Lauren Cheney is made to play midfield
DUSSELDORF, Germany -- Before the United States steps out onto the field for Sunday's final, Lauren Cheney will tackle a challenge that's perhaps even tougher than any she has faced on the field throughout the tournament. The 23-year-old forward turned midfielder is in charge of the Americans' locker room music, and accommodating the musical preferences and inclinations of her 20 teammates is no easy task.
"I have an obligation to make some good decisions in pregame," Cheney said Thursday afternoon, clearly taking her job seriously. "We have a wide range of ages. Wide range of tastes in music."
Cheney said the pregame playlist, designed to keep the team loose and happy before it faces Japan, features Katy Perry, Beyonce, Eminem and, of course, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
The role of deejay is not new to Cheney -- it's one she also plays for her club team, the Boston Breakers of Women's Professional Soccer. Breakers captain Leslie Osborne, watching the World Cup from Boston, credits her good friend Cheney with always keeping their club team in good spirits before it takes the field for WPS games.
"She bought these big speakers for us last year, and she brings them everywhere," Osborne said of Cheney. "She loves music, and she loves dancing. It gets people relaxed and enjoying themselves."
Of course, taking care of the music isn't Cheney's only team duty. She also has been the starting left midfielder for all five of the United States' games in this tournament. Primarily used as a forward for most of her career, Cheney is now enjoying her new role: helping to get the ball to forwards Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez.
"I always come back as a forward anyway," Cheney said. "I like to check to the ball, and [U.S. coach Pia Sundhage] is always yelling at me to stay high. I think midfield suits me. I like to read the game. I like to pass."
Cheney has excelled since her move to midfield, recording two goals and three assists in five games. She scored the U.S.'s first goal of the tournament -- in the team's 2-0 win over North Korea -- and added a goal and the winning assist in the semifinal win over France. Her goal in the semifinal, a deft flick past French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz, showed that Cheney's striker's mentality still kicks in when she needs it.
"I think that I'm still a forward at heart," she said.
Sundhage, who just days before the tournament made the surprising move in the midfield over Megan Rapinoe, praised Cheney's performance after the semifinal win -- and claimed that midfield was Cheney's natural position.
"She will end up as a midfielder. I have no doubt in my mind," Sundhage said. "She came into this team as a forward. She played forward [in the] 2008 Olympics, but she reads the game very well. She's an athlete, and she makes players around her better. I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up as a midfielder next year."
Osborne has enjoyed watching her teammate's success.
"I've always thought so highly of her as a player, but I am surprised that Pia did make the change so late into their World Cup preparation. I think she's a big part to why the team's been successful," Osborne said. "They've always been good, but I think that Lauren helped them. She's created opportunities for other people. She's put herself into scoring opportunities. She's worked hard."
It was Cheney's five goals in her rookie season with the Breakers that helped lead the team on a torrid second-half run last year. (Boston fell minutes short of making the title game in a close playoff loss.)
On the national team, Cheney and Rapinoe say there haven't been any difficulties between the two players since the lineup change was made. Rapinoe is enjoying her own success in the tournament and relishing the role as super sub who has assisted on key goals in the past two matches. Cheney says Rapinoe even helped coach her through her first World Cup start.
"I was a little bit nervous, and I actually at halftime was like, 'Pinoe, what do you see? I feel like I'm not getting the rhythm of the game,'" she said. "That could be extremely awkward, considering Pinoe and I've been fighting for this position just recently. She's been nothing but supportive."
Just three years ago, Cheney was left off the U.S.'s original Olympic roster but was added as a last-minute replacement when Wambach broke her leg in the team's final warm-up game. At home with her parents in Indianapolis, watching the game and packing to go back to UCLA for summer classes, Cheney saw Wambach get hurt. "She'll be fine," Cheney told her parents. Later that night, Wambach called Cheney to tell her to get ready to the Olympics. And then the 20-year-old Cheney got the official call that she had been named to the roster for Beijing.
"It was just kind of overwhelming at that point," said Cheney's mother, Rita, recalling the last-minute Olympic appointment. "It took a few minutes for it to sink in for us."
Cheney's cheering section in Germany consists of her parents, Rita and George; her aunt; her boyfriend, Philadelphia 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday; and Holiday's brother and cousin. Cheney said Holiday knows little about soccer but is enjoying the games.
"They're like little kids -- cheering and all dressed up for the games," she said.
Cheney was just 11 years old during the U.S.'s historic run to the 1999 World Cup title. She and a small group of friends traveled to Chicago's Soldier Field to watch the Americans defeat Nigeria 7-1.
"When they came back, boy, they were just all fired up," Rita said. "She was pretty darn excited."
Rita remembers Lauren and her teammates saying, "This is our dream. This is what we're gonna do."
Now Cheney has a chance to help pass that dream on to a new generation of American girls.