Sunday, February 25, 2018
Sports

Florida becoming a football hotbed for U.S. Women's National Soccer Team

Great weather makes for great soccer conditions in Florida. Youth soccer benefits, for sure; professional soccer not as much.

And then there's the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, which has played in the Sunshine State three times in the past 13 months, felling each opponent by a three-goal margin, and posting a home-friendly attendance record of 20,274 at November's match in Orlando.

It's no wonder they're coming back, this time to Boca Raton, to take on Russia on Saturday.

With a record 78-game home-winning streak to defend, it's natural to return to where you do your best work.

But Florida soccer fans benefit, too.

"I think seeing them play is vitally important," said Gerry Lucey, coach of the University of Tampa women's soccer team. "Players need their role models … all us athletes and aspiring professionals, they are looking at them as the ideal."

A band of traveling Florida fans packed the Citrus Bowl stands in November, holding signs of support, big cutouts of Abby Wambach and Hope Solo's faces and doing rehearsed cheers for new stars like Sydney Le­roux.

It's the kind of fandom generally reserved for football around these parts, but love for the national team seems to be pitching higher as the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup nears.

"I think they want to see the U.S. National Team," Lucey said.

"Even if it isn't top game like Brazil or Canada, they want to see the best players, the Wambachs of the world. Chances like that don't come too often, so the opponent doesn't really matter."

More than a particular sport, fans like to support a winner.

On Facebook, the barometer of popularity in today's society, the U.S. Women's team page has 8,500 likes — more than twice the number garnered by the men's team that will head to Brazil to play in the World Cup in June.

Danielle Fotopoulos, former national team player and current women's soccer coach at Eckerd College, said she's not certain the women are actually more popular, but the rising profile of the team corresponds with the rise of soccer in general.

"There is a different attention toward the women," she said. "Young females as well as regular fans are looking to them to find role models.

"When I was coming up I had one female soccer player to look up to, that's Michelle Akers; all the rest of my sports role models were male."

Massive attendance in Florida stretches back more than a decade, to when Mia Hamm broke her scoring record in Orlando, Fotopoulos recalled.

"It was amazing. The whole lower (Citrus) Bowl was filled," she said.

Several of Fotopoulos' players will take the trip to Boca Raton to see the team in action. She said it's a great opportunity for them to see the best players in the world.

Players won't be the only ones in the crowd, though.

"There are channels now that only play soccer. We didn't have that before," she said. "Networks airing the World Cup and ESPN getting so involved has really brought the sport out."

It also doesn't hurt that large swaths of the younger generations have played soccer.

Lucey's team, currently ranked No. 19 in NCAA Division II, is encouraged to watch professional soccer at every level to improve their eye for the game.

Fotopoulos said there is no better team to watch than the women's national team.

"It's invaluable to see the passion and the heart that these women play with when they are representing their country," she said.

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