Meadville High girls soccer coach Jim Miller has been involved in the game at various levels for nearly 20 years. He says he's observed the uptick in interest after numerous World Cups, as well as the inevitable drop-off as time passes.
Now, though, he and others are hoping that soccer's popularity following the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup championship — its second consecutive — is here to stay.
“When the women’s national team does well, it seems like those are the years that all of a sudden we start increasing in the number of young girls involved in the sport,” Miller said. “And the further you get away from it, the less the numbers.”
For the last month, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) hasn’t just captivated the interest of soccer fans and players. The team’s dominant run through the international field — going 7-0 and outscoring opponents 26-3 — has grabbed the attention of a nation.
“I think by gaining all this national recognition about the victory, as well as the inequality of pay, I think this is going to promote more young girls and young women involved in the sport. That’s what I’m hoping,” Miller said.
One way to harness that momentum is through grassroots efforts. Penn State women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach deployed one Sunday, hosting a championship watch party at Panzer Stadium. Several hundred soccer fans flocked to Penn State's lacrosse home to cheer on Penn State graduates Ali Krieger and Alyssa Naeher on the national team.
“I think from a collegiate standpoint, we can do exactly what we did: Get out into the community and show the kids, give them an opportunity to stand next to the local stars and people who they can look up to,” Dambach said. “I think from the grassroots levels in each of our communities, it’s important to get out. We inspire the next generation.”
Four years ago, Southern Columbia High School graduate and girls soccer assistant Jen Stine traveled to Canada to watch two USWNT contests at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. This time — despite admitting to having looked up ticket prices this year for France — she watched the gold medal game at home with family.
Stine said this year’s World Cup not only thrust the USWNT into living rooms, but it also gave American girls and women a number of new international role models from which to choose.
“I think our local players always saw those women who were on the national stage, but this year with so many of the teams outside of the U.S.A. being televised, our kids really just started watching the game globally,” said Stine, who helped Southern Columbia to the Class A girls soccer title in December. “So, not only are they seeing the Carli Lloyds of the world, they’re seeing Marta and (Wendie) Reynard and those players, and seeing how culturally diverse soccer can be, and how it can impact the game worldwide.”
Chloe Michaels believes the effects of the U.S. victory will spill over into the commonwealth. Michaels, a rising senior, played an instrumental role as a defender last season on a Lewisburg team that finished as state runner-up.
“I think this win will definitely help to build girls soccer programs in all areas,” Michaels said. “I feel like girls will be more motivated to play and strive for success. I think the growing popularity of this women’s team will help build a larger, more involved fan base."
The squad's run of dominance over the last month again stoked the flames of the ongoing debate surrounding equal pay for its players and their male counterparts.
In March, 28 members of the team filed a class action against U.S. Soccer. The lawsuit alleges that the national federation pays female players less than members of the U.S. men’s team in violation of the U.S. Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The players and U.S. Soccer are set to enter mediation now that the World Cup is over.
A MoveOn petition online stating “The US Women’s Soccer Team Deserves Equal Pay” had already garnered 83,953 signatures by Tuesday evening, and audible chants of “Equal pay” were belted from the crowd in France during Sunday’s championship.
Michaels hopes more interest results in more income for USWNT members.
“If sales of merchandise and attendance at games start to rise as popularity increases, then hopefully more profits will be passed down to the players,” she said.
Sunday night, hues of red, white and blue flashed atop the Empire State Building. Today, the newest gold medal winners will be honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
Now that the final goals have been scored, the new goal is to make the nation's interest last long after the final piece of celebratory confetti has been picked up.
Windber High girls soccer coach Paul Buza said he believes the energy harnessed by the USWNT's success won't soon fade. He said momentum has been building ever since the USWNT brought home the gold medal in 2015.
“I think it’s definitely been different,” said Buza, who has coached for six years at Windber. “I think since the tournament four years ago, there has been somewhat of a downtick, but you know, I have girls coming to practice wearing U.S. national team (jerseys). It has done more for youth soccer, especially youth women’s soccer, than probably they even realize. I, for one, am thankful for the success. My numbers have gone up, and I’ve seen numbers go up everywhere from youth-six soccer all the way up to the high school level.”