By Noah Davis
CARSON, Calif. -- Sydney Leroux makes scoring look simple. During a recent training session on the practice fields near the StubHub Center in southern California, the U.S. women's national team forward received the ball, took a big touch, looked up at goal, and rifled a shot past the helpless netminder. It was easy. Too easy.
As the Canadian-born talent jogged back to take her place in line, Abby Wambach encouraged Leroux to shoot earlier. "You're not always going to have that speed," the woman who has scored more international goals than anyone told her young teammate.
Leroux considered the advice. The next time, she hit the ball first time. The result was the same: goal. As the ball hit the back of the net, she smiled as if to say, "Look what I did," but also, "You're right, Abby."
A few hours later, while sitting by a fake fireplace at the team hotel, Leroux related the story. "Abby has really taken me under her wing and I try to make her proud," she said, a fresh tattoo on her right forearm covered by a protective layer of Vaseline. "It's a weird little thing. I try to show her that I'm listening."
Syd the Kid is growing up. Fast.
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Leroux, 23, has always done things quickly. At age 14, she suited up for Canada in the U-19 Women's World Cup. A year later, she debuted for the W-League's Vancouver Whitecaps, becoming the youngest player ever to play for the team. After switching to the U.S. squad -- her mother is Canadian and her father is American -- she played a starring role for the U-20 team, finishing her youth career as the highest scorer at the U-20 World Cup. Her success led to a national team call up for the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. In just her second game with the senior squad, Leroux came on at halftime and scored five goals in a 13-0 drubbing of Guatemala. She was 21.
She finished the year with 12 goals, including one in the semifinals of the London Olympics, as defenses struggled to contain her lethal combination of pace, power, and technique. Remarkably, Leroux scored once every 37 minutes, a fact that illuminates what an impressive year she had but also hints at a major frustration: while the forward appeared in 27 games as the national team went 28-1-3 and took home a gold medal, she didn't start a single game.
Pia Sundhage, the Swedish coach of the U.S. at the time, found success in systems. That meant Wambach and Alex Morgan starting with Leroux coming in off the bench. It was frustrating to set a record for her goal-scoring prowess as a reserve and not be rewarded with more playing time. "No matter how well I played, no matter how many goals I scored off the bench, that was my role," Leroux, who makes it clear how much she liked Sundhage personally, says. "And that was it. You were never given anything. You were never rewarded. She knew. And that was it. There was no changing her mind."
Finally, change started to occur at the beginning of 2013 when Tom Sermanni took over for Sundhage, who returned home to coach the national team for which she had been a star. Leroux played a familiar role in the new manager's first game in charge -- scoring off the bench in February's 4-1 defeat of Scotland -- but started four days later. It was a sign of things to come. During 2013, Leroux played in every match but one -- starting nine -- as the U.S. went 13-0-3. Her 10 goals were second on the team behind Wambach's 11. "It's a lot different under Tom," she says. "He's instilled the confidence I lost a little bit under Pia."
Leroux's frequent attacking partner agrees. "She's developed into one of those consistent players you can count on," Wambach says. "She's not just a 10-, 20-minute player who can come on and spark our team for a goal. She can play many minutes and actually impact the game for those consecutive minutes and that's not an easy task."
The pinnacle of 2013 came in the last match of the year against Brazil. Sermanni rewarded Leroux's strong year with a start against one of the best teams in the world. She responded with two goals, the second of which demonstrated how dangerous the forward can be. While in the past she has relied mostly upon her speed and strength, she worked hard to develop her skills to match her athleticism. The big smile that grows on her face as she recounts the details of the tally indicate how proud she of the success she's found.
"I felt the girl coming on my back," she says, replaying the goal in her head as she talks. "I knew she was going to hit me or get the ball away, so I poked the ball. I knew the goalie was coming. I cut it back and placed it. If I was a downhill runner, I would run to the goal, kick it, and hope for the best. There's definitely more to my game than speed and feistiness."
Which leads to 2014, and to the problem with being a forward on the United States national team. In Leroux, Morgan and Wambach, Sermanni has three of the best in the world. Christen Press -- eight goals in 12 U.S. games in 2013 -- and Amy Rodriguez, who is returning from maternity leave, are very much in the mix as well, although the coach sees Leroux, Morgan, and Wambach as his center forwards.
I asked the coach if he'd play the three women together. Initially he said he might, then changed his tune. "Hopefully there won't be times because it would tend to be a time when you're chasing the game," he said, laughing. The takeaway: the trio, who spent a total of 66 minutes on the field as a unit in 2013, won't start games together.
Two forwards it is. Starting roles grow limited quickly, especially since Wambach with her height and uncanny ability to score needs to be on the field. That likely leaves Leroux and Morgan battling for the second spot. The decision doesn't need to be made immediately, as Morgan will miss time with an ankle injury, but it will come into focus at some point in the near future. Can Leroux supplant her friend -- and America's darling -- Morgan? It might not be as surprising as one might think. The blisteringly fast Morgan is the best in the world at going full speed forward but Leroux boasts a more robust skill set. "Sydney is probably the better overall player and has more skill, more things that she can do," Scott French, who covers the women's game for ESPN.com and other outlets, says. "I think it really comes down to what complements the team." (Leroux is also charming off the field, whether it's opining about the Bachelor on Twitter or posting picture of her Chihuahua Boss Leroux on Instagram. There's even a Fuck Yeah Tumblr devoted to Leroux.)
Wambach sees the positives in her young teammate's game as well. "Syd is more aggressive in her defending than Alex would be," she says. "Most of the girls on this team would agree with me. We've all been tackled by Syd and it's not fun."
Sermanni, who has an excellent problem to solve given the embarrassment of riches at forward, remains evasive, only conceding that Leroux is pushing for a starting spot. He expects her to continue to improve. "When you look at Syd's number of caps, she's still in the early stages of her international career," he says. "I think she's still at least three years off her physical and football maturity, so there's a lot of growth left there."
Leroux will get her next chance to impress on Jan. 31 when the U.S. take on archrival Canada, who the Stars and Stripes defeated 4-3 in an epic contest during the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics. The match could preview one in the later stages of the 2015 World Cup, held next summer in Canada. If the Americans hope to win the tournament for the first time since the Girls of Summer did in 1999, Leroux will likely play a big part.
She's still young, but her teammates have a growing faith in her, one borne out of seeing the effort she puts into training and the skills she is developing. But perhaps her biggest talent is something few people notice. "She's courageous, which is one of the most overlooked qualities," Wambach says. "If I asked her to run through a brick wall, she wouldn't ask twice. She would do it, especially if there was a World Cup championship on the other side of that wall."
The only issue is that no matter how many walls Leroux blows past, there might not be a starting spot on the other side. Not that it will stop her from running through them.
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