UCLA's Star Forward Kicks Into High Gear
By Brian Anthony Price
Sydney Leroux has a world-class athletic pedigree and a career to match.
Leroux's mother, Sandi, was a former third basemen for the Canadian Women's softball international team. Leroux describes her mother as her best friend and bears a tattoo on her back in honor of her mother that reads: "You believed in me first." Her father was a professional baseball player, but was never a presence in her life.
With genetics on her side, Leroux began playing soccer and baseball with the boys. Her career truly began in 1994 when she was chosen to represent Canada as a member of the 20-and-under FIFA World Cup team. That meant traveling to Thailand as a 14-year-old with much older teammates. While it was an honor to go, Leroux remembers it as a difficult time.
"It was scary. I was this kid with women who just didn't want me there. I wasn't playing, so I felt like I didn't have a chance to prove myself."
But the experience motivated her.
"I came back feeling like I had a lot to prove."
"She's had to grow up fast," agrees Jill Ellis, Leroux's international and collegiate coach. "From living a nomadic lifestyle to always being a part of high levels of competition, she's had to mature very quickly."
At 16, Leroux tried out for the American 20-and-under team but was cut.
"The coach just didn't think I had what it took. He told me he couldn't understand why I was even pursuing soccer in the first place," Leroux said.
More obstacles followed. As a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, she was unwanted by the American team and returned to Canada to discover that hostility towards her had been steadily growing.
"A former teammate of mine said: 'I hope you get injured and that all the Canadian ambulance does is drop you on the doorstep of some American hospital where you belong.'"
Undeterred, she stuck with soccer and trained hard.
"Watching Mia Hamm and the U.S. Olympic teams, I wanted to become a part of the American soccer tradition. I knew that's where the action was and where I'd eventually go to college."
A year later, she returned to the U.S. and made the U-20 team, which she described as the high point of her life: "I felt I had re-established myself on the international level," she said.
While juggling her commitment to international play, Leroux headed to UCLA.
"I became a Bruin to help bring the university its first ever women's soccer national championship. I want to make history," she said.
She wanted to make history on the world stage too. U.S. team head coach Tony DiCicco gave her that chance in a match against France.
"We came into the locker room tied 0-0 and coach just came up to me and said: 'Get ready.' Starting the second half was a total surprise to me. I usually played a few minutes to end the 1st."
Leroux seized the opportunity, scoring two goals and assisting on a third. The U.S. won the game and from that point on Leroux played every minute of the tournament.
The U.S. went on to win the 2008 Women's under-20 FIFA World Cup. Leroux scored five goals in the tournament to win the "Golden Shoe" as well as winning the "Golden Ball" for best overall player of the World Cup.
She returned to California for her sophomore year at UCLA to play alongside fellow international teammate and Bruin senior Lauren Cheney (now a professional with the Boston Breakers).
"I credit everything I did my sophomore year to Lauren. Pretty much every goal I scored she assisted on," Leroux said.
Leroux scored 23 goals (which tied Cheney for a single-season UCLA record) and was also a semi-finalist for the MAC Hermann trophy.
The defining moment of Leroux's career came on July 25, 2010 in international play. As a team captain during a 1-1 tie in the quarterfinals against Nigeria, Leroux missed a penalty kick that sent the U.S. home.
"Look, it wasn't like I had tasted victory and had to have it again, but I knew how amazing it felt and I wanted it so badly for my teammates. I felt terrible," she said.
Oddly enough, the incident had a positive impact.
"The youngest girl on the team, Mollie Pathman, came up to me and said: 'I wished I could have been the one to take the shot and miss. You've done so much; you don't deserve to feel like you've let us down.' That's something I'll remember for the rest of my life," she said. "It was the moment I arrived as an adult and as a serious student of the game."
Coach Ellis has since noticed the change in Leroux's approach.
"Since the World Cup, her attention to detail is greater. Her nutrition has improved. She's working to become a better combination player and she's taking care of injuries better than she used to."
Now, at the age of 20, Leroux is helping lead UCLA in pursuit of the school's first ever NCAA women's soccer title. She entered her junior year as one of 45 candidates in the running for player of the year. Having since dealt with some nagging injuries from international play, She's leading the Bruins in points (13), shots (41), and shots on goal (18).
The Bruins have been to seven consecutive college cups, but have come up short each time. However, Leroux is confident in the 2010 Bruins' chances.
"This is the year," she said.
UCLA, with a record of 7-3-1, is currently No. 13 in the nation (after having entered the season ranked third) and will begin Pac-10 play against No. 16 Cal on Friday night.
As for her senior year, there has been much speculation as to whether or not Leroux will return.
"Let's just say I'm only thinking about helping bring a championship to UCLA this year," she said. "Let's leave it at that."