Amy LePeilbet unleashed a powerful fist pump and a contagious smile as a ball sank into the back of the net at FC Kansas City practice on Thursday.
Although it is quite a stretch from where she was the last time the U.S. Women’s National Team was fighting for a FIFA Women’s World Cup title, it is exactly where she wants to be right now.
The veteran defender was right in the heat of it in 2011, starting all six games in the U.S. team’s run to the final. She continued to play and won gold with the 2012 U.S. Olympic team before being sidelined by an ACL injury that kept her off the pitch for nearly 16 months.
She made her triumphant return for the Blues last June, but was not quite up for the challenge of making this year’s World Cup roster. Instead, she will be watching Sunday from Kansas City as the U.S. women take on Japan at 6 p.m. at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver for a shot at an unprecedented third World Cup title. It would be the team’s first since 1999. The game will be broadcast on Fox.
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“It definitely brings back memories, but they are really good memories,” LePeilbet said. “I am really happy with my career and my time with that team, so I’m not bitter about not being on that team. I’m just so happy for that team, and I have good friends on that team.
“I played with so many for so long that I just want them to win that so bad.”
The matchup with Japan is even more intriguing for LePeilbet because she was there when Japan defeated the United States on penalty kicks in 2011. She was also there when the Americans avenged that loss in the 2012 Olympics.
“I bet the girls are loving it, what an opportunity,” LePeilbet said. “I think we had a really good game against Japan, but they are a good team, and they never gave up. It was a fight (until) the end, and we ended in a tie and PKs had to decide that, which you never want. They were great and they deserved to win that game.”
LePeilbet started with the national team in 2004, earning her first six caps at the Four Nations Tournament in China, the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Costa Rica and the Algarve Cup in Portugal. She earned her first start in a 2-0 victory against Canada on Feb. 3 of that year.
In 2006, she had her first bout with ACL injuries, which sidelined her until 2009, when she returned to start four matches. From there, she became a regular on the central defense, playing in 57 games in the next three seasons despite fighting through consistent knee pain.
After the Olympics, she got a scope that told her the ACL was essentially non-functioning and sent her back on the path to recovery.
Once she returned, however, she helped the Blues win the National Women’s Soccer League title in 2014, playing in 11 games. She has played every minute of the team’s first 11 games this season.
“Everything Amy went through in the past two years or so has been amazing because in order to do that, it doesn’t just take personality and character,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “It takes heart, hard work, dedication, discipline, commitment and she is one person that has all those attributes. Having her on the field now, guiding some of the young players around her, and being a true leader is just a blessing.”
Although LePeilbet is not in Canada with the national team, she still has plenty of close ties to the roster including four current teammates on FC Kansas City: Becky Sauerbrunn, Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez and Heather O’Reilly.
Sauerbrunn, a fellow defender, leads the U.S. backline, which has 513-minute shutout streak going into Sunday’s final despite goalkeeper Hope Solo only making 12 saves through six matches. The only goal the Americans have allowed was in the 27th minute of an opening-round match against Australia.
“Individually they are all very good, but those five work really well together,” LePeilbet said. “They are sliding together, bumping together, tackling, getting into things, covering for one another and they are all so in sync that they are very difficult to beat.”
Sauerbrunn has started and played each minute in the United States’ run so far, which has brought the 30-year-old to 87 international caps. She was even a mainstay in Golden Ball conversations because of the defense’s success. Ultimately, Julie Johnston made the final cut, and Solo is a candidate for Golden Glove.
“Sometimes, I think she goes unnoticed because she is so good and makes things look so simple, so people don’t always notice her,” LePeilbet said. “She always has great starting positions, she is running the line, she is the one in charge of that group, and she is doing a fantastic job.”
FC Kansas City, along with WIN for KC and Sporting Kansas City, will hold a watch party Sunday in the KC Live! block of the Power & Light District. LePeilbet said the U.S. team’s ability to host a string of well-attended watch parties around the city is just another sign of how the country is continuing to embrace women’s soccer since she played in 2011.
It shows in the television ratings as well. The U.S. women’s game against Germany on Tuesday averaged 8.4 million viewers, the largest audience for a World Cup men’s or women’s semifinal. It was also the third-largest audience for a women’s soccer match, trailing only the 1999 and 2011 World Cup finals.
“Everyone loved the storylines and really wanted us to win. Of course we wanted to win as well and then for us to play Japan again was like a storybook,” LePeilbet said. “People have been showing up to the U.S. games for the last four years very consistently, which is fantastic for us. Now, going into this World Cup, everyone here wants it just as bad as that team.”
Women’s World Cup final
▪ WHO: U.S. vs. Japan
▪ WHEN: 6 tonight
▪ TV: Fox (Channel 4)
▪ WATCH PARTY: KC Live! Block of the Power & Light District