The goalkeeper didn’t even have time to lift her hands in the air. The shot by Oregon’s Marlo Sweatman from outside the 18-yard box was that fast. After the defensive midfielder’s first shot rebounded off a Louisiana State defender, all Sweatman had to do was put her foot through the ball and keep moving forward during the UO women’s soccer match against the LSU Tigers at Papé Field Aug. 21.
Unfortunately, LSU responded nearly as quickly, bringing the score up 2-1 in their favor and defeating the Ducks. This kind of a response can be attributed to the “big five” moments of scoring in soccer: After one team scores, it is most likely in next five minutes that either the same team will score again or the other team will counter with a goal of its own.
Regardless of whether this statistic is totally correct, the underlying message is to do your damnedest to keep the momentum going, because the other team is channeling their frustration to shift the tide in their favor.
After a scoreless draw against the University of Portland, the Ducks had taken to the field for their pre-season home opener looking for a win. The Friday evening loss to LSU wasn’t what the Ducks wanted. But after Sweatman finished talking to reporters, she turned and followed her teammates to several tables set up in front of the stands. On the other side of these tables, dozens of fans, most of them younger girls, were waiting to get autographs from the Ducks.
The U.S. is entering a kind of third wave of women’s soccer. Now, finally, America is ready to embrace women’s soccer as a major sport, not one that disappears in between World Cups, as it did after women’s National Team World Cup wins in 1991 and 1999.
Yet, little national interest was shown after the ’91 win; after the ’99 win, a new women’s league was founded, hoping to capitalize on the marketability of the stars of the National Team — but that league folded. Another league started in 2009, but it folded, too.
The current National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) formed in 2013.
Following a spike in interest after the United States’ World Cup win in July, there have been murmurs of NWSL’s expansion to other cities. With each swell in interest, a new crop of girls is pulled into the world of women’s soccer, learning new terminology (the oxymoronic-sounding “square ball,” a new definition for “tackle”) and picking out new idols.
A generation has passed between the first U.S. Women’s World Cup win and the most recent, and the younger players who look up to current National Team members likely wouldn’t recognize a photograph of April Heinrichs, captain of the 1991 World Cup team.
The Oregon players on the field Friday night, none of them born yet in 1991, were either just beginning the earliest stages of their soccer careers in 1999 or got caught up in the wave of interest in the years that followed. Though the names and playing style of these idols change frequently (Mia Hamm, anyone?), there remains a constant: Young girls want to be just like them.
This idolization isn’t exclusive to National Team members — one look at the eager faces of the girls waiting for Duck autographs illustrated that. The Ducks lost this pre-season game, but the younger spectators watched older players battling on the field at the highest level of collegiate play and learned new moves to try, new players to look up to.
In front of an announced crowd of 672 in the game against LSU, Oregon head coach Kat Mertz had cycled in several substitutes, testing freshmen and upperclassmen alike at new positions. Mertz emphasized that the goal was to teach new players — and the veterans playing at potentially uncomfortable new positions — grit and mentality, namely the ability to rise to match the intensity of strong opponents.
Sweatman agreed, admitting that the players had switched off their focus and this had led to the second LSU goal. It was an early season mistake, she said, and their goals moving forward are to keep a strong, focused mentality and translate that into maintaining possession of the ball.
Though the Ducks have aspects of their play to hone going forward — Mertz emphasized utilizing the defensive players to build out of the back as well as the importance of communication on the field — they hope to be firing on all cylinders by PAC-12 play, beginning Sept. 25. Coming off of a double-overtime loss to Seattle University on Sunday, the Ducks seem to be entering a “big five” moment early in their season.
Now all the Ducks have to do is channel their collective frustration to shift the tide in their favor and keep moving forward with the eyes of Eugene’s next generation of soccer players upon them.