WELLINGTON – Christine Sinclair. Megan Rapinoe. Sarina Bolden.
Like many players in the Women’s World Cup, all three stars built their skills at the U.S. collegiate level.
Of the 736 players competing at this year’s Women’s World Cup, 137 have roots in American college-level soccer, according to the NCAA. The total includes 16 players who currently compete for Division I schools or lower divisions.
Across the 32 teams that qualified for the group stage, more than one in every six players has had a career stop at an American school.
Not all the NCAA athletes in the tournament are tied to the United States.
Canada has 22 of 23 athletes who played or still play on U.S. college teams, most of any team in the tournament. That includes Sinclair, the the all-time leader in international goals for men and women, who played at the University of Portland.
The United States ranks second with 20 players. Rapinoe also played at Portland, but Alyssa Thompson, Trinity Rodman, and Lindsey Horan all turned professional without playing a college match. Horan also did not play for a high school team.
More than 70 U.S. schools are represented in the 2023 tournament, with Florida State the leader with eight current or former players competing. Stanford and North Carolina each have six, Penn State has five and four universities have four former players.
Even schools with lesser-known soccer programs have players competing in New Zealand and Australia. Hilary Jaen of Panama plays for Jones County Community College in Mississippi, Carleigh Frilles of the Philippines plays for Coastal Carolina and Chiara Singarella of Argentina plays for South Alabama. Erin Nayler of New Zealand previously played at Purdue Fort Wayne in Indiana.
The success of American college soccer can trace its roots back just over 50 years, with the introduction of Title IX. As the U.S. government required universities to establish equal opportunities for men and women in education, those protections – and funding – spread to college athletics.
“The U.S. was providing one of the only games in town so to speak, in terms of opportunities for women to get some kind of compensation,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor in sports media at Ithaca College.
Title IX drew female athletes from outside the United States to American schools. Since the passage of Title IX, the number of female athletes competing in NCAA athletics has increased seven-fold and currently represents 44% of all university athletes, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
In 2021, there were 1,464 international student-athletes playing in NCAA Division I and Division II women’s soccer.
Traditional soccer powerhouses such as Germany and Sweden are sending significant numbers of players to college soccer, even though they have developmental programs of their own. There were 114 from Sweden and 128 from Germany in 2021.
In that same year, NCAA teams had 38 players from New Zealand, 35 players from the Netherlands, 16 players from Japan, and 5 players from South Africa.
“Then you would see those women going back to their own countries, taking what they learned with them,” Staurowsky said. “And you can begin to see how the sport begins to expand out.”
Penn State women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach has seen the collegiate process up close for some time. She’s coached at the Division I level since 1997, won the national title in 2015, and worked as an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national teams at both the youth and senior levels.
“Until these players are making millions, I think an education is going to be the most important thing for these young women,” Dambach said. “I don’t think it’s for everyone, you have to be invested in getting your education.”
THE AMERICAN SYSTEM
That can be easier than it sounds.
“Educational systems around the globe are so different that our international students really don’t know how to navigate the (U.S.) system,” said Nicole LaVoi, a former collegiate tennis coach and the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
Coumba Sow, a Swiss midfielder, attended Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, for two years before transferring to play Division I soccer at Oklahoma State.
“I didn’t understand the system. I was in a rush to just go to the States,” Sow said. “I wanted to keep on learning a language and studying and also play soccer. It’s a lot of paperwork, so I just looked at the facility. I was like, ‘Oh, New York,’ and I went. Then I got there I was like, ‘OK, maybe I should have checked it out better.’”
For New Zealand forward Gabi Rennie, taking the pathway to Division I soccer was an easy decision after watching others succeed. Rennie is entering her final year of NCAA eligibility at Arizona State after spending two seasons at Indiana.
“I wasn’t too sure what to do. But obviously, the college circuit was a really good option,” Rennie said. “Being able to kind of look to the likes of Ali Riley and Katie Bowen and the likes of those girls that had done the college circuit was cool, and just opened those doors for me.”
A PROVING GROUND
Katrina Guillou, a starting forward for the Philippines, spent four years at North Carolina–Wilmington. Her time playing soccer in Wilmington was pivotal to her career.
“The way the season is, with everything so condensed into the three-month span, playing two games every week, I think it really helps build the stamina that’s needed,” Guillou said. “And coming to this level, I think I’ve been able to build on top of that.”
Like many others, Sow saw her experience with American teams impact her style of play.
“Before I went to the U.S., I wasn’t really a physical player,” said Sow. “I learned how to fight in the U.S. because it’s a lot, a lot of long balls. You have to fight for the second ball. And before, I was just a technical player.”
Jody Brown of Jamaica was named the best young players in CONCACAF at the age of 16 and now plays for Florida State.
“The coaches helped us,” said Brown of Florida State. “I feel like college also prepared me for this moment and I’m just so grateful for that and the work that I’ve put in to get to this point because it’s all paid off right now.”
Joe Lister is a student in John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
Contributing reporters included Luke Vargas in Hamilton and Max Ralph in Auckland, students in John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State; and Clay Witt in Sydney, a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.