Photo by Brad Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Less than two years ago, Sydney Leroux was in Princenton, N.J. partaking in one of her first U.S. Women’s National Team camps. Leroux’s talent was easy for all to see and so was her aggressive style of play, but then-head coach Pia Sundhage tempered expectations by saying that it takes time for young players like Leroux to find consistency and truly grasp how to play at the international level.
Leroux might be reaching that point now.
With all the success Leroux has had since joining the U.S., it is easy to forget that she is still just a 23-year-old forward with plenty of room to grow. Even so, Leroux is already widely considered one of the top strikers in the world of women’s soccer, a scary proposition for other nations given that she might only be scratching the surface of the player she can become.
“I think that the more I play the more I understand,” Leroux told SBI. “At first, when I first got on here, all I wanted to do was go forward because I needed to score goals. But now I feel definitely more comfortable and I feel like I can slow down a little bit and play soccer and not just go 100 miles per hour.”
Leroux already has 26 goals in 45 caps, her latest coming in last Saturday’s rout of Russia, and an Olympic gold medal. But achievements like those are only expected to multiply in the coming years so long as she continues to develop certain areas of her game, and there are areas of her game that could still use some polishing.
“I think there’s a reasonable amount of improvement and playing games will obviously help that,” U.S. head coach Tom Sermanni told SBI. “Situations where she looks to make runs, where she looks to hold the ball up and take on players, all those areas. She’s got the ability to do that so it’s just continuing refining the ability that she’s already got.”
While Sermanni knows there are other levels Leroux can reach, he is also aware how much she has improved in the past year. In fact, Leroux’s most recent performances have helped the U.S. not feel the absence of star striker Alex Morgan, who is struggling with an ankle issue.
Leroux attributes a good portion of her progression to world-class teammates like Morgan and fellow forward Abby Wambach, but the charismatic forward has also gotten better because of the amount of playing time she has received under Sermanni.
Under Sundhage, Leroux was integrated into the national team set-up at a steady pace. But now she’s a key figure in Sermanni’s squad, one that is preparing for World Cup qualifying later this year.
“What happened last year with regards to Syd is that she got more opportunities to start and that helped her confidence, that helped her development,” said Sermanni. “She’s gone on from there and I think she’s continued to grow as a player, and scoring goals as a goal-scorer, that gives you more and more confidence when you go out on the field. All of that combined I think has really made her a potent striker.
“Still development to go, but at the moment she’s in great form, she’s fit, she’s healthy and playing very well.”
Even when Leroux is not playing at her best, she has a tendency to still make an impact. That was the case against her birth nation Canada a couple of weeks ago, as she broke a scoreless deadlock with a late winner for the Americans.
Much has been made of Leroux’s relationship with Canada and its fans, and with good reason given that she has been the target of plenty of criticism from Canuck supporters who feel she turned her back on her country of birth. But Leroux insists that any hostility or negative feelings from her towards them are in the past, and that she is focused on what lies ahead.
“Not anymore. It’s over. It’s whatever. It is what it is,” said Leroux when asked if scoring vs. Canada has any significant meaning to her anymore. “I’m pretty sure they understand that I’m not coming back and I’m here in the U.S. to stay whatever happens. It’s over. It’s last year.
“Who knows what it’ll be like when we play them in April (in Winnipeg), but for us here it doesn’t matter.”
That said, Leroux cannot help but wonder what it would be like for her to play in her first World Cup, especially given that the 2015 edition is being held in no other place but Canada.
“Assuming we qualify and assuming I’m on the roster, obviously I’m really looking forward to it,” said Leroux. “It’s going to be pretty wild, especially because the final is actually in my hometown (in Vancouver). If we make it all the way there, it’s going to be a pretty crazy story.”
It would also be just the latest achievement in Leroux’s blossoming and promising career.