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Team USA’s Sydney Leroux tries to quiet Canadian critics

Sydney Leroux embraces the US while enduring boos from Canada.

armando franca/associated press

Sydney Leroux embraces the US while enduring boos from Canada.

There are 16 tattoos on Sydney Leroux’s body. Maybe 17; she’s lost track.

 They range from symbolic (the sprawling silhouette of a dead oak tree) to sentimental (a depiction of her Chihuahua).

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 There’s also the literal. A quote on her forearm reads: “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”

 That tattoo best illustrates Leroux’s ascent as a rising — and polarizing — star for the US women’s soccer team.

Leroux and Team USA face Korea Republic in an exhibition Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, a kind of home match for the 23-year-old member of the Boston Breakers.

 “For the past seven years, I feel like I’ve been living out of a suitcase,” Leroux said. “So here in Boston, it finally feels like I’ve settled.”

Her controversial soccer odyssey began in Surrey, British Columbia, where she grew up.

“I have a home video where she’s 6 years old and she slide-tackles,” said her mother, Sandi Leroux. “Then you hear another parent in the background say, ‘Wow, this kid is going to be on the national team one day.’ ”

But Leroux had said from a very early age that she wanted to play for the US national team. At the time, Canada wasn’t the soccer power it has become today, evidenced by the epic Olympic battle with the US in last summer’s Games in England.

Leroux’s aspirations were crystallized while watching the 1999 World Cup, which the Mia Hamm-led US team captured.

“I’m sitting on the couch and turned to my mom,” Sydney recalled. “And I said, ‘I want to play for them. I want to play for the best team in the world.’ ”

Because Leroux’s father, former California Angels player Ray Chadwick, is American, her dream was possible.

At 15, Leroux moved out.

“She slept with me until she was 13,” Sandi Leroux said. “So imagine what it was like being on her own at that age.”

At first she lived in Washington. Sandi had friends there, and it was close enough to visit often. But Sydney was told to move south to get noticed by national coaches.

“She was on the next plane to Arizona,” Sandi said.

So began an itinerant, lonely life. Leroux lived in six homes over two years, staying with casual acquaintances or friends of friends. Some weren’t good fits.

 Leroux’s mom was her only confidante. Sandi Leroux encouraged her daughter after every tearful phone call.

“Sometimes I would say, ‘I’m done, I think I made the wrong decision,’ ” Sydney said.

But she persevered, and the speedy striker earned a scholarship to UCLA. Canadian officials kept pressing her to join the national team. Leroux avoided their calls as if they were telemarketers.

They finally stopped when Leroux and the US qualified for the 2012 Olympics. She was a welcome addition, coming off the bench and scoring 17 goals in 16 international games.

 “She’s so fast and so aggressive,” said teammate Alex Morgan, a breakout star during the 2011 World Cup. “She’s a rare talent. How could you not want Syd on your team?”

With the US playing a two-forward system, which includes Abby Wambach (2012 FIFA Player of the Year) and Morgan (44 goals over the past three years), Leroux patiently waits for her opportunities.

While drawing attention on the field, she’s a marked player off it.

“I can’t count how many angry or nasty tweets I’ve gotten in the past year,” Leroux said. “Hundreds? Mostly from angry Canadians.”

Leroux, who is biracial, said many contain sexist or racist slurs.

“She’s taken screen shots and shown me some of the things people say,” Morgan said. “It’s disgusting. You can tell her not to look, but that’s not realistic. It’s human nature, it’s going to affect you.”

Sandi, who still lives in Canada, is also experiencing the abuse. When she went into a local Costco, the store’s greeter glared at her.

“And I see on Twitter that he posts something like, ‘Saw the traitor’s mom out shopping today,’ ” Sandi Leroux said. “I mean come on, really? You’re going to be nasty about a 23-year-old girl achieving her dream, a dream she had every right to chase?”

Sydney Leroux maintains an upbeat attitude around her teammates. She’s affable and goofy, according to Morgan, urging them to make parody videos or dress like US gymnasts McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas for Halloween.

Earlier this month, at Toronto, Leroux was booed every time she touched the ball. The crowd also taunted her, chanting “Judas.”

 When Leroux scored the final goal, she raised the US crest on her jersey and put a finger over her mouth.

“You see that celebration all the time,’’ said Morgan. “Soccer players are known for celebrations. But with Sydney, it’s always different.”

It was a rare display of public emotion for Leroux, who has been quiet about the abuse. But she has no regrets about her celebration.

“I’m glad that I stuck up for myself,” Leroux said. “There’s little girls out there who look like me or might look up to me. And they need to see here’s someone who’s not going to take it.”

Leroux said winning a gold medal with Team USA last summer was validating, but she is already eyeing the 2015 World Cup.

Fittingly, the tournament is in — where else? — Canada.

Emily Kaplan can be reached at emily.kaplan@globe.com.
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