HEIDELBERG, Germany — When 11-year-old Lauren Cheney and her teammates went to watch the United States play Nigeria at the 1999 World Cup, they brought along playbooks so they could write down what they would do when it was their turn on soccer’s biggest stage.
Hard to imagine they drew it up any better than what Cheney did Tuesday.
Cheney scored in her first World Cup appearance, giving the United States its first goal of the tournament and turning what had been an uncomfortably tight game into the kind of confident and creative performance that has made the U.S. the world’s most dominant team the last two decades. With their 2-0 victory over North Korea, the Americans are atop Group C and could book a spot in the quarterfinals as early as Saturday.
“This is what we live to do,” Cheney said Wednesday. “We play because of this tournament, because of this stage.”
A latecomer to the U.S. national team — she started with the U-20 team instead of working her way up through the youth squads as so many players do — Cheney’s big break came in 2008. After helping the Americans qualify for the Beijing Olympics, the Indianapolis native was named an alternate.
Then in the last game before the U.S. left for Beijing, Abby Wambach broke her leg.
“I actually wouldn’t watch the game. I would listen to it, but I didn’t want to watch completely because I was still a little torn,” Cheney said. “But my dad was watching and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, Lauren, Abby just got hurt. It’s bad.’ ‘I said, ‘Oh, she’s dramatic. She’s fine, totally fine.'”
Ten minutes later, Cheney’s phone rang. It was Wambach, calling from the ambulance to say Cheney needed to start packing.
“She said she knew that I could do it. And that I deserved it,” Cheney said. “To have Abby tell me she thought I belonged there, it made me feel comfortable going in.”
Her role in Beijing would be much different than she was used to, however. At UCLA, she was a star. She had led the Pac-10 in points and goals as a freshman, and finished second in voting for the Hermann Trophy — soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman — as a sophomore. Her name was a given in the starting lineup, and everyone knew she’d be getting the ball.
In Beijing, Cheney would be a role player. NBC wouldn’t be doing a sappy, pre-game feature on her. She’d be coming off the bench — if she got in a game at all.
“The ’08 experience, it humbled me completely,” Cheney said. “I wasn’t going to be star, I wasn’t going to be even remotely close to a starter. But I could encourage everybody else. I could make them better players just by being there. That was the first time I’d ever really done that. I learned how to be a teammate instead of just playing.
“It taught me how to work even harder, too,” she added. “You want to work harder for your teammates. You want them to be the best they are when they’re starting, when they’re playing.”
The lessons Cheney learned in Beijing have stayed with her, even as she’s become an increasingly important part of the U.S. team. Though she occasionally found herself back in the starting lineup last season as Wambach recovered from an Achilles injury, most of her appearances have come off the bench.
Rather than moping about a supporting role, Cheney relishes the education it’s given her.
“I actually embraced that role because I get to figure out what’s going on in the game first before I go in. So when I go in, I know exactly what I need to do and how I can switch the game,” she said. “Starting is extremely different. You have to be ready, have to have good warmup, do everything right from the beginning. Not only that, you have to figure it out on the field.”
But Cheney’s sharpness in training impressed Sundhage enough that she started the 23-year-old against North Korea. It was Cheney’s first start since March.
“It’s so important to create an environment where you’re fighting for that spot,” Sundhage said. “It’s not been just one or two practices. Consistently, for a while, she’s been fighting for that spot.”
Cheney was relentless in the attack, repeatedly peppering North Korean goalkeeper Hong Myong Hui. Hong managed to corral all of Cheney’s shots until the 54th minute, when Wambach sprinted up the left flank, turned a North Korean defender around with a nifty step and then served up a perfect cross that Cheney headed into the net. The goal erased all the nerves the Americans had been feeling, and they dominated the North Koreans the rest of the game.
It may not have been a 7-1 rout like Cheney and her friends saw back in 1999. But the Americans were the only team in the tournament to win their opening game by more than one goal, and they easily could have tacked on another two or three.
“That feeling is surreal,” Cheney said. “To be on the field, it’s just pure joy.”