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Falling in Love with Soccer, Times Two

I fell in love with soccer for the first time in an instant. Pelé rose up, turned his body upside down and kicked the ball backwards toward the goal. I turned to my dad, seated in the New Orleans Superdome’s end zone. What was that? A bicycle kick, he said, by the greatest soccer player ever. That moment sparked soccer for me. Watching the New York Cosmos in 1976 sent me to the boys’ game on the elementary school playground at recess. Picked last, relegated to defense, I tentatively learned the satisfaction of trapping and clearing the ball, completing a pass.

Yet soccer faded away. My family moved to northwest Louisiana, where as far as I knew, soccer didn’t exist. Girls could play softball or basketball and cheer at football games. My family watched “Soccer Made in Germany” on PBS on weekend afternoons. I knew of Michelle Akers and the 1991 World Cup, watched the 1999 World Cup on TV.

The second time I fell in love with soccer, it lasted. We were living in North Carolina in the early 2000s and gave my son a birthday membership to the University of North Carolina’s Kids Club. The membership card gave him entry to almost any sport, so he and I watched them all – football, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, gymnastics and swimming and diving. He was playing soccer at the Y, so we went to a women’s soccer game.

There, sitting in the half-empty bleachers, I relearned the joy of soccer. The UNC women played with confidence and aggression. By this time, they no longer won EVERY championship, but sometimes it looked like UNC was playing a middle school team. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were watching future USWNT and NWSL greats. Ashlyn Harris. Tobin Heath. Yael Averbuch. Crystal Dunn. Jessica McDonald. Amber Brooks. Kealia Ohai. And international stars, too - Lucy Bronze of England and Katie Bowen of New Zealand.

After most games, the soccer players would line up to sign autographs. Some kids had come just for the free hot dogs and mini soccer balls. Others knew the player’s names, and could recount a scoring sequence pass by pass or describe Harris’s breakaway save. And here’s the real reason I fell in love with soccer again: Even then, as college students, these players were role models. They thanked each child for coming. Asked, do you play? What’s your favorite position? Please come back to see us again.

I continued to follow the UNC players into the pros and national team and have become a fan of the entire NWSL and USWNT. When the USWNT trained in Cary, N.C. in 2011, we stood outside the fence, watching Abby Wambach shoot on Hope Solo. I love the game for its tactics and athleticism, but mostly I love the women’s game for its players. In an age of nine-figure contracts and mega stadiums, they are fighting for equal pay and standing for diversity and inclusion. Amid FIFA bribery and college recruiting scandals, they are in it for the game—athletes you want your children to watch and admire…especially when they attempt a bicycle kick.

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