VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Tuesday's game between the United States and Nigeria is shaping up to be the homecoming Sydney Leroux always wanted.
As Leroux, a native of nearby Surrey, British Columbia, addressed the media following Monday's practice session, she went down a laundry list of roughly 50 friends and relatives who will be in attendance at BC Place. Leroux's mother, Sandi, will be there, as will uncles, aunts, cousins, even former teammates from Phoenix-based Sereno Soccer Club.
"They're actually staying at my mom's house," Leroux said of her longtime friends. "I have quite a few supporters."
Of course, in the past those fans have been vastly outnumbered when Leroux has returned to Vancouver, or anywhere else in Canada to play. Inspired by the U.S. World Cup-winning side of 1999, and as a dual national who held U.S. citizenship through her American father, Leroux left home at age 14 with the express purpose of one day playing for the U.S. women's national team.
Leroux made her senior debut for the United States in 2011, and to Canadian women's soccer fans, she isn't just a player who got away, but THE ONE, the savior who along with Christine Sinclair would help Canada finally subdue the rival to the south. She is viewed in some quarters as the devil, the ultimate traitor. And on those occasions when she has played in the country of her birth, any cheering by her fans has been drowned out by boos, chants of "Judas" and other unprintable insults.
She heard those words when the United States played in Vancouver for the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament. And she heard them in Toronto when the Team USA squared off against Canada in a "friendly" in June 2013, just 10 months after the U.S. women defeated a game Canada side 4-3 in a hotly contested and controversial Olympic semifinal. On that June day, Leroux scored the last United States goal in a 3-0 victory and tugged on the U.S. crest on her jersey for all to see.
Afterward she tweeted, "When you chant racial slurs, taunt me and talk about my family, don't be mad when I shush you and show pride in what I represent. #america."
Leroux later said that the tweet wasn't directed at anything said by the crowd in Toronto, but happened in previous trips to Canada. The invective still flowed, with one tweet telling Leroux, "I hope you die of aids."
The extent to which time has eased such sentiments is tough to gauge, and can only be adequately measured in a match involving the two rivals. No doubt, for some fans Leroux's perceived betrayal will never be forgiven. But when those past incidents were brought up Monday, Leroux said she has sensed a change in attitude on this trip. The tens of thousands of U.S. fans expected to attend Tuesday's game certainly don't hurt.
"To be honest, that is totally in the past," she said. "And the number of people who have come up to me while we're walking the streets of Vancouver, and even Canadian fans will just be like, 'Congratulations, we're proud of you. We're coming to the game, we're rooting for you guys.' It's been really cool. I really don't have anything bad to say."
Leroux has had an uneven tournament so far. She made a game-changing run to set up Christen Press' game winner against Australia, but was held in check against a Sweden side that sat deep and took away the spaces the U.S. forward loves to run into.
"It does get frustrating, but we just [have] to find ways to really break down a team," she said. "We are one of the fittest teams in the world, and in the 80th minute when they start cramping we start getting more chances. We just have to be confident going into that."
It will be a desperate Nigeria team that Leroux and her U.S. teammates will be facing on Tuesday. It's also a team that loves to attack, meaning Leroux -- assuming she starts -- should have more room to maneuver.
"Nigeria is obviously a very athletic team, so they give space but they close it very, very quickly," U.S. manager Jill Ellis said Monday. "I think those types of games for Sydney, she loves to take [players] on and loves to get into space."
If she doesn't start, Leroux said she'll be there to support her teammates. But no doubt, nothing would please her more than scoring in her hometown in front of friends and family.
"I love Vancouver more than any city in the world," she said. "My mom still lives here, my family still lives here. This city is very dear to my heart."
If Leroux can celebrate a happy homecoming, it will be even closer.