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By GOOSE LINDSAY
When Christina Neal was nine years old, she had the opportunity to meet soccer legend Mia Hamm while Hamm was in Nashville playing for the United States Women's Soccer Team in a game against Canada.
That meeting made a lasting impression on Neal who vowed that day to one day be like Hamm and represent her country on the international stage. Neal is now living out that dream as next month she will be playing for the United States International U19 Soccer Team in the 2009 Gothia Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“Ever since the day I shook her (Hamm's) hand I've dreamed of this,” Neal said. “I said that's going to be me one day, I'm going to play for the U.S. team. I can't wait, I'm stoked.”
Neal, a junior-to-be at Roane County High School, was given her opportunity to make the squad by her performance at a college showcase tournament in Germantown. Neal was her team's leading scorer at the showcase and her outstanding play didn't go unnoticed.
“After the showcase I received a letter wanting to know if I was interested in playing for the U.S.,” Neal said. “Once I applied I waited about a month and figured I had no shot at this, but then I got the news at school that I had made the USA Team and I jumped, hollered and screamed.”
Neal's selection is a huge honor as she was only one of 30 players selected out of 1,200 players that were up for the team. What makes Neal's selection more impressive is the fact that she is only 16 years old and will be playing in an age division set up for players 19 years of age.
Neal, however, isn't intimidated about playing against older players and believes the older players best not take her lightly.
“Soccer is my life,” she said. “I feel I can play with them and possibly better than them. My level of play is really fast and I feel I will be more intense than any of them.”
Neal's journey begins July 7 when she travels to Raleigh, NC for three days of training with her teammates at WakeMed Soccer Park, home of the USFL's Carolina Railhawks. From there, Neal and athletes from 61 countries will travel to Sweden for two weeks where they will play a minimum of 10 games.
The strength of Neal's game is her speed and her ability to score or set up goals on offense. Last season, she led the Lady Jackets in both goals and assists and she is expected to play forward or center midfield during her time in Sweden.
“Those are my two strongest positions,” Neal said. “I'm aggressive with the ball.”
Playing soccer, however, isn't the only thing on Neal's mind as she heads to Europe. At this time of year, Gothenburg experiences 21 hours a day of sunshine and that will give Neal and her teammates plenty of time for sightseeing.
“I'm wanting to learn more about their culture and how they experience soccer in their life,” Neal said. “I also want to see how they live compared to us.”
Neal also plans on using next month's experience as a way to help her Lady Jacket teammates at Kingston.
“I'm not a great coach, but what I learn from this I'll help teach others,” she said. “This is going to help me improve my knowledge of the game and hopefully I can help make my teammates better also.”