It began with a bet. Sydney Leroux was barely a teenager, small-shouldered and skinny, with a narrow chin and dimpled cheeks. She lived in Surrey, Canada, and played soccer for the Coquitlam City Wild. She wanted a tattoo. Her mother, Sandi, agreed to a wager: If Sydney could score 10 goals in four games at the under-14 Canadian national championships, then Sandi would take her daughter to a tattoo parlor. Leroux scored 12. Her back was inked with a flaming soccer ball.
There was always something at stake on the field: tattoos, goals, greatness, getting out. As a child, Sydney played baseball and soccer; she tried gymnastics and tae kwon do. Her mother, Sandi, was desperate to try anything that would burn off Sydney’s rambunctious energy. But in soccer, Leroux showed the kind of potential that turned heads and opened doors, the kind of talent that made a young girl and her single mother think it might change her life. As a forward, she was aggressive, physical, unafraid, and hungry. She wanted to play with the best. It became a consuming ambition. It was sometimes the only thing that she knew about herself.
Twelve years later, on a Saturday morning in mid-May, Leroux sat in the lobby of the Belamar hotel, in California’s Manhattan Beach. Tattoos of koans and tangled, flowering designs ran across her lithe but muscular forearms. While teammates passed by, many in U.S. national team gear, she wore black pants, sandals, a flowing tank top with an abstract black-and-white print. She was dressed for the camera. The Women’s World Cup was three weeks away, and Leroux is one of the U.S. team’s most sought-after players; she was already giving her second interview of the day. Her explosive, physical style on the pitch and her charismatic, expressive personality off it had brought her to attention during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, where she’d been the youngest member of the USWNT. Now, on the eve of her first World Cup, it seemed possible that she could be the team’s next transcendent star. The public — and marketers — have embraced her as she appears to embrace herself: bold, fun-loving, beautiful, free.
But with Leroux, nothing ever happens easily.
Sydney Leroux was once the player that Canada planned to build its program around. She’s now returning to Canada determined to hold the trophy while wrapped in an American flag. Leroux played north of the border in the junior levels, even joining the U19 team at the World Championship when she was only 14 — the youngest player in the tournament. But her dream was to play for the United States.
As it happened, she was not only Canadian; she was American, too. It was part of the complicated legacy that her father, Ray Chadwick, a baseball player who’d briefly pitched in the big leagues, had left her before he disappeared. Through no effort of his own, he gave her fast-twitch muscles; the dimples that punctuated her smile; creamy, pale-brown skin; and American citizenship. Even as a child, she knew the possibility of a U.S. passport was a gift. It was the connection between her and her heroes, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and the other 1999 Women’s World Cup champions. “I will thank him forever for that,” she says.
Sandi quietly did some research and learned that Sydney would still be eligible to play for the United States as long as she didn’t represent Canada at a senior-level FIFA-sanctioned game. But to play for the United States, Sydney would have to play in the United States. She would have to leave home.
It was a gamble. But life was like that. Sandi, who had been a softball player on the Canadian national team, worked at a grocery store, taking graveyard shifts so that she could go to Sydney’s games. Money was hard to come by. They bet even their happiness. Leroux went to Seattle first, playing for a club team, living with a host family, and being homeschooled. She was 13, “still very much a little girl,” and she was alone. Worse, she wasn’t scoring. So Leroux came home.
But back in Canada, she struggled, got into trouble at school, started partying, wondered if she should give the sport up. She wanted, she told me, “to go somewhere where I could really learn something.” Her mother was as committed as she was. So she and Sandi decided to try one more time. They would double down. This time, Sydney would be more than a bus ride away. She would go to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Les Armstrong, a well-respected coach, and his club team, Sereno Soccer Club, were waiting. She got on a plane, flew away, and left her mother behind.
“[My mother] knew,” Leroux said. “The U.S. was the only place to go.”
Leroux hated it. Hated school, the whiteness of Scottsdale, the feeling of being alone. “I didn’t like who I was,” she told me. “I didn’t like my hair. I didn’t like the color of my skin. I didn’t like that I was different.” She moved from host family to host family, house to house. She packed her bags more than once. “I don’t know if anyone could understand what it was like to be 14, 15 and have no one,” she says. “I wanted to quit, I wanted to give up so many times. I just wanted to come home.”
Instead, she found a tattoo parlor. This time, she went by herself. She felt herself rebelling. “I really didn’t know who I was,” she told me.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
The body that she claims she used to hate is now a means of self-expression. It is a sketchbook, a story. She inked it, she pushed it, she put it on display. On Instagram, she appears in tiny bikinis, or posing with her puppy, or goofing off. She posed nude in ESPN The Magazine’s 2013 Body Issue. “I think a lot of females struggle with the way they look, and I wanted to show that everyone’s body is different,” she told The Magazine. “I’m not going to say I’ve never struggled with how I look, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m happy with who I am.” She’s been known to trade texts about greatness with Kobe Bryant. And after she scored a goal in the Olympic quarterfinals against New Zealand, her face appeared in newspapers around the world, the picture of joy. She became the team’s symbol of freedom and individuality.
Some of this self-display is a measure of growing up, and of realizing that other people are different, too. It began in college, when she met different people from different backgrounds. It came from watching Abby Wambach, who is openly gay, command any room she walks into. It came from the tearful hug a young biracial girl gave her in Florida. This February, she posted pictures of herself with that girl on Facebook. “Soccer is my love, but it is not my life,” she wrote. “What happened that day — was my life. The ability to have people look at you as a woman of color and say, ‘I look like you, I want to be like you,’ and have them believe that it is possible — because that was not always the case. … If she ever sees this message I want her to know that she changed my life. When I look down at my hands I am not angry. I am proud. I am empowered.”
Some of her exhibitionism is part of the business. Syd the Kid, they call her, like the DJ, or Mr. Crosby in Pittsburgh; it’s a nickname that snaps in the mouth like gum. A female athlete who wants to make money needs to be marketable, not just good. Leroux ticked off the criteria. “Are you an ambassador? Do people look up to you? Can you be a person that can sell this product?” Salaries in the National Women’s Soccer League, the third attempt at a viable pro league, range from $6,000 to $30,000 per season, with most sitting closer to the former than the latter. (The U.S. national team subsidizes the salaries of its players.) Leroux makes most of her money by endorsing companies like Nike and BodyArmor. Her salary is unclear, but has been estimated between $60,000 and $92,500 a year.
The bet was paying off. But there was a time when Leroux doubted it could. In Arizona, Leroux would call her mother in tears. “She would say, ‘We gave up a lot,’” Sydney remembers. “‘We did a lot to get here. One day, I promise, it will all be worth it. I promise.’” Sometimes, Leroux didn’t believe what her mother was saying — didn’t believe it would be worth it. But she knew there was no going home.
Because there was still, despite everything else, the soccer in Arizona. However she felt off the field, when she was on it, Leroux moved with the unselfconscious quality of the truly gifted. She was fast and fearless. She needed guidance, the taming required to turn talent into skill, the patience to turn an individual into a teammate. But she had a preternatural sense for the ball, how to earn it, collar it, guide it, feint with it, and fly down the field, a sense so extraordinary that it seems a second nature, almost a wildness. On the field, she has always been able — and, as important, eager — to impose herself.
She attracted the attention of Jill Ellis, the coach at UCLA, who not only recruited her but helped her switch affiliations from Canada to the U.S. in 2008. It required connecting with the father who had left her and to establish his paternity. But once she had done that, and with Ellis’s support, she was able to make the change. That year, 2008, Leroux won the golden ball for best player in the U20 Women’s World Cup in Santiago, Chile; she would go on to become the all-time leading scorer for the U.S. U20 team. Leroux thrived at UCLA, too, finishing with the fourth most goals, points, and game-winning goals in Bruins history. “She’s the most competitive person I’ve worked with, mentally and physically,” Ellis later told the New York Times. “She’s been through a lot. When it’s harder for her is when she’s better.”
That competitiveness catches fire sometimes, and it can burn. Leroux will probably be booed when she steps onto the field in Canada. She’ll be told this is no longer her home. In 2013, the crowd called her a traitor and chanted “Judas.” She responded by scoring and tugging at the U.S. badge on her shirt.1 She plays with a chip on her shoulder. Perhaps it’s even deeper than a desire just to win.
Afterward, she’d tweet that she’d been subjected to racist taunts; later, she’d clarify that she meant on social media, not in the stadium.
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
The one thing that most Americans know about the USWNT — the same belief that not only brought Leroux to Arizona as a teenager but convinced her to stay — is that the U.S. is the best. Or is supposed to be. In fact, the United States has two Olympic gold medals, but it hasn’t won a World Cup since 1999. And it has never been more vulnerable than it is now.
In 2012, before graduating from UCLA, Leroux was named the only addition to a group that had lost the World Cup final to Japan the year before. She was changing, but so was her sport. In the 76th minute of the Olympic semifinal in London, Leroux came off the bench with the U.S. trailing 3-2 to, of all teams, Canada. The United States would come back to win in the 122nd minute and then beat Japan for the gold, but it was close enough to make you hold your breath. As good and deep as the U.S. was, it faced ever-growing challenges. Even its depth could seem a liability.
The U.S. is stacked with forwards. There is the phenomenally talented Alex Morgan; the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer, Wambach; the creative and technically flawless Christen Press; and the stalwart Amy Rodriguez, in addition to Leroux. The team often starts only two forwards, which means that Leroux typically finds herself coming off the bench.
She says that now she accepts whatever role she can play to help the team win, but at first it was hard. For some time, she felt stymied, especially playing for the methodically minded Pia Sundhage, who stuck with the lineup that had brought her success. “No matter how well I played, no matter how many goals I scored off the bench, that was my role,” she vented to Sports on Earth’s Noah Davis in early 2014.2 Leroux stressed that she liked Sundhage personally. But, Leroux added, “You were never given anything. You were never rewarded. She knew. And that was it. There was no changing her mind.” When Tom Sermanni took over for Sundhage as coach, he planned to move away from a more physical, set-piece-oriented attacking style toward one better suited to the more freewheeling, creative approach of some of the up-and-coming players. Leroux finished 2013 with 10 goals, second to Wambach’s 11. But some players and officials within U.S. Soccer balked at Sermanni’s laid-back approach and style. Sermanni led the USWNT to a 13-0-3 record in 2013, but after the team finished seventh at the 2014 Algarve Cup in Portugal, he was fired, and Jill Ellis — Leroux’s old coach at UCLA, and Sundhage’s old assistant — was brought in. Ellis reintroduced the direct style that favors older players like Wambach, while cycling through lineup combinations at warp speed.
Davis is a also a Grantland columnist.
Questions hung over the team. Wambach would be 35 at the 2015 World Cup, and the team captain, Christie Rampone, would be turning 40 during the tournament. Hope Solo couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. The team struggled through 2014, and then seemed to come apart at the seams. It tied China 1-1, had scoreless draws against Brazil and Iceland, was soundly beaten by France, got lucky to scrape by England. Wambach appeared to have slowed, and her starting role drew heavy criticism. Players were tried at different positions with lackluster results. “If this was my team, I’d be very unhappy,” Iceland’s coach told Fox Sports in March.
In March, the team won this year’s Algarve Cup, beating France 2-0 in the final — but it was still clear that in the two months before the start of the World Cup, the team had yet to figure out what it would be.
There are feathers on one side of her neck and the outline of a small dove on the other. L-O-V-E runs across her knuckles. The inside of her right biceps reads: “Life is a beautiful struggle.” By the end of her freshman year in college, Leroux had tattoos on her wrist, her hip, her feet. Her neck was inked with her initials — which were also her mother’s. Her back had a large dead oak tree, to which she added flowers. By her junior year, there was a silhouette of her as a child with her mother on her lower right back, above the line, “You believed in me first.” “Caterpillar” was written on her ankle, a reminder of a story she had written as a child about a caterpillar who was “really scared of people,” she told the L.A. Times in 2010, but who became a butterfly “that no one could catch.”
In January, she was married. Her husband, Dom Dwyer, has a small dove on his arm, a clock without hands, and a lion on his shoulder. “Whom shall I fear?” is written across his back. He grew up in Cuckfield, England, and came to the U.S. when he was 18 to play soccer. Dwyer led Tyler Junior College in Texas to two national championships, played a season at the University of South Florida, and now plays for the MLS’s Sporting Kansas City. Dwyer and Leroux were in Los Angeles, having sushi at Sushi Roku, when they decided to go down to Long Beach and get hitched. Sandi Leroux FaceTimed in so that she could witness it.
Leroux, who was playing for the NWSL’s Seattle Reign FC, asked her coach about the possibility of being traded to Kansas City so that she could live with Dwyer. Instead, she was traded to Western New York for Amber Brooks and the rights to Abby Wambach. According to the soccer blog The Equalizer, Seattle considered her request disloyal. She spoke publicly about not intending it that way, and about having been blindsided by the move. “I’m very much ready to settle down,” she told me.
“I used to be so good at just being like, ‘Eh, I’ll see you when I see you,’” Leroux said, “but now it’s like, ‘I miss you, I want to be home.’”
There’s an old proverb that says a wise woman builds her own house. My own mother once told me that we live as hermit crabs do, leaving one shell for another. For some, a body can become a shell. We carry our house with us; we have to make our selves our home.
The U.S. team is in transition, and Leroux’s place on it is too. She may be the future of American soccer, and perhaps even a generational figure in the culture. But it remains to be seen whether she can define its present — or whether she’ll even have the chance. Coming into the second-to-last World Cup tune-up, against Mexico, Leroux had been struggling as much as the team. She hadn’t scored since October, hadn’t started since December, and had spent time with an injured foot in a protective boot. She was making bad decisions — pressing instead of passing, moving out of sync with the team, attacking in isolation.
Then came the match against Mexico, in Carson, California, on a lovely mid-May night. Morgan was out with a bone bruise in her knee. Leroux got the start. And in the 28th minute, she got the ball. Receiving a pass through the middle from Megan Rapinoe, timing her run to stay right at the edge of onside, she flew into the box, dodging the diving keeper, and, just a foot or two before the end line, took a sharp-angled shot. The ball flew across the goal line and into the far side of the net. She’d go on to beat the keeper twice more, hitting the back of the net in the second half for another score.
After the game, it wasn’t her two goals I found myself remembering. It was the way she’d tumbled out of bounds as she scored that first time, sliding across the grass. At the World Cup, the games will be played on turf, despite a lawsuit from more than 40 international players, including Leroux.
The turf in Canada will scrape and burn, and the burns could leave scars. New tattoos. New markings on the map of her experience. Perhaps reaching this place wasn’t as much a gamble as it seems. What she is, she made herself.