The long road home for U.S. striker Sydney Leroux

Sydney Leroux says one of her favorite quotes is, "I don't want my pain and my struggle to make me a victim. I want my battle to make me someone else's hero." Austin Hargrave for ESPN The Magazine

SYDNEY LEROUX WATCHES the play unfold before her at BMO Field in Toronto. After 74 minutes on the bench, the U.S. women's national team forward is ready for it. She might even have something to prove to the Canadian fans around her, fans who once cheered for her and who are now saying something different. "How does it feel to be a benchwarmer?" one had yelled while she was warming up on the U.S. sideline.

Leroux waits unmarked on the left flank as her teammates thread the ball through the midfield to Abby Wambach's feet. The U.S. is beating Canada 2-0 in this friendly match, with just seconds left in stoppage time. Wambach feeds the ball to a now sprinting Leroux. She collects the pass and beelines it to the goal, the Canadian defender on her heels. The crowd boos, just as it had every other time she touched the ball during the game. The keeper tries to cut off Leroux's angle, but with a quick cut to the left, she beats the goalie, a wide-open net her prize.

Almost on instinct, Leroux flashes the U.S. crest on her jersey to the angry wall of Canadian spectators who are booing louder still, flipping her off -- some with both hands -- and calling her a f--ing c--t. Seemingly unrattled, and with a cue from Wambach, she puts a finger to her lips as if to quiet the fans who once called her their own. "You know what? You can have her," says a Canadian Sportsnet commentator. "That's way too American for me. You know what she is? ... Classless."

Leroux's goal celebration is met with a yellow card, but the Canadian-American, still smiling, is unfazed in front of the sold-out crowd of 22,453. "It was the best feeling ever to score in Toronto," she says now, "and just really put them to bed." But as Leroux would find out in the coming days, she didn't even come close to silencing them.

LEROUX'S GOAL THAT cloudy evening of June 2, 2013, was the 17th international goal for the U.S. women's national team. Leroux, 23 years old at the time, went on to score 10 goals that year, second most on the team. And the Canadian fans weren't thrilled or even polite about it. The thing was, Leroux was one of them. At age 14, the Vancouver native was the youngest player to rep their homeland at the U19 Women's World Cup in 2004. In their opinion, she was now a traitor after choosing to play for the U.S. instead of Canada five years earlier. "I was 14 when I left Canada, and no one gave two s---s," says Leroux, now 25 and an emerging star for the U.S. women's national team. "Did anyone try to stop me? No one cared. Then I started scoring goals, and people start to care." Today, Leroux holds the all-time U.S. record for fewest minutes per goal with 82.2. (Wambach is second with 97.7 minutes per goal, and teammate Alex Morgan is third with 98.)

This wasn't the first time Leroux was faced with a life-altering choice at such a young age, one that would shape her life and her relationships: Her story is full of them, and as painful as some of them have been, they've gotten her to where she is today. Now, Leroux and her U.S. teammates are just days away from a monthlong trip to Canada to play in the Women's World Cup (June 6-July 5), a competition that means abundantly more than a friendly match on a Sunday night.

GROWING UP, SYDNEY Leroux didn't dream about being a professional soccer star; she fantasized about being the first female MLB player. She had played both sports since she was about 5, but baseball was her favorite. After all, that's just what her family did: Her father once pitched for the California Angels in the U.S., where he grew up, and her mother played softball for the national team in Canada, her home country. But Leroux didn't want to play softball. She wanted to play baseball with the boys, and at age 12, she made the all-star team. Her MLB dream faded when the teenage boys around her grew taller and stronger and she was "5-foot-4, like 90 pounds," says Leroux, now 5-foot-7.

Luckily Leroux's size was never a factor in soccer. Even though she was small, she played much the way she does today -- aggressively. She didn't back down from her opponents, she was fast and under control, and she could score. "Her personality on the field is fearless," Wambach says of Leroux's play now, and teammate Ali Krieger recognizes in her "a fight that you don't see very often."

Leroux also had a fan in her mother, Sandi Leroux, who is without a doubt the most important person in Leroux's development as a person and as a player. "She was fun to watch," says Sandi, who has a large tattoo of her only child on her back. "People always talked about her, like: 'Oh my god. Look at that kid.'" (In a video taken by Sandi during one of her daughter's games in the mid-'90s, one can hear a man nearby exclaim, "That girl's going to be in the Olympics someday!") Leroux describes her mom as the parent who would run with her on the sidelines. "Or," Leroux says, "she would be behind the goal and be like: 'Kick it here! Kick it here!'" The young Leroux didn't mind at all; she thought her mother was the "coolest," she says.

Sandi never missed a game, videotaping them all. She took the graveyard shifts at a grocery store where she was a cashier, working all night so she could be home at 7 a.m. to take Leroux to the field. She also picked up extra hours and worked weekends to cover the costs of soccer and baseball. Sandi was making it work. She was raising Sydney all on her own. "It had always been me and my mom since the day I came home from the hospital," says Leroux. "We didn't have anyone." Unmarried, Leroux's mom and dad split when Sandi was 26 years old and two months pregnant.

THE NIGHT OF the Toronto game, Leroux made plans with one of her best friends. She had only one more night in town before she was on a plane back to Boston to rejoin what was then her club team, and she wanted to go out, soak in the moment. But a quick check of Twitter changed all that. When she opened her phone, hundreds of nasty tweets about her filled the screen. Some called her classless, the term the Canadian commentator introduced, and told her to go f--- herself; one read, "...I hope you die of aids, you probably open your legs to men like you do to countries #Judas." Another wanted Leroux to say hi to her "deadbeat Yank dad for us." Says Morgan, Leroux's U.S. teammate since their U20 days: "She was getting thrashed left and right. It was really sad to see the extent the Canadian fans went to personally attack her and her family."

The U.S. had previously played in Canada was Jan. 29, 2012 -- and this, Leroux says, is when the real rift with the fans began. It was the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver, and the U.S. was in front of another sellout crowd. Leroux, who was a senior at UCLA and had just been called up to the senior women's national team a year earlier, sat on the bench the first half. She could hear a chant starting up in the stadium. "Where's your father, where's your father, where's your father, Syd Leroux? He's a deadbeat and he left you 'cause he doesn't love you." "I'm like: No. 1, that doesn't affect me," says Leroux, "and you have no idea about my relationship with my dad. You have no idea."

THE EARLIEST MEMORY Leroux has of her dad, Ray Chadwick, is from when she was about 4. Her mom took her to the dollar store to get him a gift, and on the mug she chose, it said, "To the best dad ever."

Until that point, Leroux says, she hadn't spent a lot of time with her dad, but now her parents were going to start sharing time. Leroux was to spend one weekend every month with Chadwick. "When he would pick me up, I would hide and he would have to pry me off of my mom," Leroux says. "It was almost a little unfair: I was so attached to my mom. And he didn't really know who I was; I was a rambunctious kid. So he didn't know how to deal with that -- I don't know any parent who could."

Once on their own, Leroux says the two would go to the golf course and Leroux would sit and watch her dad play. Then they would go back to his house and play video games. Sometimes, he'd attend a few of her baseball games or track meets. "I mean, he tried, but he didn't really try," says Leroux. "He was so into his baseball and golf. Sports were the loves of his life. It wasn't a child, you know, and that's sad. I don't think he knew how to be a father. ... He finally gave up." [Leroux asked that ESPN The Magazine not quote her father in this story.]

DELUGED WITH ANGRY tweets, Leroux hardly slept that night. She couldn't understand why people had felt such hatred toward her. Why they made it so personal. And how they could be so comfortable being so cruel hiding behind social media. "When you read those things," says Morgan, "you can't help but being hurt inside. It's not easy for Sydney in the first place to see things on Twitter about her and her race and her family background and history."

When Leroux was young, she and her mother never had conversations about skin color. Sandi was white; Ray was African-American. "I didn't see her as someone different," Sandi says. "She was just Sydney." But in many ways, Leroux did feel different, and she now admits that she didn't always feel comfortable in her own skin. "I wanted to be white and I wanted to be a boy, just because I thought that's what sports were, you know," she says. "I never saw any good, aggressive girls who played sports where I grew up. And I wanted to be that."

From about kindergarten to fourth grade, Leroux wore boys clothing, even underwear, and kept her hair very short, sometimes shaved. She also called herself Christopher. Leroux says: "My school would call my mom, and be like, 'Can you tell us what's going on?' She says her name's Christopher and she says she's a boy. My mom's like: 'She's a girl. Her name's Sydney. She's just in this stage.'"

In the late '90s, officials tried to forfeit a soccer tournament that Leroux's team had won because they thought she was a boy. Another time, while shopping with her mom on her 11th or 12th birthday, a saleswoman at a shoe store directed Leroux and her mom to the boys' section. "I started crying," Leroux says. "She gave me the shoes for free." It was about this time, Leroux says, that she decided she was tired of being made fun of and bullied for the way she looked. "Over a summer, I said: 'You know what? I really want to look like a girl and act like a girl,'" she says, "and ever since, I'd probably say I'm pretty girlie."

WHEN SHE WOKE early to catch a flight back to Boston, she was ready to speak up to her critics. At 8:41 a.m., Leroux shot off a tweet. Though bruised and defensive, she wanted to clarify her actions on the field, tell her side of the story. 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."

Even with success on Canada's U19 national team, Leroux never saw herself playing for the senior Canadian national team. And because of her parents' nationalities, she could choose which side to play for. It wasn't that she felt more American and less Canadian. She simply wanted to play for the best squad in the world, and in her mind, that was the U.S. women's national team. "My mom was told that that was where I needed to go if I really wanted to take soccer seriously," Leroux says. "But it was an absolute mess trying to get there."

The first step was moving to the States to get the attention of college coaches and ultimately U.S. Soccer. So at age 14 -- and on her own -- Leroux left her home and moved to Seattle to attend a soccer camp. She did not find immediate success: A coach sat her down and said she should consider going back to Canada. "He told me, 'You're probably not going to do it here,'" she says, "And at that moment, I was like: 'Screw you, watch me. I gave up way too much for you to tell me to go home.'"

Back in Canada for her sophomore year, Leroux fell into what she calls a "bad group." She was throwing house parties when her mom was away, and she'd sneak out on a regular basis. "My focus was having fun with my friends and partying," she says. "Everything that made my dreams was in the States." So she packed up again, this time to Scottsdale, Arizona. Though she was on the right track with soccer -- this was when then-UCLA head coach Jill Ellis, now the U.S. head coach, noticed her potential -- moving to majority-white Scottsdale had its drawbacks. Leroux says some people made her feel as if she didn't belong. "I have no problem saying that I hated my high school," says Leroux, adding that she would sleep as much as possible to make the days go by faster. "The only reason I survived was because I had soccer."

The perseverance and hard work paid off. At 18, she made the U.S. women's U20 team and helped it win the World Cup in Chile with five goals, the Cup's highest scorer. She had also enrolled at UCLA and started playing for Ellis. Los Angeles is also where she began to feel accepted, comfortable in her own skin. She felt admired and appreciated for who she was off the field. "People thought I was pretty and that I was this and that, which I hadn't really had in Arizona," she says. But for Leroux, everything came together when she was called up to play in a tournament for the senior team. She played her first game on Jan. 21, 2011; a year later, she scored her first goal -- five in one game against Guatemala, in fact. "When I moved away it was very difficult and my mom said, 'I promise, I promise, I promise it will all be worth it one day,'" says Leroux. "I was like, 'OK, I'm going to hold you to that because I'm miserable here [in Scottsdale].'" This was also around the time that Leroux remembers hearing from her father more. She would receive occasional texts from him before and after games to wish her luck or compliment her on her play.

But it was her mom -- whose belief in her daughter has been unwavering from the get-go -- whose attentions she felt the most gratitude for. "My mom did everything she could to allow me to chase my dreams," says Leroux. "I could have told her I wanted to be an astronaut and she would have found a way to get me to the moon. That's what she did; that's what we did with soccer."

WITH THAT ONE tweet, the situation began to spiral out of control. "I thought, 'Oh, things are going to get better because I got to explain myself,'" she says. But instead, "they dug a hole in the ground and put me in it." The tweet had been retweeted thousands of times, and messages were filling up her @ replies with liberal sprinklings of insults, slurs and questions about her loyalty, sexuality and basic humanity. Folks accused her of pulling some sort of race card and of lying, insisting their actions in Toronto weren't racially charged. "You can boo me all game," says Leroux. "You can call me names all game; you can say whatever you want about my father not loving me, but when it comes to my character and the things I truly believe in, I'm not a liar. That was where it got me."

What the fans didn't know was that Leroux's tweet was referencing the treatment, including the chant about her father, she had received months earlier in Vancouver, not in Toronto. U.S. Soccer released a statement to clarify the circumstances around Leroux's tweet, and the chatter finally seemed to fade away. To date, it hasn't resurfaced from Canadian fans.

In the aftermath, Leroux stayed close to home, calling Wambach for support and texting with Krieger. "I just remember her saying, 'Ali, I'm not OK.'" One of the voices that spoke to Leroux the loudest, though, was her father's. Leroux recalls hearing Chadwick's voice cracking on the phone, saying: "'I dealt with things like that back in my day, when I was playing baseball. When it happens to your daughter, it hurts a hundred times more.'" It was the first time she'd talked to him in a long time, she says. "You know, it was the only time where I really felt like he was trying to, like, really be a father to me." She hasn't spoken with him on the phone since.

And after Leroux announced her marriage to Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer in February, she dropped her middle name, Rae, a variation of her father's first name. She has changed her name to Sydney Leroux Dwyer. "But I'm not changing it on my uniform," she says. "I'm very proud to be a Leroux. It's me and my mom, so to wear that and know what we've done together and how she's brought me here, that's very cool."

EARLIER IN 2013, Leroux and the U.S. women's national team had just finished a training session in Jacksonville, Florida, and players were taking pictures with a girls soccer team, something they do often. A young African-American girl, probably 11 or 12 years old, ran up to Leroux, bawling. "I was like, 'Why are you crying?'" says Leroux. "And she said: 'I just love you so much. You look like me. We're the same.'" Leroux took off her cleats, signed them and handed them to the girl. Leroux still has a picture of the two together. "That moment," says Leroux, "made me happy to be who I am."