FC Kansas City

Interest in women’s soccer is growing

Updated: 2013-04-05T21:50:23Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

Women’s soccer vaulted into our national conscience when Brandi Chastain slid to her knees on the Rose Bowl turf, wearing that infamous black sports bra after ripping off her U.S. women’s national-team jersey upon clinching the 1999 Women’s World Cup title in a penalty-kick shootout.

Only, it struggled to stay there.

Crowds flocked to see Chastain and her championship squad during the post-World Cup tour in 1999, which drew more than 150,000 fans to five games — including the high-water mark Oct. 7 when 36,405 fans filed into Arrowhead Stadium for a 6-0 romp against Finland.

Just as quickly, though, that excitement waned.

Two women’s professional leagues sprung up and wilted within three seasons.

Meanwhile, the U.S. women drew an average crowd of roughly 9,350 fans for 110 matches on American soil from 2000 until the post-World Cup tour in 2011.

However, there is ample evidence to suggest that the women’s game is experiencing another massive bump in participation and popularity —one that seems more sustainable.

After that runner-up finish in Germany, the U.S. women drew 17,748 on average during the post-World Cup tour, which included a stop at Sporting Park that September.

This time, it didn’t stop there.

During the last two years, including a 10-game post-Olympics tour after winning the gold medal in London, the U.S. women drew an average crowd of 16,276 for 15 home matches.

“It’s very similar to the bump in 1999 right now,” said April Heinrichs, who is technical director for the U.S. women’s national teams. “The good news about the bump from 2011-12, we now know that it’s not a one-hit wonder. The recent bump also is good in terms of creating an entire generation or two of Americans that understand and respect women’s soccer on the world stage.”

The resurgence of women’s soccer probably can be traced to July 10, 2011, in Dresden, Germany, where Abby Wambach’s 122nd-minute header saved the U.S. women in the World Cup quarterfinals against Brazil.

Wambach and the company eventually lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the World Cup final, but she became a national star along with fellow U.S. women’s soccer darlings, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan.

When the U.S. won the gold medal at the London Olympics the next summer, Wambach, Solo and Morgan had become household names and international superstars. The three have more than 2,000,000 combined followers on Twitter led by Morgan’s 1.1 million devotees.

“The success of the women’s national team has helped, but it’s not limited to that anymore,” said Eric Stratman, who organizes youth soccer tournaments throughout the Midwest. “Girls soccer is definitely growing. I think Title XI is doing its part, but obviously it helps that the U.S. women are No. 1 in the world and these women are becoming familiar faces as well.”

Stratman is staging one of the nation’s toughest and most talented-filled high school girls soccer tournaments in Lee’s Summit this weekend.

The Heart of America Classic, which kicked off Thursday featuring seven teams that are nationally ranked in the Elite Soccer Report’s spring top 50, continues today and wraps up Saturday at Lee’s Summit, Lee’s Summit West and Lee’s Summit North high schools.

He’d love to be able to use the Overland Park Soccer Complex, which opened in 2009 and draws its own share of youth and club tournaments, but that 12-field complex generally is booked solid.

While California, Texas, Massachusetts, Colorado and Maryland remain the nationally recognized hotbeds for women’s soccer, Kansas City certainly has a place — and one that’s growing.

“The qualities of the players coming out of Kansas City and being able to compete nationally are remarkable for a smaller population, and it’s exciting,” Heinrichs said. “That, in itself, is evidence of the expansion of the game.”

Heinrichs cited former Liberty teammates Kaysie Clark and Shea Groom and former Lee’s Summit North scoring machine Morgan Marlborough as examples.

“There’s no doubt it’s an explosive time for girls soccer in Kansas City, but we’re helped by Sporting Kansas City as well,” St. Teresa’s Academy coach Jeremy McElduff said. “They’ve had a lot of success the last few years, and a lot of people are attending those games.”

Sporting KC’s success almost certainly was a factor in Kansas City landing a franchise in the newly former National Women’s Soccer League — a joint venture among the U.S., Canadian and Mexican soccer federations to create a domestic league that will, in theory, become a pipeline for each country’s national team.

FC Kansas City will play host to Morgan and the Portland Thorns on April 13 in the NWSL’s inaugural game at Shawnee Mission North District Stadium.

Kansas City is also home to another women’s professional team, the Kansas City Shock, whose inaugural season in the Women’s Premier Soccer League kicks off May 26.

“We’re seeing growth in virtually every aspect of the game,” Heinrichs said.

Of course, that delights longtime supporters of the girls’ game.

“I love it,” McElduff said. “I’m a soccer nerd, so anytime we can get more recognition, more players, more strength anywhere, I love seeing it.”

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