Once an ‘Easy Way Out’ for Equality, Women’s Soccer Is Now a U.S. Force

Brooke Volza and the other girls who play in the top division of high school soccer in Albuquerque know all about the Metro Curse: The team that wins the city’s metro tournament at the start of the season is doomed to end the year without a state championship.

So when Cibola High School defied that fate with Volza scoring the only goal in the team’s 1-0 victory against Carlsbad High School before a cheering stadium crowd at the University of New Mexico last year, it was pandemonium. “I started crying. I started hugging everyone,” Volza, 17, said, describing the experience as “times 10 amazing.”

Now the ball she used to score that goal sits on a shelf in her bedroom, covered with her teammates’ autographs and jersey numbers. Across it in large capital letters are the words, “2021 STATE CHAMPIONS.”

Fifty years ago, Volza’s experience of sprawling and robust competitive high school soccer was effectively unheard-of in the United States. Yet thanks to Title IX, which became law in 1972 and banned sex discrimination in education, generations of girls have had the promise of access to sports and other educational programs.

Brooke Volza at Cibola High School in Albuquerque.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times
Asia Lawyer, a rising senior at Centennial High School in Boise, Idaho.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times

And girls’ soccer, perhaps more than any other women’s sport, has grown tremendously in the 50 years since. School administrators quickly saw adding soccer as a cost-effective way to comply with the law, and the rising interest helped youth leagues swell. Talented players from around the globe came to the United States. And as millions of American women and girls benefited, the best of them gave rise to a U.S. women’s national program that has dominated the world stage.

“Once Title IX broke down those barriers, and let women and girls play sports, and said they have to be provided with equal opportunities, the girls came rushing through,” said Neena Chaudhry, the general counsel and senior adviser for education at the National Women’s Law Center. “They came through in droves.”

Before Title IX passed, an N.C.A.A. count found only 13 women’s collegiate soccer teams in the 1971-72 season, with 313 players.

In 1974, the first year in which a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations tracked girls’ participation across the United States, it counted 6,446 girls playing soccer in 321 schools in just seven states, mostly in New York. That number climbed to about 394,100 girls playing soccer in high schools across the country during the 2018-19 school year, with schools often carrying multiple teams and states sponsoring as many as five divisions.

Mountain View Los Altos stretching during the tournament in Redmond, the Elite Clubs National League playoffs.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times

In 2018-19, the most recent season counted because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were 3.4 million girls overall participating in high school sports, compared with 4.5 million boys.

Many of those athletes have overcome fears to try out for a team. Some have practiced late into the night, running sprints after goofing off with teammates. Some have found archrivals through competition, and plenty have grappled with the sting of defeat. Numerous girls and women on the soccer pitch have felt the thrill of a goal, and the pride of being part of something bigger than themselves.

“We are the heart and soul of soccer at Cibola,” Volza said.

Title IX is a broad law, and was not originally intended to encompass sports. Its origins lie in fighting discrimination against women and girls in federally funded academic institutions. But as the regulations were hashed out, they eventually encompassed athletics, and it helped bridge disparities beyond the classroom. Today, Title IX is perhaps best known for its legacy within women’s interscholastic athletics.

Despite initial and heavy opposition to the law because of a perceived threat to men’s athletic programs, the N.C.A.A. eventually sponsored women’s sports, including soccer in 1982. Before that, only a handful of teams played one another around the country.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a dynasty that has won 21 N.C.A.A. championships and produced inimitable players including Mia Hamm, began its run playing against high schoolers.

“We didn’t really have anyone to play,” said Anson Dorrance, the head coach of the women’s team since its inception in 1979. He described how he cobbled together a schedule that first season. One travel soccer club, the McLean Grasshoppers, “came down to U.N.C. and beat us like a drum,” he said.

Florida Gators Coach Samantha Bohon, left, talking with an assistant coach, Jocie Rix, as they scout players during the Elite Clubs National League playoffs.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times
The playoffs are a big showcase for high school players to be seen by top college coaches.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times

After the N.C.A.A. brought women’s soccer into the fold, participation rates went from 1,855 players on 80 teams across all three divisions in 1982 to nearly 28,000 players across 1,026 teams in 2020-21.

Now, the N.C.A.A. claims soccer as the most expanded women’s sports program among universities in the last three decades.

Current and former athletic directors, sports administrators and coaches attribute the rise of soccer to several factors. Initially, complying with the law was a game of numbers and dollars: Soccer is a relatively large sport, where average roster sizes typically float between 20 and 26 players. The generous roster sizes helped schools meet the requirements of the law to offer similar numbers of opportunities to male and female students.

For administrators, soccer was also economical: It needed only a field, a ball and two goals. It was also a relatively easy sport to learn.

“At the time schools were interested in, ‘How can I add sports for women that wouldn’t cost me very much?’” said Donna Lopiano, founder and president of Sports Management Resources and a former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She added: “Schools were looking for the easy way out.”

The shifts did not begin until the late 1980s and early 1990s. College programs increasingly gained varsity status — often pressured by litigation — which created scholarship opportunities and made soccer a pathway to higher education. The game boomed at the high school level, where it became one of the most popular sports, fourth in terms of participation rates for girls for 2018-19, according to the high school federation (the top three girls’ sports were track and field, volleyball and basketball).

An under-14 match in Redmond.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times

A cottage industry of club teams also sprang up around the country, as athletes jockeyed for attention from college coaches. The youth game grew, and university teams became a farm system for the elite world stage, as women struggled to play the sport in many countries outside the United States.

The U.S. women’s national team went largely unnoticed when it played its first international match in 1985. It also got little attention in 1991 when it won the first Women’s World Cup, held in Guangdong, China.

Then the United States began to feel the power of Title IX. In 1996, women’s soccer debuted at the Olympics in Atlanta, and the United States won gold. During the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, against China, the Americans secured a victory during penalty kicks before a capacity crowd of more than 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Michelle Akers, the pillar of the U.S.W.N.T. in the ’80s and ’90s who is now an assistant coach for the Orlando Pride women’s professional team, said Title IX was “game-changing.” “I can’t even understand the amount of time and energy and heartache that took to get that pushed through, and not just pushing it through but enforcing it — making it real for people, and making it real for me,” she said.

The national team’s success continued, with a record four World Cup titles and four Olympic golds. And this year, after a six-year legal battle, a multimillion-dollar settlement and eventual labor agreement established equal pay for players representing the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams when competing internationally.

“It was a historic moment, not just for soccer, but for sport,” Cindy Parlow Cone, U.S. Soccer’s president, said.

The U.S. women’s national team celebrating its World Cup win in 2019 after a parade in Manhattan.Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times
Sydney Sharts, left, and her sister Hannah, right, are college players. Their mother, Michelle, was on a club team in the ’90s.Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times

In 1993, Michele Sharts was part of a club team at U.C.L.A. that threatened to sue the school under Title IX for not sponsoring women’s soccer.

Sharts, who was cut from the inaugural varsity squad, now has two daughters playing at large university programs. Hannah, 22, started at U.C.L.A. before transferring to Colorado, where she is a graduate student. Sydney, 20, began at Oklahoma before transferring to Kansas State for the coming season.

Hannah Sharts has played in front of as many as 5,000 fans. “Being able to gradually see more and more fans fill up the stands throughout my college experience has been very promising,” Hannah Sharts said. Both Hannah and Sydney have dreams to play professionally.

Like the Sharts sisters, Volza, the rising senior in New Mexico, plans to play in college. She is looking at Division II and III schools with strong engineering programs.

But first, she has her final year of high school ahead. Volza said she wanted to be a leader for the younger players.

“I want to motivate them and teach them what it’s like to play varsity soccer for a state-winning championship team,” Volza said.

And Volza wants to make history again in her own corner of America, by leading her team to win the Metro tournament and state championship in back-to-back years.

Members of the De Anza Force celebrating a win over World Class F.C. in Redmond.Credit…Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times

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