Leroux's turbulent journey paying off

Sydney Leroux, left, battles against Guatemala recently -- a game in which she scored five goals. Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

MANHATTAN BEACH -- Sydney Leroux was a little girl with a big dream that, following many years of hard work and sacrifice, is starting to come true.

Don't mistake her story for a fairytale.

The three-time UCLA All-American is taking her place among the stars on the U.S. women's national team -- her five-goal extravaganza the other night at the regional Olympic qualifiers is, by all accounts, just the beginning -- but the journey hasn't been simple.

Whether it has been worth it might be open to debate, but the only opinion that matters is Leroux's, and she's in a good place. Some six years after leaving her native Canada in pursuit of soccer stardom -- enduring catcalls of “Judas!” and “Traitor!” from her countrymen, battling depression during a brutal high school existence in Arizona, following astonishing international success with defeat more devastating -- the 21-year-old striker has, just like that, crossed a chasm from promising could-be to genuine contributor.

It's rather fittingly the product of more turbulence, she reports -- the end of a relationship with Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie -- and it's had an immediate payoff: A victory in Friday's CONCACAF semifinal against Costa Rica (in, of all places, Vancouver, British Columbia, her hometown) sent the U.S., and likely Leroux, to next summer's London Games. (The U.S. faces Canada in Sunday's regional final.)

It's what she has been dreaming about since she was 6, not long after she'd kicked her first ball. She had the genes -- her father was a former major-league pitcher, her mom a standout on Canada's national softball team -- and she had the drive, and as she developed into a strong, fast, athletic attacker, she got noticed.

Leroux was the youngest player, just 14, at FIFA's 2004 Under-19 Women's World Cup, getting into two games as Canada made it to the quarterfinals. A year later, she was off to America, and nothing would ever be the same.

“It's crazy to me. It was not easy,” Leroux said earlier this month as the U.S. was finalizing preparations for the Olympic qualifiers. “It was probably one of the most difficult things I ever had to do, move away from everything that I knew and was comfortable with to something that I had no idea about. Not having any family around. Doing it on my own. As a 15-year-old, that's kind of hard.

“I had to grow up really fast. I look back at it now, and I'm like, wow, I cannot believe I did that. It was hard. It was very hard. And I don't think I realized how hard it was. But I guess it's all worth it. Now I have a chance to prove myself, and that's what I enjoy, and that's why I did what I did.”

TWELVE HUNDRED MILES: Leroux grew up more baseball player than soccer star. It was in the blood -- her dad, never really in the picture, was former Angels right-hander Ray Chadwick -- and she was a center fielder with great speed who matched or surpassed the boys, at least until adolescence.

“I thought I was actually going to be the first girl in the MLB,” Leroux said. “And then everyone, like, grew up, and I didn't. I stayed at my height and size, and I said, 'Maybe this isn't going to work.' ”

She had soccer to fall back on, fortunately, and it was clear very early that she was a special player, one who might spur Canada to unprecedented success. Leroux had other ideas. She was going to play for the U.S. Because her father was American, so was she.

“I knew from when I was 6 years old I wanted to play for the States,” Leroux said. “It wasn't because anything happened [with Canada], it was the fact that [the U.S.] is where the most opportunity is. Hands down. You can ask any Canadian. This is where it happens. I had a great time [with the Canadian team]. I enjoyed it. But I knew when I went to the World Cup [for Canada], I knew that I was going to leave.”

It led to a furor, especially in Vancouver, that persists. Leroux says the jeers and name-calling “does not matter to me,” but it took a toll when she was younger. “You definitely notice it,” she said. “Of course, people saying bad things about you isn't the nicest.”

Leroux moved 1,200 miles to Scottsdale, Ariz., to join national youth-club powerhouse Sereno SC. The soccer was very good but nothing else was. She bounced from host family to host family -- “Some places didn't work out, and some did,” she says -- and struggled to make connections at Horizon High School.

“I didn't really have friends aside from the girls on my soccer team,” she said. “I felt like a complete outcast. ... I would just sleep all day long. I would sleep until I went to practice, go to practice, and sleep. Just to try to get the days to go by faster. I was probably legitimately depressed for a good year and a half. I did not like it all. ...

“Where I come from, you grow up together and everyone knows everyone, and everyone's kind of connected, and then I went to this place where it's not like that. Especially coming in your junior year, everyone's already kind of created their friends, and it just felt like I didn't fit in there.”

She called her mom, begging to come home, but Sandi Leroux's athletic career provided a deep understanding of her daughter's ambitions -- and the sacrifices necessary to get there.

“It's just been me and my mom ever since I was born,” Leroux said. “She was the one who put me on the plane and was like, 'You need to do this. If this is what you want to do, this is what we're going to do, and we're going to do it together.' ... There's many times I cried and said I want to come home, I don't want to do this any more, and she's like, 'I promise that it will be worth it, that it's going to be OK and everything will be fine. Just get through it and get to college.'

“And then once I got to college, everything kind of came together. But high school was another level.”

A chance to live with future UCLA teammate Dana Wall, also at Sereno, and her family was crucial for Leroux's sanity. And she came “out of my shell a little bit” near the end of her senior year, as classmates discovered she was some soccer star headed to Westwood. They'd had no idea. “They just thought I was some girl.”

STAR ON THE RISE: Jill Ellis, who built UCLA's women's soccer program into a national powerhouse before departing last year for a job with U.S. Soccer, first saw Leroux when she was 14. Her memory: “Her hair was some funky color.”

Not long after, Ellis saw her again, playing for Sereno. Leroux scored, “and I thought it was, like, the best goal I've ever seen in club. This ball came across, and she got up in the air like no young player I've seen and just hammered this ball home out of the air, and I just went, 'Yeah!'

“She was special and stood out, for sure. Not just physically, but I've never seen a kid as competitive as Syd.”

Leroux fit in with the Bruins right away. Her experiences made “you sense that she's older beyond her years,” said Ellis, who quickly discovered she needed to challenge her young prodigy at every opportunity.

“Syd never wants to be comfortable,” Ellis said. “We were just talking about it -- Syd said sometimes you have anxiety, and I said, 'Yeah, but that's what you thrive in.' It truly is with her. The minute she gets comfortable in an environment, you almost feel like she loses a little bit of something. Always having to prove herself is a strong factor in why she's at this level.”

Near the end of her freshman year, she finally got her passport -- her father, she said, had delayed signing the papers for her -- and joined the U.S. for the U-20 World Cup in Chile in 2008. She came off the bench in the Americans' opener, a 3-0 win over France, to set up an Alex Morgan goal and score two of her own and left the field only briefly the rest of the way, winning the Golden Ball (as tournament MVP) and Golden Boot (as top scorer, with five goals) as the U.S. won the title.

“That was probably one of the most amazing moments of my life,” said Leroux, whose netted the opener in a 2-1 victory over North Korea in the final. “I finally felt I'd gotten ... not to where I wanted to be, because, obviously, this [here with the full national team] is the big picture, but just to be, like, this was worth it. OK, I know I can do this. I know I can play in the States. That's pretty amazing.”

She built on it her sophomore year in Westwood in 2009, teaming with All-American Lauren Cheney, also a national-teamer, in one of the best front pairings in NCAA history. Leroux scored 23 goals in 24 games, tying Cheney's school single-season record as the Bruins reached the NCAA final four for the eighth time in 10 years.

Leroux captained the U-20s at another World Cup, in Germany, the following summer, and the experience wasn't so glorious. The U.S. was expected, at the least, to play in the title game but lost on penalties following a 1-1 draw with Nigeria in the quarterfinals.

Leroux, who again scored five goals in the competition, missed the decisive penalty kick.

“I think that we were a very good team, maybe even better than 2008, and I felt my job was to lead this team to a championship, and inevitably it was me who sent us home. I took that hard. Very, very hard," she said.

“I remember everything. I remember the way I hit the ball. I remember the way the adidas sign was. And I remember the noise that it made when the ball hit the top of the crossbar. And I will remember it for the rest of my life.

“I think that moment defined me more than winning the 2008 World Cup, because I'm never going to let that happen again. And I totally blame myself and I will forever, and it doesn't matter what anyone says. ... I was very apologetic. That was all I could say: 'I'm sorry.' It made me work harder, and it definitely made me learn that sometimes losing is more important than winning.”

'DESERVE MORE THAN THIS': She had a rough season, relatively so, that fall at UCLA, scoring only 13 goals as injuries rocked the Bruins, who lost eight times and exited in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Ellis, a U.S. assistant coach in Vancouver, says she believes Leroux is best when “she has one thing to focus on,” and Leroux wasn't focused on soccer.

She and Lawrie, a childhood friend from Vancouver whose baseball career was taking off, became engaged in October 2010. His success became more important to her than her own, and it showed.

“My college season when I got engaged: worst college season I had,” said Leroux, who nonetheless was a third-team All-American. “When I went into [national team] camps, I was always [concerned], wanting the best for him. He became my priority.”

Leroux, the all-time U.S. leader in appearances (39) and goals (24) at the U-20 level, was right on the cusp of the full national team. She had been called into her first camp in September, just before the engagement, and made her first roster last January for China's annual Four Nations event, making her debut as an 86th-minute substitute for Heather O'Reilly in a 2-1 loss to Sweden. She was in camp again the next month but didn't make the Algarve Cup roster.

“I would admit the first couple of camps, I played timid and I played a little conservative,” Leroux said. “And then Cheney would talk to me: 'Go at people. What are you doing? Just go at them.' ”

Says Cheney: “I tell her all the time. I'm like, 'Syd, no one can stop you running at them.' She's so fast, and I don't think she realizes how good a finisher she is or how she can take people one on one.”

Lawrie, meantime, was making huge strides. He was a top prospect, a 2008 first-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers, 16th overall, whom Toronto had acquired in December 2010. A third baseman who can hit with power, he was hitting .353 with 18 homers, 61 RBIs and 64 runs in 69 games at Triple-A Las Vegas when the Blue Jays called him up last August.

It was all torture for Leroux, who finally ended the relationship last fall, about the start of October.

“[The discontent] had been growing since February,” Leroux said. “And I wasn't strong enough to do it. And then one day I woke up and I was like, wow, I think I deserve more than this. I don't think this is the life that I want.”

The problem had mostly to do with her, she said. She had subordinated her dreams for his, and she didn't like the person she became. She saw what life as a baseball wife would be, and it wasn't good. Doing something about it, she says, changed her as a person -- and, maybe more important, as a player.

“I don't think I would be where I am if I were still engaged,” she said. “I think that now I have time to focus on me, and I don't think I did that when I was in a relationship with my ex-fiance, and I'm so happy. I mean, if I could thank him, for just, like, not having it work, I would, because I know for a fact I would not be here.

“Ever since that happened, I have kind of rebuilt my dreams again, because getting engaged and being married to someone who is trying to do the same thing you are. ... I'm a girl, and what he does is much bigger than what I do, and that's always how it's going to happen, and I think I was content on just being that girl. Now I look back at it, and I'm like, wow. Like, do I have a lot to show these wives. That's no the way it has to happen.

“I changed my entire life and everything I wanted to make this work when it wasn't working. So I am so thankful and so happy. I've never felt this much at peace with myself than I am now.”

It showed in her soccer. By the end of a camp last month at Home Depot Center, it was clear something was going on. She was revelatory, adding dimensions to her game -- “It was just a different Syd,” Ellis says.

She progressed at this month's HDC camp before the qualifiers, and her performance Sunday -- five goals after coming on at halftime against Guatemala -- was extraordinary, no matter that the U.S. won, 13-0.

It's a culmination of an excruciating journey, in some sense, but the path continues on. She was the No. 1 pick in Women's Professional Soccer's draft two weeks ago, by the Atlanta Beat, and after London there's more World Cups, more Olympics.

“She finds a way to score goals,” said U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, a former Sweden national team star who has been involved in international game for nearly four decades. “And she has that little edge that makes the difference. All of us are competitive, but when it comes to Syd Leroux, I think she is one of the most competitive players I've ever met. She really wants to score goals, she really wants to get to the ball, and she has a bright future.”