A National Game

Oct. 16, 2002

By Crissy Schluep

Not long ago, female youth league soccer players' dreams of college stardom were colored Carolina Blue. And college coaches who dreamed of knocking off the perennial-champion Tar Heels were just left feeling blue.

But with the sponsorship explosion in women's college soccer and the parity that comes with it, more and more soccer players and coaches are waking to find the championship spoils to be cardinal red, burnt orange and navy blue.

To be sure, the women's soccer dynasty at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is alive and kicking. Coach Anson Dorrance is soccer's all-time winningest coach with 511 wins in 23 years, a .948 winning percentage and 16 College Cup titles in 20 years. As Dorrance put it, "Our legacy is intact, even if we retire tomorrow."

But last year, Santa Clara University defeated the then-24-0 Tar Heels in the championship game for its first title. After eight trips to the College Cup and never having played in the final game, the Broncos were ready to go after narrowly escaping the University of Florida in sudden-victory overtime.

"When we finally got past that point (into the championship game), we could go into the final match with all the weight off our shoulders," Broncos head coach Jerry Smith said about his team's victory last December.

Besides North Carolina and Santa Clara, George Mason University, the University of Notre Dame and Florida are the only other women's teams to capture the Cup. But the number of contenders is mounting.

Feeder-level growth

What is happening to produce the parity in women's soccer? Youth soccer, Title IX and the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) are factors in creating the greater overall talent at the collegiate level.

Youth soccer is the foundation on which all college soccer success is built. As the sport has "aged," those athletes who were young girls when women's soccer started taking off in the United States are now in college, producing top teams nationwide. It may be a chicken-and-egg situation -- whether it was an influx in college scholarship dollars that prompted parents' investment at the youth level, or if more emphasis at the youth level forced colleges to follow suit -- but the bottom line is that women's soccer is better off.

Title IX also has had an impact on women's college soccer. To comply with Title IX, institutions are arming women's soccer teams with a full complement of scholarships.

How much of a difference does a fully funded program make? North Carolina was the first to do it, and the Tar Heels were the first to hire a full-time assistant coach. Santa Clara's Smith is among those who believe scholarship dollars have a huge impact on success.

"We have played North Carolina only twice since we were a fully funded program, and we are 2-0," Smith said. "I often tell people that from this day forward, I expect to have a .500 record against them."

The increased financial commitment is providing a deeper pool of teams that can win. With only so many spots available on the traditional power teams, top prospects have more choices.

The WUSA also has been a factor. The 20 members of the 1999 U.S. Women's World Cup championship team became the founding players of the WUSA, opening the inaugural season in the spring of 2001. The impact of the pro players on a young audience is obvious, as young girls sport painted faces and creative signs while cheering on their favorite teams. With high-dollar television contracts and fan support, the WUSA also is generating more media attention.

"Young women are realizing they can gain financial assistance from a sport they enjoy," said Barbara Walker, associate athletics director at Wake Forest University and chair of the Division I Women's Soccer Committee. "Now, the next step is the professional league, and women are realizing this a fun and exciting way to potentially earn a living."

From east to west

Santa Clara is the only team west of the Mississippi to have won a championship. As in recent years, many of this year's top-ranked teams are from the West Coast, which is a shift from women's soccer East Coast roots.

Dorrance, a former national team coach, said that as far back as 1991, players from the West Coast have dominated the national team roster. A combination of favorable weather conditions and a culture that supports athletics continues to create a large talent pool in the West. Dorrance said West Coast coaches focus on skill, which creates more technical players.

"It is hard to develop skill when you are playing in cold, wet mud in the East," said Dorrance. "The players here develop different qualities; they have to fight for loose balls, so they develop a combative style of play. Every coach would love to have a team full of West Coast skillful players."

Statistics agree. In California, youth soccer is the most popular sport among young girls.

Stanford University interim coach Stephanie Erickson also agrees, saying athletes in the East and Midwest have a work-hard mentality that doesn't always produce "pretty" soccer.

"If I coached in the East," Smith said, "I wouldn't coach like I do here. I would be emphasizing defense and work ethic, encouraging my players to power up the field.

"Before last year, in my previous trips to the championship without a win, I realized we had too much West Coast influence and we needed physical, tough defensive players for a championship in December without California's ideal weather conditions. This year, and last, I recruited a more balanced team."

Erickson also said because of the large number of competitive teams, West Coast schools are pushing each other to the next level.

"We have an added advantage because we can play year-round, and that creates a larger talent pool," she said. "A lot of kids want to stay close to home when they go to college, and we can offer that."

Anyone's game

With the increased parity and last year's expanded bracket to 64 teams, the women's soccer committee is challenged come selection time. But Walker said parity at least has forced teams to travel outside their regions to play nationally ranked teams, which allows more committee members to play or watch nearly every good team in their region, making selections easier.

With 64 teams competing at 16 first-round sites, everyone is battling to win, and anyone can.

"In the old days, there were maybe four to six teams that could win," Dorrance said. "Today, the route to the championship is more hazardous, especially in the early rounds. In a single-elimination tournament, there are no promises. There are no longer automatic advancements."

What determines who will arrive -- or survive -- for the championship?

"You never know what can happen and that makes it exciting," said Erickson. "In the next few years, I think we will see a lot of first-year programs making it to the finals."

While the four teams competing for the College Cup won't be determined for six weeks, one thing is certain -- the venue. Four teams will square off at Mike A. Myers Stadium at the University of Texas at Austin December 6 and 8.

"It is exciting to have the championship being held on our campus," said Chris Petrucelli, Texas head coach. "It's a great motivation for the team because we have a chance to compete for the title."

The 2003 and 2004 Cups will return to North Carolina, a familiar home to soccer. North Carolina State University and the Capital Area Soccer League will host the championship at the State Capital Soccer Park, home of the Carolina Courage.

"Having anything close to home is fun. It is a beautiful stadium, but there are no assurances we will be there," said Dorrance.

That "unassured" climate is the norm now for Dorrance and his peers. With better athletes, better players, better teams and better competition, the sport is making huge gains, and people involved at all levels are reaping the benefits.

"As coaches, we all want more parity," Smith said, "but we still want our team to achieve the ultimate level of success.

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