Julie Johnston will lead her USA side out onto the field at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Japan 2012 as captain. “It's a great honour," the 20-year-old said, reliving the emotional moment when she was chosen by her team-mates to wear the armband. “We've become a family over time, but I'm aware of the responsibility involved. I'll do everything that has to be done," she said.
For many months now, coach Steve Swanson and his 21 players have been focusing hard on the global showdown. USA qualified for the tournament in majestic style, and the build-up has largely been trouble-free. The 2002 and 2008 winners appear in formidable form ahead of the sixth edition of the U-20 tournament, which begins on Sunday.
“We're totally excited and really looking forward to it starting at last," Johnston told FIFA.com at the USA team hotel in Hiroshima. It is the central defender’s first world tournament, but she and her team-mates are brimming with confidence. While acknowledging that any number of the teams are realistic contenders, USA will be focused only on themselves: “We're up to the challenge," she said.
Awe and admiration for idol
And a challenge it will be, with a very strong Group D line-up also including defending champions Germany, China PR and Ghana. A group stage ‘final’ of sorts against the Germans in the last round of group matches appears a strong possibility, but the US juniors are not thinking that far ahead, preferring to concentrate instead on the opening skirmishes with Ghana and China PR. Curiously enough, at the last FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in 2010, the North Americans also opened against the Africans. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, and USA went on to be eliminated at the quarter-final stage for the first and only time in tournament history.
Johnston and Co are determined not to allow any repeat of events two years ago. The tall defender draws inspiration from no less an icon than Christie Rampone, captain of the senior US side. Rampone has made 266 appearances for her country, won the FIFA Women's World Cup™ in 1999, and is the first USA player to feature at four Women's Olympic Football Tournaments. At the recently concluded London Games, she became the first player to collect a third gold medal. “I model myself on her and look up to her. Obviously achieving what she's achieved would be magnificent. I'd really like to meet her just once," the college soccer star acknowledged.
It is barely possible to compare the players, although one interesting stat shows that Rampone has a total of four goals for her country so far, exactly the same number scored by Johnston for the U-20 team in a mere 13 appearances.
Raring to go
“Basically, I occasionally get the chance to go forward, and then I obviously try and make something of it," explained Johnston with a broad grin. The starlet is besotted with her chosen game: “I love everything about it. You can learn so much, about leadership qualities, discipline and so on. This sport contains every known emotion," she declared.
Once in Japan, the players will have a lot more on their plates than simple emotions, as the conditions promise to be punishing in the extreme, with temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius and high humidity. That won't be a problem for Johnston personally, as she grew up in sun-baked Arizona. As for the humidity, she feels it is a hurdle to be overcome by the team as a whole.
Johnston is clearly not a player who seeks to get her excuses in first. She is itching to make a start on the mission of winning the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, and making things happen where it actually matters, out on the pitch.