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Increase in girls' soccer in U.S. is a winning trend, participants say

By John Couwels, CNN
  • Three decades ago, the U.S. Youth Soccer organization had 100,000 members
  • Today, membership is at more than 3 million
  • And a growing number of those young players are girls, say parents, coaches and players

Orlando (CNN) -- On a steamy Florida mid-summer morning, two girls' teams battle in the finals of the the Disney Cup International Youth Soccer Tournament .

Competition is fierce between the teams from opposite corners of the United States.

The Tracyton Tornados from Washington state and the FC America team from central Florida both earned the right to participate in this semi-final game during the annual competition that draws teams from the United States and other countries.

This game and the tournament are an outgrowth of an American trend -- the number of children playing soccer in the United States has grown dramatically, especially among young girls who idolized the U.S. women's soccer teams competing in the World Cup.

Just three decades ago, the U.S. Youth Soccer organization counted its membership at 100,000. Today, as municipal parks are filled with millions of young soccer players, the organization counts more than 3 million young players, according to its website.

The Disney Cup has taken place for the past 13 years at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World. The complex's numbers reflect a growth of women participating in sports in general.

"Sixty percent of athletes that participate at the Wide World of Sports of approximately 300,000 athletes are women," says Mike Millay, business director of the complex.

The sports park holds sporting competitions year round for baseball, football, soccer, basketball, along with track and field.

Venessa Starcher -- mom, soccer coach and former soccer player -- loves the sport intimately. In fact, she wishes she could still play, but the years can get in the way.

"I've seen women's soccer go from a small sport to a huge sport, I think it's the fastest growing sport because the other ones have been around for a long time," said Starcher, whose daughter plays on the FC America team.

This soccer mom believes every time the U.S. women's soccer team competes in high-profile competitions like the World Cup, it exposes more girls and young women to the game.

"People start watching not that they're interested in soccer, but they like to see America win," says Starcher. But once they watch, the game catches on.

The U.S women's soccer team won the 1999 World Cup, grabbing the attention of girls and women throughout the United States

When Title Nine -- the U.S law that banned discrimination based on sex in education and other activities for schools that received federal funding -- became law in 1972, women's participation in sports exploded.

And in 1972, two colleges offered scholarships for women's soccer. Today, dozens of college have programs and offer scholarships, says Starcher.

Rich Hickey, coach of the Tracyton Tornados, says, "I have one daughter and it's pretty cool that she can do all the same things that I could do as a boy -- but I don't think it was there for my sister."

Hickey says the level of women's soccer continues to improve as does the level of coaching. Women typically coached girls' teams in the past but today men or women with more experience are teaching the game.

"If you're practicing right and playing hard and if you believe you're as good as every boy -- or better -- than you should go out there and prove it to me," says Coach Hickey to his squad of 12-to-14-year-old girls.

"And they usually do," said Hickey whose girls often beat boys' teams in mixed matches.

The Disney sports complex director says he continues to see soccer grow at single digits growth, as do other sports.

"You're seeing soccer more because it's played at a younger age; girls stay with that sport longer," says Millay.

"Where it's growing internationally, it will fuel the United States' growth," he added.

Even teenager Tiffani Ferrell with the Tracyton Tornado's has seen soccer for women change.

"There used to be no soccer at all but it's becoming so global and so much fun to watch -- that's it's just going to keep getting bigger and bigger," she says.

The Orlando FC America team beat Tracyton Tornados 2-1 to move on to the final, only to loose to Ft. Lauderdale's Pine Crest 0-3.

Despite his daughter's team's loss, soccer dad Neal Gaulben kept a positive attitude following the game.

"I think you are going to see a boost to soccer to both men and women," he predicts.

"I think soccer is going to take off in the U.S. It's about time!"