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Julie Foudy: Next challenge is sustainable women's soccer leagues

Julie Foudy looks on during a press conference

Julie Foudy looks on during a press conference for the Women's World Cup 1999 Final Draw at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, Calif. on Feb. 13, 1999. Credit: Allsport / Tom Hauck

As a two-time World Cup winner and current soccer analyst for ESPN, Julie Foudy has been a firsthand witness to the rise of women's soccer in the United States.

Foudy was a midfielder on the 1991 and 1999 World Cup winning teams, and said she and her former teammates "were ecstatic" to watch the United States capture its third title earlier this month.

"It was amazing," Foudy said in a phone interview. "My kids were in the stadium with their [Abby] Wambach and [Megan] Rapinoe jerseys on."

She also said the level of fan support the team received during and after the World Cup campaign was "awesome." More than 25 million fans reportedly watched the 2015 World Cup final between the United States and Japan, and Foudy said "the next challenge [for the sport] is sustainable leagues."

Foudy can attest to how difficult that is. She was part of the Women's United Soccer Association, which began play in 2000 and was the country's first professional women's league. Despite the success of the 1999 national team, WUSA folded after three seasons.

Another league, Women's Professional Soccer, started in 2009 but also folded after its third year of play.

The National Women's Soccer League, which kicked off in 2013, is now in its third season, but Foudy says the league has a stronger foundation than its predecessors.

"The league's in a much better place now than when we launched our first one," she said. "We went through a lot of money that first year with our first league. We were trying to dig out of that hole."

"It's on stable footing," she added of the NWSL. "They have MLS owners in combination with the Portland and Houston teams [and] you now have a greater awareness of the players. Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, you could probably name a few before the World Cup, but now you could probably go down the line. To win the way they did, you hope that translates into a week-in, week-out basis with this league."

Foudy also said that women's sports in general are in a better place than they were 25 years ago.

"Title IX has had such a great impact in terms of numbers of girls and number of girls having an opportunity to play," she said, in reference to the 1972 federal law targeting gender discrimination in education, including scholastic sports.

From 1971 to 2011, the number of female high school athletes his risen more than tenfold (from 300,000 to 3.2 million), and in college, the number has risen from 30,000 to 190,000, according to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education.

Foudy, 44, went to Stanford before the school gave scholarships for women's soccer and received its first scholarship for the sport during her senior year.

"Now they have scholarships all over the place thanks to Title IX," she said. "You see the growth at the college level, and see the growth, of course, with how successful our women's teams have been in the United States."

The sport also has grown at the youth level, as the number of registered youth players has risen from 1.6 million in 1990 to more than 3 million in 2014, according to U.S. Youth Soccer. In 2008, girls comprised 48 percent of this pool, up from 45 percent in 1995.

Foudy spoke from Los Angeles where she will present the Capital One Cup, which honors the top men's and women's college sports programs, at Wednesday night's ESPY Awards. Virginia won the men's baseball, soccer and tennis titles. Stanford won its third women's cup, thanks in part to national championships in water polo and golf.

Each school will receive $200,000 in scholarship money.


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