VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Sydney Leroux was asked Monday how many of her family will be in attendance when the United States women's national team faces Nigeria here on Tuesday. She estimated the number was "around 50."
"My mom, my aunt, my uncle, my cousins," she said, even including some girlfriends from Arizona.
She did not mention her father. Ray Chadwick, a former California Angels pitcher, will be in attendance as well, according to the Los Angeles Times, though the two are not close. It was Leroux's mother, Sandi, who raised her from birth and supported her throughout her stellar soccer career. Leroux's sports journey is one she shares with her mom, a former pitcher for the Canadian softball team. But it's Chadwick, who met Sandi when he was doing a minor league tour here in the 1980s, who technically allowed dual citizenship to be possible for his daughter.
That's part of why a player born in British Columbia is now playing for the U.S. in British Columbia. Leroux spent more than half of her life here, dreaming of playing for the Americans. She left the country for Arizona at age 15 and became one of the most exciting players in women's soccer. Last weekend, she walked around with pride as people came up to congratulate her. Before the tournament, during a visit to New York, she said this final group stage game against Nigeria would be "emotional" as a return to her native province. She admitted she had no idea how she would be received here, yet on Monday she seemed happy and calm, having gotten a much warmer welcome than she received during a match in Toronto two years ago.
Leroux scored in stoppage time to cement a 3-0 drubbing of Canada in a friendly and then shushed the crowd, motioning to the U.S. crest on her jersey. The fans in Toronto had booed her the whole game, and perhaps worse, as she wrote on Twitter: "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."
She later clarified that there were no racial slurs during the match, but it's been clear that some Canadian fans are still unhappy with her decision to leave the country. Leroux has herself been unwavering in saying it was either the U.S. or bust for both her and her mom, and there was no other choice for her but the American side. She's been one of the stars on the USA team, becoming the youngest on the club to play for the gold medal-winning side in the 2012 Olympics.
This Women's World Cup has not been easy for the 25-year-old, though, as none of the forwards have thrived in the two matches so far. Leroux did have a gorgeous cutback pass to set up a Christen Press goal against the Australians in an opening 3-1 win, but she was subbed out on Friday against Sweden in a 0-0 draw.
The obstacle for Leroux is one faced by all of the talented American scorers: There's little room to roam. Opponents are trying to suffocate the U.S. attack, and that's posed a problem for the speedy Leroux. She hasn't been able to cope with it, at least as of yet. Head coach Jill Ellis said the challenge is "how to play in certain spaces when there are no spaces."
Nigeria might allow a little more creativity for Leroux and Co., as that team needs points on Tuesday to avert elimination. The U.S. does not want to settle for a draw and its opponents cannot afford to. So although some of Leroux's minutes might be lost to a healing Alex Morgan, depending on how Ellis deploys the forwards, there could be a wide-open style that suits playmakers.
And it might not be the last chance for Leroux to play in her former country in this tournament. The final is in Vancouver, and the Canadians have won their group stage. That puts the two sides on opposite wings of the bracket (assuming the U.S. wins its group), and sets up a possible dream matchup back here on July 5.
So although a American-heavy crowd tomorrow will be screaming for Leroux, the vibe could be quite different if she returns again. If her adopted country faces her former country, "emotional" might be quite an understatement.