NWSL standouts set for USWNT debut
WASHINGTON -- A little more than a year ago, Leigh Ann Robinson was a professional soccer player without much of a profession as she and friends gathered at a bar in San Diego to watch with the rest of the country as the United States women's national team beat Canada in an epic Olympic semifinal and claimed gold with a win against Japan.
"We just kind of sat together and screamed at the screen," Robinson recalled.
Erika Tymrak was enduring preseason conditioning in the late summer stickiness of Gainesville, Fla., at about the same time, preparing for her final season at the University of Florida and an uncertain soccer future.
Fast forward to Monday, and Robinson and Tymrak spent their first day wearing national team gear training in front of a crowd of perhaps a couple of thousand people who chose to spend the holiday inside RFK Stadium.
What a difference a league makes.
If we're being honest, Tuesday's game against Mexico is hardly of monumental import. World Cup qualifying looms on the still somewhat distant horizon, but this game and four more fall friendlies at sites yet to be announced come in the doldrums of the women's soccer international cycle, a year removed from the last major tournament and what feels like an eternity away from the next one. As it looks to improve on a 26-1-1 all-time record against Mexico, the United States will be without the likes of Shannon Boxx, Kelley O'Hara and Megan Rapinoe because of injuries, as well as Tobin Heath, Ali Krieger and Christen Press, among others, because of European professional commitments. Alex Morgan is in Washington but may or may not join those who don't see the field as she continues to recover from a partially sprained MCL.
It is not the team that will take the field in Canada in 2015. Which makes it a good time to try and make that team.
Tymrak and Robinson are two of three players here, along with Vanessa DiBernardo, who are looking for a first appearance with the full national team. But unlike DiBernardo, a standout on last year's United States Under-20 world champions who is in the early weeks of her senior season at the University of Illinois, Tymrak and Robinson represent the first tangible payoff for U.S. Soccer from its investment in the National Women's Soccer League.
When the United States played its first game in February this year, Tymrak was a rookie second-round pick that every team in NWSL passed on at least once. Robinson was a free-agent signee with no international experience who was moving toward her late 20s. They turned out to be standouts for an FC Kansas City side that finished tied atop the table in the regular season.
And FC Kansas City turned out to be their tickets to the national team.
"I wouldn't have seen them," U.S. coach Tom Sermanni said before Saturday's NWSL championship game. "I wouldn't have known about them. Not a chance. I wouldn't have been able to see them -- it's not just seeing the players but being able to see them up against the better players that are already in the national team, the players that are in the Canadian national team. So you're now comparing them against our national team players, and that's the important thing."
A veteran of all three seasons of Women's Professional Soccer, the league that collapsed after 2011, Robinson subsequently played a few months of professional soccer in Russia and spent much of the summer of 2012 with the Long Island Fury, a team that would have been on the second tier of professional soccer had there been a first tier at the time. By the time she watched the Olympics, she was an assistant coach at the University of San Diego, her alma mater, and wondering how much longer she could put off finding a real job.
"I think a lot of girls coach because we can, we have the knowledge and the experience and it's something easy for us and we enjoy it," Robinson said. "But at some point, that wasn't my ultimate goal, to be coaching, so I think I started taking steps to do things that I wanted to do, looking at school that I wanted to get back into and classes I needed to take. But once we caught wind about the league, I sort of waited and put that off a little longer for a few months just to make sure. I think I already was thinking about moving on."
An attacking player in college with the Toreros, where she led the team in goals as a junior and assists as a senior, she transitioned to defense in WPS, a move that, by her own admission, hardly came off without a hitch. But four years and at least half a dozen teams later, she earned a place alongside FC Kansas City teammate and U.S. mainstay Becky Sauerbrunn on the all-league "Best XI" back line.
"You try and look for a little point of difference," Sermanni said of what earned Robinson an invite. "There's a lot of good players that are very similar [in NWSL]. With Leigh Ann, I liked her mobility, I liked the way she was able to look comfortable getting forward and getting into the attack. And obviously, because of her pace and mobility, her ability to recover as well. So she had the two things I like, particularly in a fullback role."
If Robinson's story is a study in steady perseverance, Tymrak's rise is more meteoric. Whatever her ultimate national team fate, she debuts as one of the most entertaining young players in the sport, a creative improv artist in midfield who started the season on the bench and finished it as one of NWSL's leading offensive forces.
"She's got an ability to glide past players, to run well with the ball, to beat players, to put on a change of pace and a change of direction that gets it away from players," Sermanni said. "And that's a slight point of difference that I've seen between her and some other similar players of good ability in that position. That was a thing that stuck out to me. I think in modern day soccer, the ability to beat players is an important thing."
This is just the first step for both players, and there are no guarantees there will be a second step. In his time in charge, Sermanni has demonstrated a willingness to mix up the player pool and give new players looks. He is also quick to point out that it's a difficult roster to make on a regular basis. One call-up doesn't mean it's time to pack for Canada.
The moment is made all the more fleeting by the condensed schedule in Washington, with just Monday's lone practice in advance of 90 minutes of soccer Tuesday night. It is never easy finding your footing on this team. Monday, Lauren Holiday recalled her first call-up as a 17-year-old intent on not speaking unless spoken to. Robinson's roommate this week, Carli Lloyd flashed back to a 2004 camp when she found herself surrounded by legends of the previous generation still going strong. The culture has changed a bit, Lloyd suggested, acclimation made less daunting in part by familiarity from NWSL.
But it's still harder to be yourself when everyone around you is someone.
"It's tough because I don't know if my style of play is always favored," Tymrak said of a lifelong struggle between expressing her creativity and hewing the line. "I like going at people, trying new things. Obviously, playing with this team, I'm going to try and play a little more simple, but try and be myself at the same time."
At least for them, an otherwise meaningless friendly is the biggest game of their lives.
"I think that's something you kind of play with in your mind is 'Don't put a lot of pressure on yourself,'" Robinson said. "There's two days. I think obviously knowing some of the girls and playing with and against pretty much all of them and just knowing how good they are, I just want to have fun. Obviously, if I can contribute, great, [and] play well when I get the chance. But I just kind of soak it all in because this is a really cool opportunity."