MANCHESTER, England -- A funny thing happened after Sydney Leroux scored the final goal that sent the U.S. into Monday's Olympic women's soccer semifinals against Canada (2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The 22-year-old Leroux's celebration of her first Olympic goal was so ecstatic that a screengrab of it -- her eyes as wide as saucers, her mouth letting loose a primal scream-went viral within her own team.
Several of Leroux's teammates changed their Twitter avatars to the picture, including Lauren Cheney, Christie Rampone, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O'Reilly, Lori Lindsey and Abby Wambach. "Her face kind of says it all," says Wambach. "It was one of my favorite moments on a soccer pitch in my life, because it brought back everything really good about what sports is. It made me really feel like I was participating in the Olympics."
The U.S. has done its share of planned goal celebrations as a team in this tournament, but it's revealing that Leroux's spontaneous explosion of joy is the one that has gained the most traction. For players and fans, there's a powerful draw to seeing the highs of the Olympics through the eyes of someone who's experiencing it for the first time.
Leroux isn't jaded about anything, which makes sense, considering she's the youngest member of the U.S.'s 18-player squad and the only one who wasn't on last year's World Cup team. As a late-game forward substitute with the instructions to "just go crazy," as she puts it, Leroux is one of the few non-starters who can decide a game for the Americans. And if she happens to do that against Canada, her emotions would be off the charts.
Leroux was born in Surrey, B.C., a Vancouver suburb, to Sandi Leroux (a Canadian national softball team player) and Ray Chadwick (an American who pitched briefly for the California Angels). As a 14-year-old, Sydney played for Canada in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup, but a year later she moved to the U.S. to play club ball. Living with host families in Arizona, she had a hard time adjusting to a new country at age 15 without any family around.
"There were a lot of times I was like, maybe I didn't make the right decision," she says. "There were times I was really upset. I was in Arizona and all by myself. I didn't have any friends, didn't have any family, and I was like, Why am I doing this? I hadn't really made a name for myself in the U.S. yet. Coaches told me I should just go back because there were players just as good as me and better. That kind of lit a fire under me. I didn't give up everything not to succeed."
Leroux's father has played only a minor role in her life, but he was American, which allowed her to apply for U.S. citizenship. With less than two months to go before she turned 18, he signed the papers she needed to get her U.S. passport. "It took a little while, but he did it," says Leroux, who would go on to score five goals for the U.S. at both the 2008 and '10 Under-20 World Cups. And while she says some Canadian fans have been tough on her, she has learned to accept it in stride.
"I wanted to play on the best team in the world, and that's what I consider the U.S. to be," Leroux says. "I knew I wanted to go to school there and one day hopefully live and build a family there. It just seemed appropriate to have a career in the U.S. as well."
A former UCLA teammate of U.S. midfielder Cheney, Leroux has put on high-energy displays in each of her Olympic appearances in a reserve role similar to the one Alex Morgan had during last year's World Cup. Her speed and fearlessness could come in handy against a Canada team that likes to mix it up in a physical game with the U.S., which has gone 26 matches and 11 years without losing to Canada. Not for nothing did Canada coach John Herdman try to play some mind games on Sunday, claiming that the U.S. gets away with "highly illegal" rough play on set pieces. (There has been contact in the box during this tournament, but I haven't seen the U.S. engage in any more of it than other countries.)
As for Leroux, she can mix it up with anyone, though she has to make sure she keeps up her protein intake as the only vegetarian on the U.S. team. "It's not easy, because sometimes we're at places where the food isn't great in the first place," says Leroux, who decided to swear off meat and fish three years ago out of a love for animals. (Her Chihuahua, Boss, has his own Twitter page.) "It's good when we're in the U.S. because I have a separate meal set up for me. Here it's a little more difficult. I've learned to figure out things and make little meals for myself." During the Olympics, she has been eating a regular diet of beans, protein shakes and (reluctantly) eggs.
It seems likely that Leroux will get on the field again in Monday's semifinal, especially with starter Alex Morgan nursing a knee knock that might keep her from going a full 90 minutes. Who knows? Against the country of her birth, Leroux might give her growing fan base the chance to experience the Olympics through her wide eyes again.