SB Nation

Kevin Koczwara | May 7, 2015

Dreams have no borders

Sydney Leroux's Journey from Canada to the American National Team

JULY 10, 1999

A skinny 9-year-old girl with dark, wavy hair bounces around her living room, a soccer ball at her feet. She kicks it against the cream and green tweed couch. Her eyes stare into the television.

More than 90,000 people pile into the Rose Bowl for the women’s World Cup final. The U.S. and China enter a packed stadium, the two best teams in the world. Ricky Martin has taken over the radio waves with “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” Bill Clinton has been impeached. Gas costs $1.22 a gallon. And women’s soccer has taken over the imagination of not only America, but this girl in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, and her dreams.

“What we’re seeing clearly transcends sports,” Robin Roberts says before the game on the ABC broadcast.

The girl stares at the TV and dreams like all kids do. She does not yet understand that she just can’t walk out there one day and join an American team. International soccer does not let you suit up and play for any country you want. There are rules, but the girl does not know about all that.

Hanson, the three-brother boy-band who make girls swoon across the globe, stand up to the microphone and sing the National Anthem. Jets scream overhead. The noise from the stadium echoes on the broadcast. American flags are spinning and twirling in the stands. The New York Times reported that an estimated 40 million Americans watched at least a portion of the game on television, and ratings were double what had been expected.

David Madison/Getty Images

No one predicted the enthusiasm of these crowds. The U.S. Women’s National Team had played out of sight from the American public for years. Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck were not household names and yet they’d been perhaps the best women’s soccer team in the world for nearly a decade. When they won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China, no one really knew or cared. After winning, when they landed at the airport, midfielder Julie Foudy later told an interviewer the team was greeted by a crowd of three, including the bus driver. They also captured an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but few outside the soccer world paid much attention. Lost in a flood of American medals and the Olympic Centennial Park terrorist bombing - their games barely made it on TV.  This World Cup, played on their native soil, was their chance to shine.

Five years earlier, the men’s World Cup came to the U.S., and the upstart American squad grabbed America’s hearts and enthralled the nation while helping launch a new professional league, Major League Soccer. Now, with the help of the goal-scoring prowess and magnetism of star forward Mia Hamm, similar crowds have turned out to see the women. For their first game of the Cup, team members were surprised when a full house of 74,000 people showed up to the Meadowlands to see them play the opening game against Denmark. It was now their turn to be in the spotlight.

The 9-year-old girl in Canada watches the Americans play in front the enormous crowds and score all those goals, beating everyone with force and beauty. She won’t sit down — she can’t sit down — but she keeps her eyes on that team. She watches the games from in front of the couch, transfixed, soccer ball at her feet.

She already has exceptional skills. She seems to have a tractor beam that locks in on the ball and brings her to it, so talented that her mother has had to find a special team for her. But she doesn’t understand that all this will one day impact her ability someday to realize her dream.

“This is more than a game. This is a defining moment in women’s sports history,” Wendy Gebauer, a member of the ‘91 World Cup winning team, says to the play-by-play announcer, JP Dellacamera, before kick-off.

China and the U.S. battle back and forth. Tackles fly in, one after another. The heat wears both teams out. After 90 minutes, the game is scoreless and extra time is needed. China gets a chance to win the game on a corner kick — it’s a free-header — but Kristine Lilly, who seems always to be in the right place at the right time, is at the back post and heads the shot clear just before it can cross the goal line. Penalty kicks are the only way to separate the two sides.

The 9-year-old turns to her mother and says, “I want to play for that team,” and points to the women in red, white and blue. She doesn’t really know who that team is, yet.  She just wants to play like those women. She wants to score like them. She wants to dream like them.

The penalty round begins and the U.S. takes a 4-3 lead. Briana Scurry stops one of China’s penalties and now if Chastain can get hers past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong, the U.S. will become World Champions. A few months earlier, she was in this same spot at the Algarve Cup, a yearly women’s soccer tournament in Portugal, and she did not convert.

Chastain steps up to the ball on the penalty spot and paces straight backwards. Coach Tony Di Cicco’s last selection to take the penalty, four months earlier Chastain had missed a PK against China when the shot banged off the crossbar. After that, she decided to do something totally out of the ordinary,  to take the penalty kicks with her weaker foot to put Hong off. The ref blows the whistle, signaling Chastain to attack the ball. Chastain smashes a left-footed shot into the corner. It’s a perfect penalty. The ball slams the microphone in the corner and sends an echo into the TV broadcast. She twirls around and rips her shirt off, showing off her black sports bra, and falls to her knees, screaming. The photographs of the moment will grace magazine covers and newspapers across the globe. It’s pure joy.

David Madison/Getty Images

The Rose Bowl erupts and Chastain’s teammates run screaming down the field. They all embrace.

Foudy pulls her to the ground. “U-S-A! U-S-A!” erupts from the crowd. American flags wave.

The little girl in Vancouver knows right where she wants to be: in that embrace.

JANUARY 22, 2012

The stadium is eerily quiet for a professional sporting event. The crowd of 6,259 doesn’t begin to fill the stands at BC Place in Vancouver, which sits along the waterfront in Canada’s eighth largest city and can hold 21,000 spectators. On television, the crowd seems even smaller. The field microphones pick up conversations between players and the ambulance sirens and traffic outside the stadium walls. It’s as if this 2012 Summer Olympic Qualifying match between the United States Women’s National Team and the Guatemalan National Women’s team doesn’t matter. That’s partly because Guatemala isn’t by any means a wealthy country with fans that can drop everything to go to Canada in the middle of January to support their women’s soccer team, and partly because the U.S. team is Canada’s biggest rivals. Most of the Canadian fans are here for one reason, and it is not to support the American side.

This is Sydney Leroux’s second call-up to the U.S. National Team — finally fulfilling the dreams she has had since she was the little girl in Surrey, British Columbia kicking, watching and wishing. She made her first appearance for the U.S. Women’s National team nearly a year earlier against Sweden — a five minute cameo - after making her name as one of the most-capped Under-20 players for the U.S. and scorer of a record 24 goals at that level (the current mark of 31 by Kelly Wilson includes goals scored in two U-19 tournaments that are now included in U-20 marks).

But the national team she aspired to play for had just reached the finals of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The roster seemed set and there were a litany of potential attacking players for Leroux to unseat. Still, she forced her hand and pushed her way into coach Pia Sundhage’s side for the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament. It helped that her college coach, Jill Ellis at UCLA, was Sundhage’s assistant. But it still takes someone special to get playing time behind Abby Wambach, the U.S.’s all-time leading goal scorer, and other established players of her caliber.

The few fans in the stands this day are either Americans who made the journey over the border, locals who decided to show up to get a look at the team that the hosts will most likely face in the finals of qualifying or they’re Leroux’s friends and family, including her mother, Sandi. Or they’re here for something else: to boo Leroux whenever they can. The hatred runs so deep that some signs they carry don’t make it into the stadium, too insensitive and crude to be displayed at a barely-watched qualifying game.

Guatemala is the U.S. second opponent in this qualifying round and one of their lesser CONCACAF foes. The U.S.WNT leads 6-0 at half time and Sundhage decides it’s time to bring on Leroux.

She’s the final of three substitutions announced over the PA system. At the sound of her name, a mix of boos and cheers rings out. Within minutes of her arrival on the field, Alex Morgan lays a pass off to Leroux in the penalty area. She makes the Guatemalan defenders look like agility cones with a few quick touches and a drop of her shoulder, getting past one sliding challenge before powering a right-footed shot in the back of the net. It’s her first goal for the U.S., for the team she watched as a 9-year-old as Mia Hamm blasted the back of the net, and the only team she ever wanted to play for.

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

“Sydney! Sydney! Sydney!” Chants echo from the crowd until the stadium announcer gives her credit for the goal. Then the boos start again. They build for a few seconds, followed by another chant: “JU-DAS! JU-DAS! JU-DAS!” The cheers are soon overwhelmed.

It’s the kind of thing that comes with being back in her native country, a place she left behind at age 15. Two minutes later, before the chants have faded, she adds another goal, one of the easiest she will ever score. But she’s not done. She scores another in the 57th minute and barely celebrates. The “boos” and “JUDAS!” chants still reign from the stands. The U.S. will score 13 goals and Leroux will have five of them.

The U.S. beats Canada, 4-0, in the final game of qualifying and Leroux gets a chance to sport the red, white and blue in front of her friends and family. The U.S. easily qualifies for the Olympics, going unbeaten in the five games and outscoring their opponents 38-0.  Nevertheless, the boos rang out throughout her time in Vancouver.

Leroux will make 27 appearances for the U.S. in 2012 and score 14 goals, a remarkable strike-rate made even more impressive when you take into account that she doesn’t start a single one of those games. She becomes the U.S.WNT’s super-sub, their version of Manu Ginóbili of the NBA San Antonio Spurs, a key player one of the most formidable teams in the world who sparks the offense from the bench.

At the London Olympics, she makes four appearances, all as a sub from the bench, and scores one goal as the U.S. goes on to win a gold medal. But she’ll return home considered a traitor, the soccer equivalent of Joseph Willcocks, perhaps the best-known turncoat in Canadian history, a man who fought for the United States in the War of 1812.  Soon after, Leroux visits a Vancouver morning news show, her gold medal in tow, and the nature of the horrible things people say about her on Twitter made it onto the air.

“I want to show how brutal it is because you got to have some sort of superpower to deal with the mental strain,” one of the hosts says to Leroux. “This is one of the harshest critiques I saw from one of our Twitter followers saying: ‘So tomorrow morning, at BT Vancouver, will be interviewing Hitler, or at least someone that’s as disgusting as him, @sydneyleroux.”

Leroux takes the interview in stride.

“I understand that I was born here, but I left a long time ago and I had these dreams of playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team a long time ago. And I wasn’t going to stop until I got there,” Leroux said. “What I hope for everyone, even if they don’t like my decision, is that they get to chase their dreams like I got to chase mine.”

Fans have a way of forgetting that athletes are humans too. We jeer at any time and wish bad things on opponents. The Internet gives people license to say things they’d never express in public or in person. Leroux, who is biracial and as beautiful as she is talented, has received copious amounts of sexist and racist hate on places like Twitter, a favorite place for people to air their uncensored feelings behind a wall of unanimity and distance.

Leroux must live with that even if she’s not the only player to jump the border, a dual citizen able to choose her country. Canada has had its fair share of Americans, dual citizens, on their roster, including a crop of new young players like Rachel Quon and Janine Beckie. But with Leroux, it’s different. She played in their system and then left. She was a player Canada hoped would lead them onto the world stage.

People don’t know her history, how hard she worked to make it all happen. They don’t see the story behind her decision or what she went through to go from being a little girl who couldn’t sit still in her home watching the 1999 World Cup to being the U.S.WNT’s next great forward, a player who can tear her opponents apart.

They only see the traitor. That is the price of pursuing her dream.

Every kid dreams. It’s part of growing up. You can’t escape them, and for most people they remain out of reach. They are a fanciful potion, one part hard work, a big dash of talent, some dedication and a deep pour of luck. But if dreams came easy, they’d fade and we’d forget about them. They wouldn’t mean anything.

Leroux’s dream, in a sense, began at a Canadian Football League football game. Sandi met Sydney’s father, Ray Chadwick, at a British Columbia Lions game. Chadwick was a professional baseball player pitching for Triple-A Edmonton at the time. The pair discovered they shared a mutual bond over the diamond. Sandi was the third baseman for the 1987 Canadian National Softball team at the Pan American Games.

Chadwick, 6′2″ 180 lbs., was a 16th round pick of the California Angels in 1983. Over the next few years, he navigated the maze that is Major League Baseball’s minor league system and pushed his way to the big leagues, suddenly a potential starting pitcher with upside. On July 29, 1986 he made his Major League debut and pitched six solid innings against the Oakland Athletics — he allowed two runs off of four hits — but the Angels lost.  At the time, Chadwick told Gene Wojciechowski of the Los Angeles Times, “I guess I make my own destiny.” But destiny would prove cruel.

In Chadwick’s second start, he didn’t even record an out before being pulled. He’d make seven starts in 1986, trying to stick it out with the best team in the American League West that season, and win none of them. It would be his only stint in the big leagues, and mark the beginning of the end of his dream. He would drift through minor league baseball before moving on and becoming a coach.

Sandi went to a few of Chadwick’s games in Vancouver before the season ended and he headed home to North Carolina. They kept in touch while Chadwick was away and made plans to see each other when they could. Sandi’s season with the Canadian National softball team conflicted with Chadwick’s own schedule, so it was difficult, but they tried their best. In August of 1989, Sandi decided to fly join Chadwick in Providence, Rhode Island for a few days.

Soon afterwards, Sandi headed to Toronto to join her teammates on the British Colombia team at the Canadian Championship.  After one of the games, she went out for drinks and food at a beer garden, had one beer, and got sick. She could not explain why. It didn’t make sense, but she put it off as a one-time thing and returned to Vancouver. Then it happened again. She decided to go to a doctor to find out what was wrong.

She was pregnant. Sandi told Chadwick and he quickly flew to Vancouver. They were elated, but they’d never lived together or spent a lot of time with each other. By Christmas, Chadwick was playing ball in Mexico and Sandi realized their relationship wouldn’t work and the couple separated.

Sandi was expecting a boy. The doctors confirmed it and she had started to get boys clothes. She was scheduled to have a C-Section on May 8, 1990, and was prepared to hold a son when it was all over. Chadwick planned on being there for the birth.

But nothing ever seems to go quite as planned with Sydney. In the middle of the night on May 6 Sandi went into labor. She delivered in the early hours of May 7. The doctors held up her supposed son and told Sandi she had a new baby daughter.

Sandi couldn’t believe it. She called them liars and thought they were kidding — they had to be kidding. They weren’t. Sydney would just have to wear the boy’s clothes she had already bought.

Growing up, Sydney could not be contained. She had the chaotic energy of a young boy and she powered through babysitters, exhausting and frustrating them with her vitality and tricks. She would entice them into her room by asking them to play a game and then sneak out and lock the door on them like her mom did when she was in timeout. To combat Sydney’s irrepressible energy, Sandi signed her up for as many sports as possible.

“I definitely was not meant to just sit at home and do things that other kids did,” Sydney says. “I always had to be moving. I always had to be doing something.”

Sandi put her in gymnastics and even tried Tae Kwon Do, which seemed like the perfect place for Sydney to learn to harness her effervescence and aggression. It worked for a time, but with each new level came a new $100 expense for a belt, and Sandi, who hung price labels at the local Save-on-Foods grocery store, didn’t care to spend her hard-earned money on a belt.

“I didn’t understand it,” Sandi says. “It’s $100 for a yellow belt? I have one. I said, ‘we’re not going to that again.’”

“I definitely was not meant to just sit at home and do things that other kids did. I always had to be moving. I always had to be doing something.”— Sydney Leroux

Leroux first excelled at baseball, the family sport. Her first dream was to be the first girl to play in the major leagues, but she soon realized baseball is a game with nearly unbreakable traditions and a woman playing in the majors was almost unfathomable. At the same time, Leroux enjoyed playing soccer, already a goal scorer. Her athletic ability and boundless energy made her stand out among her peers from an early age. Besides, the feeling of scoring a goal felt better that hitting a home run.

“I loved it [soccer] from the moment I put on cleats that were three sizes too big because you needed to grow into them,” Leroux says.

Leroux dominated. Even as a six-year-old she was fast and intense, slide tackling her opponents as her speed and determination set her apart. The game and the goals came naturally to her. What separates a very good player from a great player is their dedication and competitive drive and Sydney has a Michael Jordan-like focus on winning. Playful and emotional off the field (“Maybe I don’t look it on the outside, but I am very sensitive,” she says), on the field she changes into a cold-hearted winner who will do anything to succeed. That spirit mixed with her speed and strength made her too much of a force for the girls her own age. She destroyed her competition.

Soon Sandi had to sign Sydney up to play with the boys.

When Sydney was eight, a man approached Sandi and told her about a girls’ team that he believed was right for Sydney. Sandi realized that Sydney needed better coaching and better competition. Without it, she might stagnate and get bored. Still, Sandi was unsure of the proposal but decided to see what this team of all girls was all about.

Sandi and Sydney went to see Sebastian Muñoz’s Surrey Sharks girls’ team play and were impressed. His players were better than Sydney, more gifted with the ball at their feet and had a superior understanding of the nuances of the game. Sydney joined and quickly fell in with the team and started to harness her raw abilities — pace and power — into a more finely tuned player.

Muñoz changed the course of her career more than anyone did. Once he found out that Leroux’s father was an American, that Leroux was a dual citizen and dreamed of playing for the U.S., he told her and her mother to avoid putting on the Canadian national team jersey. If she did, according to FIFA rules, she would always have to play as a Canadian.

Leroux moved on to play for the Coquitlam City Wild and the club won the Provincial Cup Championships. Canadian national soccer officials soon heard about this goal-scoring kid in Vancouver and asked her to play for one of the Canadian national youth teams. Sandi tried to figure out if that was allowed only to come up short-handed. She tried to contact FIFA, without tipping off Canada, of course, but didn’t hear anything back from international soccer’s governing body.

The Leroux’s eventually learned that youth team games don’t lock a player into a country’s national team system, that as long as she didn’t play in a FIFA commissioned game, like a World Cup qualifier, for the senior national team, then at some point in the future she could make a one-time switch.  As a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen, Sydney could play for the Canadian youth teams and then accept a call-up to the U.S. in the future if she filed the proper paperwork and proved that Chadwick was both her father and an American citizen.

Leroux quickly ascended the ranks of the Canadian youth soccer, playing with the national team in every age group from Under-15s to the Under-19s. She even competed in the FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Championship  in 2004 as a 14-year-old, the youngest player at the tournament. Canada did not have the world-beating national team that it has today and Canadian soccer officials considered Leroux a cornerstone to build on.

But playing for so many Canadian youth teams wore Leroux out. She struggled to keep up and wasn’t having fun. When she finally found out for certain that she could play for the U.S. — that it wasn’t just a pipe dream, but a real possibility — she told her mother to send her to the U.S. or she was quitting soccer. They decided she would move to the U.S. on her own, play for a club team and live with a host family while continuing to home school herself.

At the same time, Sydney didn’t want to live too far from her mother — they were a pair. Her father was not a big part of her life and in many ways Sandi was all Sydney knew. At first they chose a club in Seattle, Washington, just a bus ride away.

Things didn’t go as planned in Seattle. Leroux struggled to adapt to life away from home. She didn’t play well and wasn’t scoring goals, which is what made soccer so special to her. She didn’t fit in with her team. Leroux returned home to her mother and decided to defer the dream.

Without it, everything spiraled out of control. Leroux partied and started to get into trouble. Leroux became adept at stealing her mother’s car for joy rides in the middle of the night. She’d pick her friends up and they’d do typical middle school things like go to McDonald’s and hang out.

“I would always go, ‘I had more gas than this; I never parked like this.’ Never once did it click that she stole my car,” Sandi says.

Leroux slacked off both in school and on the field. Instead of focusing on soccer, she sought ways to fight back against the system and put all her energy into getting into trouble. Leroux finally discovered that to reach her goal she needed to leave again.

“I was like, ‘if you don’t get me out of here I am going to quit soccer,’” Leroux says. She knew if she was ever going to play for the United States, she need to play in the United States, so she could be seen by U.S. coaches, play in college and prove herself against the best American players.

With that in mind, Sandi and Sydney searched for the next place for her to go. Sandi and Sydney had friends in Arizona and loved visiting. On one trip, Sydney trained with a team and became close friends with a girl on the team, Kassandra McCluskie.

More importantly, Les Armstrong saw Leroux play. The Scottish-born coach had moved to Arizona in the 1980s and become one of the most successful coaches in the state, the top girls coach at Sereno Soccer FC, McCluskie’s club team. He saw the raw talent Leroux possessed.

Sydney and McCluskie kept in touch online and Sandi and Kassandra’s parents discovered a mutual bond in that they were all originally from Canada. It became clear that when the time came for Sydney to go off on her next American sojourn, Arizona made the most sense.

“[Armstrong] was probably one of the best coaches I ever had. He really was like a father figure to me ... If I didn’t play for him I wouldn’t be here — 100 percent.”— Sydney Leroux “I can’t remember a game where she didn’t score. That’s how good she was,”— Les Armstrong

When the day arrived for Sydney to leave again, she and Sandi packed up their Hyundai, the car Sydney often commandeered, and headed to the airport. Sydney would never really return home again.

While she flew to Arizona, Armstrong prepared for her arrival. He drove to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and found a skinny girl with a black-and-white Mohawk and a few bags waiting for him. He knew she had some issues in Seattle, but he also knew she had the potential to be a superb player and one day wanted to play for the U.S. He set her up with a host family, but that first night she would stay with his family in his daughter’s room.

At Leroux’s first practice with Sereno, Armstrong saw how special she could be. He heard that her other club in Seattle tried to play her as a defender, but she wanted to score goals. He decided to see what she could do.

Even today, he remembers watching Leroux play for the first time. The sun had begun to set and people were already home eating dinner with their families when Armstrong’s girls started a kind of impromptu pick-up game under the floodlights — seven players to a side. Leroux lined up as a forward and wasted little time showing  her new coach her skills. A player sent a cross into the box for Leroux to attack with her head, but when the cross was deflected and redirected behind her, Leroux improvised. She twisted her body, turned herself in the air and sent a powerful bicycle kick into the roof of the net.

Armstrong was awestruck. The moment slowed down as he watched — teenagers just don’t do that. They don’t change directions at a full sprint and spin their body like that and score goals on bicycle kicks. Leroux would not become a defender. No way.

Goals are gold in soccer. Being a goal scorer requires not only technical skill — dribbling, passing, control — but also a knack to find the right space at the right time and to see where the ball is going to go instead of where it already is. It’s why club teams around the world pay exorbitant fees to sign the very best forwards.

Leroux had both the instincts needed and the skill required to become a difference maker. She was only 15, but Armstrong saw her raw ability and understood why Canada had played her on the Under-19 team and why Leroux played on a women’s semi-pro team in Vancouver as a teenager. Scoring goals fueled her athletic appetite and fed her competitive hunger. She’d do anything to score. Her drive, combined with her speed and power made her a force on the field that could not be contained.

“I can’t remember a game where she didn’t score. That’s how good she was,” Armstrong says.

But life was difficult for Leroux in Arizona. Armstrong enrolled her at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, but soccer was all Sydney cared about. She had friends, but admits she slept through much of her time there. She went through at least six host families as she tried to find a comfortable place to call home. She would call home crying or call Armstrong to talk.

“[Armstrong] was probably one of the best coaches I ever had. He really was like a father figure to me. He really took me and pushed me and believed in me. I loved him. He was great,” Leroux says. “It had been a while since I had felt that, since I really wanted to play for someone and he really brought that out of me and made me the best I could be.”

Armstrong had a reputation as a tough coach, notorious for long and difficult practices, and once was even suspended from coaching in Arizona because of parent complaints. He once told the Phoenix New Times that there was no such thing too much training. Although some found him tough to play for, Leroux flourished under his coaching style.

“If I didn’t play for him I wouldn’t be here — 100 percent,” Sydney says. “The thing is I never saw anything wrong with the way he talked to us. I knew it was coming out of a place of so much love. He knew how to get through to some people and some it didn’t matter because they were going to quit next year anyways.”

“They made her feel like she was wanted and needed and that’s what Syd wanted,” Sandi says.

UCLA coach Jill Ellis began scouting Leroux soon after she moved to Arizona. She too, saw the drive and desire in the way Sydney played and she wanted that on her team. UCLA had never won a national title in women’s soccer and she thought Leroux could be the kind of player to get the team to the next level.

“[Leroux] was powerful,” Ellis says. “I remember seeing one of the best goals I’ve seen a youth player score. It was a ball in the air and she came across and headed it and got way off the ground and I was like, yeah, I want that player.

Still, Leroux made Ellis sweat out her decision. She made one West Coast trip to visit schools and fell in love with each one, first Loyola Marymount University, and then Santa Clara. Had she not already planned to visit UCLA, she would have committed to Santa Clara during her visit.

Then she arrived at UCLA. The setting is a paradise, a Hollywood version of a college campus. It borders Beverly Hills and the surrounding neighborhood is immaculate. Nothing seems out of place and the weather is perfect.

After spending a night on campus, Leroux made up her mind. She sat with Ellis and told her she planned to commit … to Santa Clara. Leroux let the news sit for a moment with Ellis before breaking the good news.

“I was like ‘Just kidding!’ I want to come here,” Leroux says. “I didn’t even tell my mom. I committed on the spot by myself and I told her I was coming.”

When Leroux arrived at UCLA, she finally found a home. She’d come to the U.S. to play soccer and get a scholarship, and now had just one goal left: to get a call-up to the U.S. National Team. First, though, she needed to ask FIFA for the one-time switch. Once she made the change, even If she never got a call-up to the U.S, she could never go back and play for Canada. This was permanent.

Fortunately, Ellis also coached the United States Under-20 team and pushed U.S. Soccer for Sydney’s switch. When she was asked why she felt so strongly about supporting Leroux’s decision, Ellis said, “Because I don’t want to play against her.” Her bosses liked that answer and helped file the proper paperwork. Leroux would get her chance to put on the U.S. jersey.


In the summer of, 2008, while enrolled at UCLA, Leroux went with the U.S. Under-20 team to the U-20 World Cup in Santiago, Chile for coach Tony DiCicco, who had led the 1999 national team to the dramatic World Cup victory, and took over the team in 2008 from Ellis. She helped the team win the tournament by scoring a first-half goal in the finals, one of five goals she scored in the tournament to win the Golden Boot. The only team left for her to make was the U.S.WNT. She had taken the risk and put in the hard work and was closing in on her dream.

Over the next three years she thrived, eventually leaving UCLA as one of the school’s best ever players, scoring 57 goals in 84 games and helping the Bruins to four consecutive NCAA tournament berths and playing a key role on the Under-20 team. Although the U.S senior team already had a backlog at forward - Alex Morgan had just burst onto the scene and scored goals in seemingly every appearance she made, and U.S. all-time leading goal scorer Abby Wambach was in her prime — Leroux’s talent and determination were irrepressible. In 2012, she not only made the team but managed to force her way into Sundhage’s rotation and earned playing time. Now that Ellis has taken over as U.S.NWT coach, her prospects have never looked brighter.

“What I love about Sydney is she takes a challenge,” Ellis says. “I think almost at times things can’t be too easy for her. She has to have things she has to fight for and compete for.”

JUNE 2, 2013

A sea of red and Canadian pride swells inside BMO Field in Toronto. Only ten months earlier, Canadian fans saw the Canadian Women’s National Team lose a chance at capturing its first Olympic Gold medal in soccer.

The Canadians had long struggled to get out from under the American team’s shadow, which had collected a staggering 45 wins in their previous 53 meetings. But in the 2012 Olympics, it became clear that the Canadians were a potent squad nearly the equal of the Americans. In a semi-final game marked by rough play and some questionable refereeing decisions, the two clubs played each other evenly in their meeting at Old Trafford in Manchester into the 123rd minute.  Then, an Alex Morgan goal gave the U.S. a 4-3 win and the Americans went on to win a gold medal.


Alex Morgan breaks Canadian hearts with the winner in the 2012 Olympic Semifinal

Canadian soccer fans took the loss hard. When the referees weren’t there to blame, they redirected their anger onto Leroux. Although she only scored a single goal for the Americans in the Olympics, she may have proved to be a difference-maker for Canada

That was supposed to be their moment finally to show they’re now a world power in soccer and challenge the Americans as North America’s best team.  But the player who the country hoped would lead the line and score goals crossed the border and suits up for the U.S. On this night, Canada is looking for some sort of consolation to ease the pain of the loss.

Leroux now appears regularly for the U.S., usually providing a spark off the bench. Although Morgan and Wambach usually start, Leroux has become one of the team’s most potent forwards - scoring 16 goals in 32 games before that night, averaging a goal every 37 minutes of playing time in 2012.

It took less than an hour for the tickets to this rematch in Toronto to sell-out and the crowd of more than 22,000 fans brings the ruckus, delivering an unwelcoming atmosphere for the U.S. to the stadium, But they saved most of their hatred for Leroux. The crowd wants revenge.

Leroux jogs up and down the sideline getting warmed up with her teammate Kristie Mewis. They put themselves through the typical paces: stretching, running, some more stretching, looking onto the field and chatting. The crowd isn’t far from them and uses this time to shout and holler at Leroux. She has yet to walk onto the field, but that doesn’t matter. This is the Canadian’s moment to let their feelings be known. They’re tired of losing to the U.S. and they want Leroux to know they’re fed up of seeing her in an American jersey.

Fans needed a scapegoat and they found one in Leroux. She’s a traitor. It’s her fault.

With 16 minutes left in the game, Leroux gets her chance. Every time Leroux touches the ball boos rain down from the crowd. But she will get the final say on the night.

With the U.S. up 2-0 and the game already in stoppage time, the Americans went on one last break. Midfielder Carli Lloyd pokes a pass near midfield to Wambach and the U.S. forward turns on the ball to make a one-touch pass into space on the left flank. Leroux runs in-behind the Canadian defense, using her pace and instincts to time the run perfectly. Leroux latches onto the pass with only the goalkeeper, Erin McLeod, to beat. She shimmies her hips, takes a touch around McLeod and slots a left-footed shot into the net. Three goals to none.

Leroux goes down after squaring her body to finish the chance, but she quickly bounces up to her feet. She faces the sea of Canadian fans behind the net. She peels away from the scene of the crime, screaming. She grabs the U.S. crest on her white jersey, pushes it out and then presses her right index finger to her lips to hush the crowd. It’s a moment to savor for Leroux. She has come so far and no one can take this moment from her.

For three days, the Internet rages. A Canadian television commentator calls her “classless.” Canadian fans are angrier than ever. According to one report, vile tweets are sent her way, including one hoping she will die of AIDS. But Leroux is unapologetic.

“I will never take that back because it was honest because that is exactly what needed to happen,” Leroux said in January. “With all of the stuff that people were saying about me, all the stuff I heard in the crowd — the booing — scoring that goal to me was ‘Ok, bye. I’m here and I’m here to stay as long as I can.’”

Leroux doesn’t have to apologize. She is an honest person and who doesn’t back down from her opinion or a challenge. She grew up fighting one challenge after another head on. She feels she earned the right to decide what country she wanted to play for.

“Sometimes I feel like I am trouble. A lot of the times people just misunderstand [me] for the most part.”—Sydney Leroux

“I think people take her personality so strong,” says McCluskie, who will be a bridesmaid at Leroux, wedding ceremony to Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer - (the couple announced they were married on Valentine’s Day but still plan to have a ceremony in the future.) “She’s not timid to say ‘This is what I think,’ even if it is going to stir something up. She is very firm in what she believes and that’s why I love her.”

Controversy follows Leroux - particularly from the Canadian perspective —  but it’s only a product of her personality, her determination and her decisions. She won’t back down from that, and sometimes it gets misconstrued.

“Sometimes I feel like I am trouble,” Leroux says. “A lot of the times people just misunderstand [me] for the most part. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I am by no means how bad people made me out to look when I was younger.”

Leroux has that extra competitive drive that pushes players with talent from being good to extraordinary. She followed her dreams and succeeded, even when that meant choosing another country and another team. She did everything she could to make her life her own.

“I think she is one of the most competitive players I’ve worked with,” Ellis says. “If there is one reason why she is where she is, it’s a competitive nature that is just off the charts.”

“I think what always bothers me is that people are so quick to judge Sydney because of her strong personality. It bothers me that people don’t truly know what she has been through in her life,” McCluskie says. “She struggled with her dad. It was just her and her mom. She moved away from her family to do what she loved and people don’t understand how hard that was for her. They just say, ‘Look where she is now.’ But she went through a lot to be where she is now and I couldn’t have done the things she’s done.”

This summer, Sydney will return to Canada. The country of her birth is hosting the Women’s World Cup and the United States hopes to reclaim their title as the best team in the world, a title that has eluded them for sixteen years. Leroux will have another chance to show all her doubters and haters that she’s made it. However, she won’t think of it that way. She has one more dream to fulfill.

Playing for the U.S. was only part of her dream. She wants the World Cup, too. With a world championship, she could prove to everyone, finally, that her dream was worth pursuing, and that she made the right decision.

The Americans are currently 9-4 favorites to win the World Cup, expected to face a stiff challenge from Germany, Brazil, and Japan, but they’re also in the “Group of Death,” with Australia, Nigeria and Sweden.  And should both Canada and the U.S. survive the group stage, the two squads could face each other later in the tournament. If they do, Leroux is certain to be a target.

The last time the U.S. won a World Cup was 1999, when Sydney first dared to dream that she was one of those women she saw celebrating on TV, who played the game because they loved it and whose passion flowed up and down the field. They wanted nothing more than to win and represent the shirt and the game. Leroux has given up almost everything to be here, to be just like them.

Now is her chance.

About the Author

Kevin Koczwara is a journalist from Central Massachusetts. He has written for numerous publications including The Boston Globe, The Globe Magazine, The Classical, Sports on Earth, and Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He tweets on Twitter at @kkoczwara.

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