As Jenna Bike watched the United States women’s national team’s 5-2 rout of Japan in the World Cup final on Sunday, her thoughts were different from most of an audience that was the largest ever to watch a soccer game — men’s or women’s — in this country.
Many young female players went to bed that night dreaming of being the next Carli Lloyd or Hope Solo. Bike, a St. Joseph senior, is much closer to making that vision a reality as a member of the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National team.
“It feels so close to me,” said Bike, a 5-5 forward and reigning Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year. “I’m in that stage and I train with April Heinrichs and the U.S. players, and I’ve met about half the team. The World Cup is a goal and within reach for me. April tells us all that if we want it, go get it.”
Heinrichs, the U-18 coach, was the captain of the first U.S. Women’s World Cup championship team, in 1991.
Lauren Garcia won’t have the same opportunity, but she too is a big-time player coming off her own Lloyd-like moment. As a senior last fall, Garcia etched her name in FCIAC lore with a spectacular shot from 25 yards out in the 76th minute that lifted Staples to a 1-1 draw with Fairfield Warde for a share of the conference title.
Garcia, who is headed this fall to play at Seton Hall, was watching Sunday’s game with a friend. Growing up, Garcia was a fan of the so-called “99ers,” Wilton’s Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the members of the 1999 World Cup champion that is arguably the most celebrated female team of all time.
“When I was younger I just wanted to be them,” Garcia said. “Now I look at what kind of skills they have and what I need to do to get better. I try to learn from them.”
A third perspective comes from Dave Flower, the girls coach at Westhill and the soccer director at Chelsea Piers in Stamford. In the fall he coaches a few of the Garcias, top Division I prospects. The rest of the year he works with the wide-eyed dreamers who might have been most impacted by Sunday’s outcome.
“I think it’s a huge boost for women’s soccer,” Flower said. “It is hopefully a long-term cycle for three or four years and promotes the sport. It will probably encourage more kids to try it. It is a little bit more emphasis on working harder for the older kids and for the younger kids it gives them the opportunity to try the sport.”
Each time a US soccer team has quadrennial success it begets the question of what next for the sport. MLS has had moderate success and a professional women’s league has never gained traction. The same talk never takes place after popular Olympic sports like swimming and figure skating, so maybe we are not asking the right question. Instead of a popular spike in the growth at the highest levels of soccer, perhaps we should be looking down below at the players, at all levels, and how they are impacted.
For Bike, that means reaching the next hurdle, the Under-20 team, as hopefully a final stepping stone to the national team. Bike, who will play collegiately at Boston College, has the summer off because of the World Cup but starting in September will go back to working with the U-18 team every other month. Bike remembers her first national camp; the national team was training on the next field.
“I was completely blown away,” Bike said. “It is more casual now but really awesome. When we meet them they always give us great advice. They know exactly what we are going through. Soccer is growing in the US and to watch everyone come together the last few weeks is inspiring.”
Garcia has made training for college her summer job. She still has someone occasionally bringing up what she called “one of the best goals I’ve ever made.”
Asked if the play has changed her, Garcia said, “It definitely boosted my confidence. When you get to college you still have to prove yourself.” Garcia than added of Sunday night’s game, “Watching it was awesome. I was proud to be a women’s soccer player.”
Perhaps Flower stands to gain the most of the three as soccer is back in the public consciousness, possibly with a little more bounce due to the popularity of the players on the current national team.
“What I’ve noticed with the World Cup was the US players were really marketed well,” Flower said. “We have camps going on and there was definitely a buzz. We’ve been talking about it.”
You watch that happen to them and you want it to be you.
Those words were spoken by Bike, one of the few who has it within her grasp. For younger players, it is a fantasy to chase.
For all, only good dreams.