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Petite Meghan Klingenberg plays big for the U.S. at World Cup

The small room is packed with nearly two dozen reporters when Meghan Klingenberg walks in and takes a seat behind a long white folding table.

"Hi everybody!" she says cheerfully.

That's pretty much how Klingenberg says everything — cheerfully, often punctuated by a laugh.

If Hope Solo is the dark cloud of U.S. soccer, Klingenberg is its pixie-sized ray of sunshine. And on Wednesday she was shining.

"This has been an incredibly fun experience!" she says of her first Women's World Cup. "It's something you've been preparing for your entire life. So when you actually get to participate in it, it's a little bit of pinch-me moment.

"Every time I get to get on the field and play for my country it's an honor. And I just love it."

Klingenberg is also enjoying herself on the field, where she has started all four U.S. games, leading a back line that hasn't given up a goal in its last 333 minutes.

"Everybody needs to stop talking about the streak," she says . "It's good defense, that's what it is."

Well that and a game-saving play from Klingenberg, whose leaping deflection on the goal line not only preserved a scoreless tie with Sweden during group play, but saved the scoreless streak as well.

It was a huge play by the team's smallest player, who comes up short in the height department but nowhere else. Because although the 5-foot-1 Klingenberg may look like Tinker Bell, in her case looks are deceiving.

Pound for pound she's arguably the toughest member of a U.S. team that is unbeaten going into Friday's quarterfinal game with China.

What softie would think of taking nunchucks to school for the fifth-grade talent show, as Klingenberg did? And how many other soccer players are also third-degree black belts in taekwondo?

So don't be fooled by the smile. Growing up she and her younger, but larger, brother would engage in daily one-on-one games in the basement that typically ended with one parent stepping in to separate the siblings.

"My mentality hasn't changed at all," Klingenberg says. "Every game I play I want to win."

Toughness isn't always enough though. You also need heart, desire and dedication. Which is why there's a copy of an 11-year-old email taped to a bathroom mirror in Klingenberg's childhood home outside Pittsburgh.

In the email, a coach informs the then 15-year-old she isn't good enough to make the roster for a regional Olympic Development Program team. Klingenberg was not pleased.

"Meghan printed the email and put it on that mirror in the bathroom so she could see it every day," her father Daniel told the Houston Chronicle.

It wouldn't be the last time Klingenberg was told she wasn't good enough.

During the last Olympics, she traveled to London as an alternate and trained as many as three times a day, many times alone. She then watched from the stands as the U.S. won the gold medal.

Klingenberg didn't play again for former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. And although she was called into camp under Sundhage's successor, Tom Sermanni, she didn't become a regular until 14 months ago, when Jill Ellis took over the team and has started Klingenberg in 26 of her 30 games as coach.

She arrived at the World Cup with the second-fewest international appearances among U.S. starters, but Klingenberg quickly became an anchor on a young back line that has given up only 11 shots on goal in the tournament.

"I've been really pleased with the maturity they've had," Ellis said of the team's defenders. "They've done a fantastic job reading the game and staying composed."

Given the lackluster performance by the U.S. on offense, the defense may need another shutout, which would extend the scoreless streak to 423 minutes, to beat China on Friday.

"As long as we keep doing that and keeping a zero on that score sheet, we will absolutely be in every game that we play," Klingenberg says.

Eventually, the conversation circles back to whether she's having fun and Klingenberg's face brightens again.

"I'm having a blast!" she says. "There's so many different words you can use to describe the World Cup. Fun is definitely one of them."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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