It began with an email. She had been hoping for-but not expecting-an invitation to training camp, and a few days after the end of her sophomore season, there it was, sitting in her inbox.
It was impossible to predict what the call up would bring for McKenzie Meehan-her selection sparked more questions than answers. Would she survive roster cuts? Make the tournament team? Get playing time? Would the goal-scoring consistency she’d displayed all season-and all of her life-translate at an even higher level?
Could she do this?
Several weeks after opening that email, Meehan, having tied for Golden Boot at the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship, would know the answers.
Last December, two weeks and a day after the BC women’s soccer team ended its NCAA tournament run with a disappointing 4-0 loss to Florida State in the Elite Eight, Meehan began her first day of training camp with the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team in Sunrise, Fla.
At 5-foot-5, Meehan is a relatively average-sized player. She isn’t the strongest, the fastest, or the flashiest, and she doesn’t provide many assists-only one for the Eagles in the 2013 season. Meehan is a natural finisher, and she does it efficiently-over, and over, and over again-just like clockwork.
Over the course of the 2013 season, Meehan found the back of the net 20 times in 23 games for the Eagles. That goal hoard was large enough to break the BC women’s soccer single-season scoring record, tie Meehan for sixth in the country for goals scored by Division I women’s soccer players, and put that invitation in her inbox.
Meehan wasn’t the only clinical finisher invited to camp, though. University of Florida freshman Savannah Jordan scored 22 goals in 24 games. Makenzy Doniak, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, scored 20 goals in 26 games. And then there was Lindsey Horan, a 19-year-old professional forward for Paris Saint-Germain FC.
While Meehan was selected for camp, going any further, or getting any playing time, was far from guaranteed. The pressure was on.
A week after the start of her camp, U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team coach Michelle French faced a dilemma shared by all coaches with an abundance of talent at their disposal: roster cuts. The number of camp invitees-27-somehow needed to drop to magic number 20, the amount of players the U.S. U-20 team would bring in its final fight for World Cup qualification.
That Saturday, Meehan was told she was in-she would travel to George Town, Grand Cayman, in red and white stripes.
The first week in the Cayman Islands was spent training and building team chemistry. After one rain-soaked boat trip to Sting Ray City and days of practice, the tournament began, with the ultimate goal of U-20 World Cup qualification just a few wins away.
“Once the games started, we were all just focused on soccer,” Meehan said.
Heading into the first game, Meehan’s expectations were tempered by the talent surrounding her.
“I wasn’t expecting to start or anything,” Meehan said. “I was just hoping that if I did get any time at all I could just contribute as a substitute.”
Team USA’s first game was against Costa Rica. It was a drubbing, a 6-0 takedown in favor of the Americans. Meehan began the game sitting on the bench and ended the match still rooted to it, stuck without a chance to prove herself on the pitch.
“It was a little bit disappointing, but you can only use three subs a game,” Meehan said. “So I was disappointed, but I was hoping that maybe the next game I would get a chance.”
Two days later, in the 72nd minute of the U.S.’s game against Jamaica, Meehan got that elusive opportunity.
Coming off the bench as a sub for Jordan, Meehan was tense. The U.S. was up two goals, but nerves led to mistakes as she tried to settle into the game. Then, 10 minutes after her introduction to the game, Meehan struck.
Midge Purce, a freshman forward from Harvard, whipped a cross in Meehan’s direction. Pouncing on the opportunity, Meehan got a piece of the ball, toe poking it back post past Jamaica goalkeeper Chris-Ann Chambers.
The goal launched her onto the board and French’s radar.
With one group-stage game remaining, and her team already through to the next round, French decided to rest a few of the previous games’ starters. With the decision, Meehan replaced University of North Carolina freshman Summer Green in the starting 11 against Guatemala.
Going into the tournament, Meehan never imagined she would net a hat trick for her country. With 16 minutes remaining in the U.S.’s 10-0 demolition of Guatemala, the forward had three goals in the bag, and a starting spot on lock down for the semifinals.
Next up were the semifinals. It took a mere 13 minutes for Meehan to open up scoring against Trinidad and Tobago. The forward’s header marked the game winner and the goal that sent the U.S. through to the finals. Coming out of halftime, it would take longer-20 minutes-for Meehan to score, but she’d net her second goal of the 6-0 victory in the 65th minute.
Having entered the tournament as a sideline player, Meehan had defied all expectations.
“McKenzie is at her best when she’s faced up one-v-one in the final third of the field, with the opportunity to cross or finish,” French said in an email. “She is equally as dangerous due to her incredible ability to get herself in good goal-scoring positions, particularly inside the 18-yard box. Not only does she have a knack for getting in those positions, she’s also extremely efficient as a finisher.”
The U.S. played Mexico in the championship match on Jan. 19. Meehan would start but not score in the 4-0 American victory. With the U.S. struggling for possession in the first half, Meehan shifted her game.
“I did a lot of defensive pressure to help out,” Meehan said. “I think Mexico was a decent game. I feel like in the first half we didn’t have the ball as much.”
Subbed off in the 62nd minute, Meehan finished the tournament as co-leader in goals scored with Mexico’s Tanya Samarzich, and the U.S. took home the gold medal.
The U-20 Women’s World Cup is a little more than seven months away. Back at school, for Meehan, the goal becomes making a roster once again.
“I really hope that I can keep a spot on the team until the World Cup, but it’s a long way away and there’s going to be camps each month,” Meehan said. “So I can just hope that I get invited to the next camp every time and just work hard to keep proving myself.”
Right now, it’s impossible for Meehan, or anyone else, to predict what will happen. There’s no shortage of talent in the U.S. development program, and despite her fantastic start to 2014, Meehan’s continued place on the team is no sure thing.
From now until August, email-to-email, game-to-game, Meehan’s World Cup hopes will live by the goal, or die by the goal.