- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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STORRS, Conn. -- Soccer has taken Meghan Schnur and Brittany Taylor to distant reaches of the globe, granting them passage to places like Brazil, Thailand and Norway. What the two discovered during those travels has guided them down different paths.
Together for one more year in the rolling hills of eastern New England, they hope to lead a young University of Connecticut women's soccer team on a less exotic trek to College Station, Texas and this year's College Cup.
Schnur has been to the College Cup once before. As a true freshman in 2003, she started 22 of 23 games for a team that advanced to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to North Carolina, the same illustrious program that defeated Connecticut in its three previous championship game appearances. Even with that sour ending, it was a tremendous debut season for the rookie, a player who came out of Butler, Pa., as a McDonald's and Parade All-American and one of the nation's top recruits.
"We brought her in as an impact player," Connecticut coach Len Tsantiris explained. "She did a very good job and we did well that year."
With that kind of emerging profile, it was no surprise the following year when Schnur earned a spot on the United States national team for the Under-19 World Championships in Thailand. That duty necessitated a redshirt season at Connecticut in order to train for an event which coincided with the fall college season. But despite the fond memories she gained of places like Phuket, which still tops her list of dream destinations, she returned to campus having played sparingly for a team that finished third in the tournament.
"I don't know if it was personally that I took it for granted, because I had been in with national teams when I was younger and it was kind of something that became -- I don't know if accustomed is the right word, but [I was] used to going into those events," Schnur reflected. "I think it was really a wake-up call, in a sense that it was a great experience and I'm so glad, but I also realized where I was in comparison to some of the other players my own age. And though I was doing all right, compared to some of the other top kids we had over there in Thailand, I knew I had a lot of work to do."
Pursuing a future with the senior women's national team, the one that will take the field in China next week for the World Cup, is a cutthroat business. Especially when there is no domestic professional league for players once they finish with college (although there are still hopes of restarting one in 2009), the youth national system is a crucial proving ground. Both the international tournaments contested at various age levels and the domestic training camps used to select teams can be make-or-break auditions. And after so much unmitigated success at every step of her soccer career, Schnur had run headfirst into evidence of her own athletic mortality.
Throw in all the inherent pressures of college life at the close of a person's second decade and Schnur found she was mired in what she described as a sophomore slump.
"I don't know what it is," Schnur explained, "But you come to a point and you're just down in the dumps and you're like, 'You know what, this isn't for me; I don't really know if I'm going to get through it.' I mean, coach and I have definitely had our disagreements, and through it all, he's been right, obviously. But clearly, as a teenager, a 19-year-old, 20-year-old, you think you know everything."
Perhaps the biggest bone of contention between Schnur and Tsantiris was the midfielder's fitness. Tsantiris, who after nearly 30 years on the job still looks like he could play a full 90 minutes and then take a leisurely ride on the bike he uses to get around campus, recalled repeatedly subbing for Schnur, a track champion in high school at 800 meters, during games in her second season at Connecticut. In his mind, she wasn't fit enough to play the full 90 minutes at the level he expected of her.
"When I was a young kid, it wasn't ever an issue," Schnur said. "I mean, I think you're just so used to doing so many things. The first year wasn't a problem, but then different things in college, I kind of lost sight of that and thought that I could get by just on talent."
It's always tempting to try and fit people into preconceived molds, but they often emerge as no more an accurate representation of someone than a street artist's two-dimensional caricature. And in Schnur's case, any image of the stereotypical unfocused or unmotivated star failing to live up to immense potential quickly evaporates. A first-team NSCAA Scholar All-American majoring in physical therapy, academic pursuits which kept her close to home over the summer while playing for the Women's Premier Soccer League's New England Mutiny, she is a bright, engaging and quick to laugh.
When the conversation turned to her teammate Taylor, who was killing time on a computer a few feet away, Schnur quickly pounced.
"I don't like her," Schnur laughed and then deadpanned, "No seriously, put that in there."
She is a contemplative 22-year-old who speaks softly without being soft-spoken. In practice, she is alternately encouraging and firm with teammates, pointedly telling one that the team needs her to get forward more aggressively.
"I think, like any of them, you're more concerned about yourself and what you need to do and what's going on in your life," assistant coach Sarah Barnes said of Schnur's early days. "I think they're always going to be that way, but she's better now at sort of surveying what's going on with other people and helping out when she needs to."
When Schnur was absent in 2004, Taylor stepped in as a freshman and helped fill the void for the Huskies. Playing up front, she scored eight goals, including a remarkable seven game-winners. But while training with the youth national program last year, missing the cut for the U-20 team that went to the World Championships in Russia but playing a key role for the U-21 team that competed in the annual Nordic Cup, she shifted to the back line. With his own defense in need of a quick fix late last fall, Tsantiris followed suit and played Taylor as a central defender. Even though the Huskies fell in the second round against No. 1 seed Texas, the move helped stabilize a team that at one point appeared in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether.
"She's a great athlete," Tsantiris explained. "She's not a front player; she's a defender at the higher level. She sees the field well -- she's very good technically, she makes very good decisions, she serves really good balls. She understands the defense and sees the field. She's a good player with things in front of her."
With her white cleats and trademark headband capping off a tall frame, Taylor cuts a rather imposing figure on the pitch. She plays with an aggressive confidence, the kind of athletic arrogance backed up by a tremendous work rate that infuses confidence in her fellow defenders. As the oldest player on the youth national team that went to the Pan-Am Games in Brazil to compete against senior national teams from Canada and Brazil, Taylor gained experience leading a defense that shut down Christine Sinclair and Canada before falling to the hosts in the final.
"I had faced it before, but not in that atmosphere," Taylor said of staring down the world's best strikers.
Now settling into her new position (although defense was the first position she ever played as a kid), Taylor is looking at a future that might include a shot at making the senior national team in time for the 2011 World Cup or the 2012 Olympics.
It's certainly not out of the question that Schnur eventually might earn caps of her own with the senior national team, especially if the pro league returns. Current national team members Shannon Boxx and Marci Miller are two examples of players headed to China who emerged as candidates as much from their post-college play as their youth experiences. But as her final college season got underway, five years after she set foot on campus with a limitless future, Schnur sounded less concerned with chasing yet another accolade than simply finding a way to keep playing a game she now knows she loves.
"I definitely can't see myself without soccer for the rest of my life," Schnur said. "That's something I've talked to my parents about, and I've just told them I don't know what I would do, because it has been such a part of all my decision making. Every choice that I've made always had some bit of soccer in it."
Schnur and Taylor discovered different things on their treks around the world, but they appear to have landed in the right place at the right time for the University of Connecticut.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.