Impact of Women's World Cup Run Felt at North Texas
Coach Hedlund, Players Talk Growing Popularity of Women's Soccer
DENTON -- Two games, 16 years apart. Both have and will continue to go a long way toward shaping the sport of women's soccer in the United States.
In 1999, the United States women's national soccer team won its second gold medal on home soil at the Rose Bowl, defeating China in penalty kicks. Brandi Chastain, as most vividly remember, won the game for the United States, dropped to her knees and ripped off her jersey, celebrating in her sports bra.
Sixteen years later, the United States recaptured gold, defeating Japan 5-2 in the final, in front of the most television viewers for a soccer game ever in the United States. Between those two games, interest in soccer, specifically women's soccer, has come a long way, and it's expected to be felt with increased interest in the college game at North Texas and nationally.
"We get really good crowds here, and Division I programs all over the country get really good crowds," head coach John Hedlund said. "When we bring in Big 12 schools, SEC schools and rivals like SMU, we'll fill our stadium up, especially if the games are on Friday nights.
"We have a great fan base here, but a lot of schools can say that as well. The interest in college soccer is centered around how well our national team has played over the last decade, and it's really made our sport popular."
Most of this year's team had not yet reached elementary school age when women's soccer, captured the hearts and minds of an American audience for the first time. That same summer, Hedlund was entering his fifth season at the helm of the Mean Green, a program he started from scratch.
Those same players opened fall practice on Wednesday, seeking its 20th consecutive winning season and its 10th conference championship, having captured the regular season conference title last season.
"The 1999 World Cup team was the first role models for the current national team, for college soccer players and for everyone," junior forward Rachel Holden said. "They first made soccer a big deal. And now with the World Cup this past summer, women's soccer continues to grow in the U.S."
"It was really cool to watch the World Cup and see all the attention that the women's team gets and how far they have come since I was younger," senior midfielder Molly Grisham said. "Growing up, the 99ers were my biggest heroes. And now that I'm older, I watch the national team and I critique them a lot more. I know them as players and their specific skill sets. It's really interesting and it's a really good learning experience."
Looking at the increased interest in women's college soccer, North Texas has drawn nine of its 10 largest crowds since the start of the 2011 season, another year in which the Women's World Cup was held, including five crowds of 1,000 fans or more.
"We'll always going to have our diehard fans who come to games, whether they're on Fridays or Sundays, and then you have the World Cup this past summer, which got so much exposure," Hedlund said. "That really helps us in our game and throughout the youth, club and high school levels. More people are taking notice of women's soccer, and it starts with the national team. It's going to help everybody, including us."
North Texas opens its season in Las Vegas when it faces Southern Utah on Friday, Aug. 21 at 4 p.m. The Mean Green hosts Kansas in its home opener on Sunday, Aug. 30 at 1 p.m.