came to realize that if I didn’t get out of there soon, I never would. So I kind of gave my mom an ultimatum. ‘Move me now’ or I don’t think I am going to keep playing soccer. As much as soccer was my life, my playing was also a huge part of my mom’s life too. She knew it was my ticket to college. She also knew Washington was too close. I could come home whenever I wanted. My mom always loved Arizona so after that talk, she pretty much sent me on the next plane to Phoenix.”
It was in the desert that things began to change soccer-wise for Leroux, who started turning heads with her speed, scoring ability and cheetah-like acceleration while playing for the Sereno Soccer Club. Still, she was 17 years old and heading into her junior year of high school, and once again, she wasn’t happy off the field. For the second time she had gone from being a popular girl with tons of friends to a teenager in an unfamiliar city who didn’t know anyone.
She stayed again with club teammates but over 2007 and 2008 she lived in five or six different homes, bouncing around and trying to find a place she was happy. She fondly remembers living with the family of Dana Wall (a current teammate at UCLA) and the Birkhold family, but she was still a bit lost and trying to find her way.
U.S. U-20s COME CALLING
Things started to take a turn for the better after being recalled for a few camps with the U.S. U-18s. Current U.S. U-20 head coach Jill Ellis began recruiting her to play at UCLA, liked what she saw, and decided to give her a chance with the U-20s. After Ellis left to join U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage’s staff for the 2008 Olympics, the legendary Tony DiCicco took over as head coach of the U-20s and Leroux started getting consistent call-ups. Still, she did not yet have her U.S. passport and couldn’t go on trips abroad.
By the time she finally got her citizenship and was able to switch her international affiliation to the United States (her mom called her at school to give her the good news), Leroux had not given much indication that she’d be a starter at the 2008 FIFA U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Chile, much less a top player. She had scored just five goals for the Bruins before joining the U.S. team for the World Cup that fall and seemed slated to be a substitute in Chile.
“On the U-20s, we always talked about how you have to accept your role, but honestly, deep down, I never accepted it and I never believed I shouldn’t be on the field 90 minutes,” said Leroux bluntly. “I was mad, so when I went in against France (in the first game), I had something to prove.”
And prove it she did. Seven minutes after coming on at halftime in that opening game, she got an assist. Three minutes later, she scored her first goal of the tournament. Fifteen minutes after that, she sealed the victory against France with another goal. She played all but one minute of the rest of the tournament, and her five goals in the competition earned her the Golden Shoe as the top scorer in that U-20 Women’s World Cup. The USA would go on to lift the trophy with a 2-1 win against Korea DPR in the championship game.
Over the years dozens of American girls and women have pursued dual citizenship to play for other countries at the youth or senior levels. Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, England, Iceland, Brazil and Portugal, just to name a few, have benefited from U.S. players.It seems only fitting that the USA would get at least one.
“Yeah, I got burned on some forums and threads back in Canada, still do,” said Leroux, who adds that it doesn’t bother her. “I guess it’s a given, but I love Canada. I have nothing against it, it’s still a part of me, it’s where I grew up and I would love to have a house there someday. It’s where my family is from and Vancouver is my favorite city in the world, but I am really happy at UCLA and in America to play for the United States. This is what I needed to do and what I wanted to do since I was a little girl.”
Her performance in Chile, where she became the first American woman to be named MVP of a FIFA Women’s World Cup since Carin Gabarra in 1991, did wonders for her confidence and she was a terror during her sophomore season at UCLA in 2009, scoring 23 goals including eight in the post-season.
“I feel like I’m completely different (from 2008),” said Leroux. “I’ve matured. I still joke a lot and make people laugh and maybe I’m not the most serious person off the field, but I can get serious quickly, get mad easily, and on the field my teammates have told me I can be intimidating because I am so competitive. I didn’t see myself as a leader last time. I just did what I was supposed to do. I’m a forward and I was supposed to score goals.”
When Leroux looks back at her rough and tumble road to soccer stardom, she says she wouldn’t change a thing and values all the memories, good and bad. In fact, she couldn’t forget them if she wanted to as her 11 tattoos, most intricate and colorful, symbolize all different parts of her life.
On her right hip, she has a silhouette of mother and a little girl holding hands, surrounded by butterflies. She has a caterpillar on her right ankle, reminding her that often you have to go through something ugly to get to something beautiful. She also has her U.S. jersey number “19” on her right wrist, interlocked with vines, reminding her of the success she had in Chile.
“I believe if you have an amazing amount of passion for something, anyone is capable of doing anything,” said Leroux. She is certainly proof of that.
But…will she soon get that long-awaited call-up to the full Women’s National Team? Another good tournament in Germany could certainly help, but in the end that is up to Pia Sundhage and for now, Leroux is focusing on the task at hand.
“It’s my third World Cup, so I feel like I’ve been here forever,” said Leroux, who could likely have played in another for Canada in 2006 in Russia had she not been pursing her U.S. dreams. “I’m as excited as I was for the first one, but I have a different role now. In the first one, I was strictly a bench player. In the second one, I started on the bench and then sort of came out of nowhere to have a big role. I am going to try to have a big impact in this tournament as well. I know it’s a difficult task, but I am up for it. I love this team and I love playing with pressure. That’s what excites me.”
Leroux has traveled all over the world in pursuit of her soccer dreams, but even in Germany, as the USA prepares for the 2010 FIFA Women’s World Cup, there is a reminder of where she came from. Just off the corner of the USA’s training field in Dresden, sits a tree. A large, leafy maple tree.