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US women’s soccer team inspires another generation in Sonoma County with World Cup title march

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How To Watch

What: Women’s World Cup final, United States vs. Netherlands

When: 8 a.m. Sunday

Where: Fox

Brad Williams was driving his sixth grade daughter to school one day seven years ago when he asked her a simple question. Of all the people in the world she wished to meet, who is number one?

Anika’s answer: Megan Rapinoe, the United States national soccer team midfielder.

The U.S. women had just won Olympic gold in London, beating Japan 2-1.

So Williams got to work, hoping to make his daughter’s dream encounter happen. He teamed with Montgomery High soccer coaches Pat McDonald and Jon Schwan and invited Rapinoe, who grew up in Redding, and her twin sister, Rachael, to Sonoma County to host one of their youth soccer camps. They came to Santa Rosa. They came to the Williams’ house, in fact.

“My dad came and picked me up from Strawberry (Elementary School). He said, ‘I have something for you at home, let’s go,’” said Anika, now a freshman playing soccer at Santa Monica College.

She knocked on her own front door and Rapinoe answered.

“I was dumbstruck,” she said. “She was crazy sweet and generous — super cool. I have looked up to her for years now.”

Rapinoe, 34, is the face of the U.S. women’s national team that will vie for its fourth World Cup title Sunday in France. She scored two goals in each knockout game she played, first against Spain and then in the quarterfinal against France. Pregame speculation about her absence from the lineup in the U.S.’s semifinal win over England just about broke the internet. It later emerged that she was nursing a strained hamstring, and she has vowed to be ready Sunday when the U.S. kicks off against the Netherlands at 8 a.m. Pacific Time.

In soccer-crazed Sonoma County, the match and march of the women’s team to yet another title game, its third consecutive World Cup final, has been embraced by avid fans of the sport as well as new admirers of the team, its players and their collective cause.

Tens of thousands of kids turn up at fields throughout the county every summer to play soccer from the recreational level to high-ranking club competitions. Thousands of adults play in indoor and outdoor leagues and pickup games.

And every four years, the U.S. women’s team can be counted on to thrill the region and the nation.

In this World Cup, Matt Everson has watched every game for the American squad, usually at Toad in the Hole pub in Santa Rosa. He has seen the seats get harder and harder to come by as the tournament rolls on and more people crowd together to watch.

“(In the first rounds) it was me and a handful of people,” he said. “That’s because America loves a winner. Once the team proved that they were going to do pretty well, everyone made time to time to come out and watch.”

For locals who love the game, watch the game and play the game, opening the newspaper in the morning this summer to see soccer players — women soccer players — on the front page or leading the news cycle has a whisper of “See what you’ve been missing.”

How To Watch

What: Women’s World Cup final, United States vs. Netherlands

When: 8 a.m. Sunday

Where: Fox

But at Sports City in Santa Rosa, which offers year-round competition and indoor space for thousands of players ranging from toddlers to septuagenarians, cheering the national team as they advance through the World Cup is like singing soccer’s virtues to the choir. There are up to 50 leagues, separated by age and skill, with games until midnight many nights. More than 2,000 people are playing on any given week, said Nate Peters, league director for indoor soccer at Sports City.

“We see an uptick during every World Cup, whether it be men’s or women’s,” Peters said. “Soccer gets a little bit more exposure on a bigger scale.”

This month and last, when games end, players are gathering not just to watch the next match in front of them, but to gaze at TVs showing the Women’s World Cup and the U.S. women’s team.

The bug afflicts those young and old.

Under-10 girls’ coach Bruce Wilson is using the national team as a teaching guide to show his Empire Soccer Club squad how to play the game.

“It’s pretty fun to sit there and talk about what is happening at practice and then use the World Cup as a visual aid,” he said.

Tessa Clay, 8, a member of Wilson’s team, loves what she’s seeing.

“I just really like watching them and how they are really good,” said Tessa, an Alex Morgan fan. “I really love soccer, and when I grow up I want to be really good at it.”

Same goes for teammate Estelle Puga, 9, another Morgan fan.

“I just think she’s inspiring and when I watch the games, I think ‘That could be me,’” she said. “That could be me one day. I could be the other version of that and, like, if I see somebody that is really good, I practice to see if I can be even better or the same.”

The phenomenon is not new. This team, and previous versions of it, has been delivering inspiration for generations of players and fans. Its three World Cup titles came in 1991 in China, 1999 in the famous Rose Bowl penalty shootout and in 2015 in Canada.

Santa Rosa Junior College women’s soccer coach Crystal Howard felt the soccer spark 20 years ago when she traveled to Stanford University to see the flagship lineup that included Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brianna Scurry.

Seeing those athletes live in action was a game changer.

“When I grew up I always wanted to play on my brother’s team because it was so competitive,” Howard said. “Just being able to see other competitive, high-level, female soccer players, I don’t know, that always stuck with me — to know that it’s OK and people love that and people accept that, to see that I can be competitive and proud of it.”

Howard was a star at Montgomery High and went on to Sonoma State where she became the all-time assists leader and a two-time First Team All-Region pick.

“It changed my addiction,” she said of the ’99 U.S. women’s squad. “All I wanted to do was soccer, and that’s it. It really solidified my love for the sport and where I wanted to go.”

Sonoma County is home to countless current and former Division 1 and 2 college soccer players and a growing list of athletes who are playing in the professional ranks, including women currently suiting up for Brazilian and Swiss clubs.

The generation of athletes inspired by the national team’s win in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and the paradigm-shifting 1999 victory in front of 90,000 fans in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena has had a ripple effect.

Mark Marcarian, director of coaches for Empire Soccer Club in Santa Rosa, said this generation of volunteer coaches — both recreational and competitive — comes from a pool of parents who played the game at a higher level. Not long ago, that was not the case.

“It used to be, 10 to 15 years ago, you’d get whatever parent raised their hand and that was after begging and doing whatever you can,” he said, laughing. “Now, at least we are getting parents who have played the game.”

Empire, just one of many soccer clubs in Sonoma County, fields 24 competitive teams, 14 of which are girls’ squads.

Success brings visibility. And visibility brings a more critical eye. The U.S. national team is the most successful women’s soccer program worldwide. And Americans in general, according to Everson, a longtime soccer buff, love champions. So it’s easy to get on board with this bunch.

But Everson, who has traveled the world to watch the game being played at the highest level, had strong words for the leadership that runs the U.S. Soccer. He supports the lawsuit filed by members of the women’s squad against the national governing body alleging gender discrimination. He was ticked when the women’s team was forced to play on synthetic surfaces in the 2015 World Cup. And he’s less than pleased with how the governing body operates youth soccer.

“I am very, very upset with our entire federation,” he said.

The nation’s professional leagues also have a long way to go, he said, noting that this World Cup has shown a clear increase in parity among nations that once lagged far behind the U.S. in women’s soccer.

“The rest of the world is going to catch up to us pretty quick if the American professional league doesn’t do a better job of promoting,” he said, referring to the nine-team National Women’s Soccer League. “They are not really showing how awesome Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe is.”

Case in point: Television. It’s the key to American hearts.

“The women’s game is not televised often so it’s hard to follow,” he said.

Howard agreed. She’s an active fan but struggles to support the NWSL because it’s difficult to track down games on TV.

“A lot of the national team players that are playing in clubs, I never know when they are playing. The media doesn’t really follow the national team players so we don’t get to see that as the public,” she said.

So the dominant U.S. women’s team resurfaces in cycles — for the World Cup and again for the summer Olympics. Sonoma County fans who support women’s soccer contend that is no way to grow the game or to secure the United States’ place at the top.

European clubs are investing heavily in women’s club teams. It’s a storyline that has played out for the world to see in this tournament.

“That Spanish team that we barely beat? They will be very good in a couple of years,” Everson said.

The national team’s last World Cup title match in 2015 was famously the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, drawing just under 23 million viewers. Sunday could easily top that.

The U.S. semifinal win over England drew more than 7 million live viewers to the Fox broadcast, with another 400,000 watching the livestream and more than a million viewers taking in the game on Spanish-language Telemundo.

That exposure can only be good for women’s soccer, supporters say. Now it needs to be sustained, Howard said.

Dollars are another reflection of the popularity of this team. The women’s national team jersey is the best-selling soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, ever sold on Nike.com in one season. Fanatics, another licensed retailer, reported that it’s the top-selling national jersey, men’s or women’s, of all time. Sales are 500% higher than the same period in 2015.

“You wouldn’t see that 20  years ago,” Howard said. “It’s huge … They are continuing to break ceilings, they are continuing to represent all levels of girls and boys.”

For Anika Williams, the Rapinoe fan who in June graduated from Santa Rosa High after being named defensive player of the year for the North Bay League-Redwood Division, meeting an idol in elementary school didn’t make her star-struck. Just the opposite — it made Rapinoe’s path more visceral and the heights she’s reached more achievable.

As this generation of players prepares to write another chapter in the U.S. team’s storied history Sunday, that legacy — elevating the game and making it accessible at the same time — may be their greatest gift to the nation.

“Everyone my age at the time wanted to be on the national team,” Williams said. “It made it seem reasonable. They are normal people.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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