The other day at Robbie's high school game, his team mate's little sister was a ball girl. She wore her soccer uniform with socks carefully rolled up to her knees and shorts nearly down to her knees. She took her job seriously and jogged up and down the sidelines following the action keenly and tossing the players a ball when needed. I don't know her age, but I'm guessing it wasn't more than nine. Yet in the heat and over the course of 80 minutes she fulfilled her responsibilities completely. She never wavered in her focus. I was impressed by her intensity and knowledge of the game. Naturally it doesn't hurt to have older siblings who play soccer. There's a certain amount of learning through the osmosis of observation. But lots of kids at her age would have eventually lost interest in the game and spent the time kicking the ball at the fence.
Girls' soccer continues to grow despite the paucity of opportunities after college. While my sons and their friends have hundreds of possibilities to play soccer outside of club, high school, and college, girls have limited access to professional and amateur soccer. The one bright spot is that there are more college scholarships available for girls than for boys. So at least girls have the chance to see more of their college costs offset. But the number is still small enough that no one should count on a significant dent made on overall college expenses.
Despite the demise of the Women's United Soccer Association, other leagues have moved in to fill the void. Besides amateur leagues that exist in various states such as California and Georgia, there's the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) www.wpsl.info
which transition's into the Women's Professional League (WPS) www.womensprosoccer.com
and the USL's W League http://wleague.uslsoccer.com
. It's a kick to go on these websites and see players profiled with multiple honors and extensive experience in the sport. Because women soccer players need to train from a young age year-round and push themselves competitively if they want to advance in the sport, their resumes rival the top male players for depth and expertise. Girls need to be able to play internationally, to have top training, and to have access to facilities and teams.
I saw an ad for the WNBA this season that really tickled me. The narrator played off the misconceptions of many people that women's sports can't generate the same excitement, power, and professionalism that men's sports do. So the narrator says (and I'm paraphrasing), "Women are too delicate to take a hit" while clips of players going hard for the ball and shoving competition out from under the basket are played. The narrator continues "The game is all about simple two point plays" while clips of amazing shots far outside the 3 point line or strong drives into the paint and up to the basket roll over the speech. "Girls don't understand the strategy" while film of great, smart moves flash on the screen. "You'd be bored to tears to attend a WNBA game" as a player drives towards the camera, leaps into the air, stuffs one into the basket and lands facing the camera with a fierce look of accomplishment.
I think they need to market women's soccer in the same way. This past week I saw a game between the women of Santa Clara and UCLA. The match was contentious and close. In one play a UCLA forward pushed the ball ahead of her and barreled towards the SC keeper, Meagan McCray, who just saved the ball by stretching, but left herself open and vulnerable. In an instant she was kicked full force in the face. Play stopped and the trainers worked on the keeper who was obviously shaken up and bloodied. But McCray returned to play and held No. 2 ranked UCLA to a 0:0 tie in two overtimes. That's a woman who is not only physically but also mentally tough. That type of perseverance and stamina makes women's soccer not only exciting, but engaging.
While the U.S. Soccer program powers continue to seek a way to make US men's teams competitive in world competition, US women have steadfastly continued to improve their game, win top events including the World Cup and the Olympics, and provide strong role models for young female athletes. They don't get the huge paychecks for professional play, they use the same development system that they used when Mia Hamm started, and they don't get the press that the men's teams do. Yet women soccer players continue to deliver big on the pitch. When I saw that girl focused on being the best ball girl she could be for a high school game I knew that grit and devotion got women where they are in the sport. They don't need much except our support and increased opportunities after college where they can strut their stuff. Check out the schedules of your local college women's teams or any of the pro and semi-pro teams on the websites I've listed, and take your daughter and your son to a game!