Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Leroux, UCLA ready for finishing touch
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
Only time will tell if the seventh time is the charm for UCLA at the Women's College Cup.
The Bruins' streak -- equal parts achievement and disappointment -- had them reaching at least the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in each of the past six seasons without winning the program's first national championship. If they are to end it this year, the seed may have been planted almost exactly a year ago -- not in Cary, N.C., where UCLA lost to North Carolina in a national semifinal, but in Chile.
Less than 24 hours after watching her Bruins lose that game to the Tar Heels (by way of a Skype feed from a stateside computer trained on a television), then-freshman Sydney Leroux scored the first goal for the United States in an eventual 2-1 win against North Korea in the championship game of the 2008 Under-20 World Cup in Santiago, Chile. It was Leroux's fifth goal of the tournament, enough to earn her the Golden Boot as the field's leading scorer and crucial in securing the first American title in the biennial event since the inaugural competition in 2002.
Sydney Leroux's transformation in the 2008 Under-20 World Cup has benefited UCLA.
Leroux has been a rising star on the soccer scene for a long time -- born in British Columbia, she played in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup (the event changed age classification in 2006) for Canada at just 14 years old before subsequently shifting to the American youth national program while playing club soccer in the United States. But for a player who gave up the last month of her freshman season at UCLA, and the NCAA tournament run therein, to play for a team on which she wasn't initially a starter, her role in an American triumph was sweet reward.
"The experience I had with the U-20s completely changed my life," Leroux said. "I went from not being a starter [with the national team] to playing every game and not coming off the field, and I got a chance to prove myself. And I know that not a lot of people in the beginning thought that I was a starter or starting material, and my job or my duty was to come off the bench. But I knew all along I could contribute in ways I don't think people knew I could."
Predominantly an outside midfielder with the Bruins as a freshman, Leroux totaled five goals and six assists in 18 starts. But moved to the top of the attack this season, she's demonstrated time and again that her U-20 finishing touch made it through customs after Chile. She leads the Bruins with 23 goals in 23 games, tying a single-season school record Lauren Cheney set in 24 games in 2007, and is making the most of her first NCAA tournament with eight goals in four games.
Paired with Cheney, now a senior and the school's all-time leader in goals, Leroux is part of a one-two punch as good as any in a long line of distinguished combinations out of Westwood.
"I think me and Cheney feed off of each other very well," Leroux said. "She's more of a ball-to-feet player, and I'm more of a ball-into-space player, to run onto it. So we balance each other really well. We're really connecting I'm really happy she's alongside me being a forward."
Leroux and Cheney, who has 17 goals and 10 assists this season, have been constants on a team that had more ups and downs than might be expected of a group that is 21-2-1 and received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins lost their two biggest games of the year -- a 7-2 defeat at North Carolina in August that represented more goals than they allowed in their entire 25-game schedule last season, and a 2-0 loss at Stanford in October, their first loss to the Cardinal since 2002. Between those came the loss of senior Kara Lang, a dominant midfield presence, to a season-ending ACL injury in September.
The Bruins have outscored opponents 31-5 in nine games since the Stanford loss, but it's the entirety of the ride that shaped them more than any single point of awakening.
Lauren Cheney, the Bruins' all-time leading scorer, heads to her fourth College Cup.
"I wouldn't say the Stanford game was a turning point," Leroux said. "The only thing is that we wanted to play them again. We wanted to give them a different game.
"We've just really come together as a team. Honestly, in my two years playing for UCLA, I've never felt this good about how we are as a team, how close we are as a team, how well we're doing and how well we play for each other."
Bruins coach Jillian Ellis will hear all the same questions about the championship drought this week in College Station, Texas -- where the Bruins face fellow 1-seed Stanford on Friday (ESPN2/ESPNU at 5:30 p.m. ET) -- that she's heard every year since her program's streak of semifinal appearances passed the ill-defined threshold between noteworthy and astounding (North Carolina, which reached every College Cup between 1982 and 2003, is the only other program to reach at least seven in a row). But almost half of the likely starting lineup in Friday's semifinal against Stanford wasn't in the first 11 for the game last year against Notre Dame.
That doesn't free this team entirely from the ghosts of past stumbles -- the Bruins have lost in the semifinals three years in a row since playing for the national championship against Portland in 2005 -- but it makes the standard answers more understandable.
For players like Leroux, this isn't just a new change; it's the first chance.
"To tell you the truth, we don't really talk about it," Leroux said of the College Cup history. "It's like it's a new year. We don't talk about, 'Oh my God, we've been here seven times now; when are we going to win?' It's more like, 'We're going to do it; this is our year.' We're not dwelling on the past. We don't care what happened last year or the year before."
And just as Leroux seized an opportunity at this time last year to prove to herself and others what kind of player she was, UCLA has another opportunity in front of it, waiting for a finishing touch.
"I just hope our team can come together and be able to prove ourselves to the rest of the U.S. and everyone who knows our past," Leroux said.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. For the complete 2009 NCAA women's soccer tournament schedule and results, click here.