- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

NEW YORK — As Megan Rapinoe climbed the podium in a Marriott Marquis ballroom last week, she pulled out her phone and turned the tables on the assembled media.

“Please smile!” she exclaimed, snapping a photo.

For the 29-year-old U.S. national team midfielder, holding court before reporters at the upscale Times Square hotel was an experience worth preserving. A part of the American team that finished second at the 2011 World Cup, Rapinoe recalls that squad embarking for Germany with relative anonymity.

“Four years ago,” Rapinoe said, “we were not doing this.”

Although the U.S. ultimately fell short in Germany, dropping the final to Japan on penalty kicks, that tournament reignited American interest in women’s soccer. Once Abby Wambach’s dramatic equalizer sparked a quarterfinal win over Brazil, the Americans’ run to the final captured the nation’s attention in a way not seen since the U.S. famously won the 1999 World Cup on Brandi Chastain’s clinching penalty kick.

“For me, 2011 was big for us because we were able to put women’s soccer back on the map in some ways,” Wambach said. “Even though we didn’t win, we put ourselves in a position where people were talking about us again.”

With the 2015 Women’s World Cup set to kick off in Canada on Saturday, the sport is once again building momentum stateside. After drawing 5,852 fans for its send-off game four years ago at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, the U.S. team packed 26,467 into the same venue last weekend — a third consecutive sell-out.

U.S. stars Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Sydney Leroux and Wambach each have their own Sports Illustrated cover this week. Morgan, with 1.7 million followers on Twitter, boasts a fan base outpacing any male American soccer player. EA Sports recently announced the next installment of its popular “FIFA” video game franchise will feature women’s teams for the first time, with the company using U.S. players to help design that new facet.

Perhaps most importantly for American audiences, the tournament will be in the Western Hemisphere for the first time since 2003 — allowing for prime time slots on Fox’s family of networks.

“Going into the last World Cup, I just remember we weren’t getting as many fans as we’re getting now,” Morgan said. “We didn’t have as much coverage, it was harder to get on TV. I feel like everything is lined up for us, and all we have to do now is win it.”

While enthusiasm for the women’s game in the U.S. still dwarfs popularity in any other country, the rest of the world is beginning to take strides.

Germany became just the second European nation to host the tournament in 2011, following Sweden in 1995. Since that tournament, U.S. coach Jill Ellis — herself an England native — has started to see European soccer federations pour more money into their women’s programs.

“Many European countries got a shot in the arm, in terms of development and commitment, from the 2011 World Cup,” Ellis said. “For me, it was the launching pad for our sport to be global.”

Yet the women’s game still has a long way to go, in terms of respect worldwide and domestically. The players will be reminded of that every time they step on the field in Canada — literally.

FIFA approved a bid from the Canadian Soccer Association to host the entire tournament on artificial turf, despite having never played a single men’s World Cup game on the surface, which is widely believed to increase injuries and hamper quality of play.

Wambach spearheaded a player-driven lawsuit last year, accusing world soccer’s now-beleaguered governing body of gender discrimination. The players dropped the complaint in January, with Wambach saying FIFA planned to delay the legal process until after the World Cup, but they hope their voice has been heard.

“I would highly doubt that a Women’s World Cup is ever played on turf again,” U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. “If it never is, I think we did our job.”

Despite the U.S. team’s surging popularity, the search for a stable domestic league has been challenging. The much-hyped Women’s United Soccer Association, founded in the wake of the 1999 World Cup triumph, folded after three seasons and an estimated $100 million in losses. The more modestly conceived Women’s Professional Soccer then played from 2009 to 2011 before going under.

“What we have learned from previous World Cups is that the state of women’s soccer isn’t reliant on our success at the World Cup,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “We learned that longevity in the women’s game is a slow-growing process.”

But as several of Solo’s teammates noted, winning the World Cup certainly wouldn’t hurt that progression.

The National Women’s Soccer League has established a degree of stability since being launched in 2012, with its nine franchises averaging 4,139 fans per game last season. The NWSL’s third season is underway, and a fourth campaign would mean it outlasted both of its predecessors.

While the World Cup and Olympics routinely draw attention, there is hope that a strong showing in Canada can provide a jolt to the sport in the U.S. that transcends those two spectacles.

“We still understand that we’re pretty in the infancy in a lot of ways, especially in terms of the domestic league,” Rapinoe said. “After this World Cup, we hope that the league is more stable than it was before. We hope that the state of women’s football is bigger and better than it was before, in terms of performances by teams and marketing dollars and TV rights and on and on.

“We know that we are a part of this crazy growth. We’re at the beginning of it, and just hope it keeps getting better.”

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