Short answer…not sure and I doubt anybody else knows the answer either.
That doesn’t mean we can’t all do something now to help grow the women’s game here.
Even before the U.S. Women won their fourth FIFA World Cup, there had already been numerous steps taken in Texas women’s soccer over the last few years supporting positive progress.
- The third version of a domestic Women’s Professional League, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), brought us the first Texas top division professional women’s team in 2014: Houston Dash. Another positive sign was the Dash selling out their first post-World Cup game last weekend.
- In a recent Austin Soccer Pod episode, MLS expansion team Austin FC’s owner Anthony Precourt also mentioned discussions with the NWSL about a potential Austin women’s team that would bring a Texas rivalry to the league.
- 13 Texas teams in the two amateur leagues immediately below the NWSL, the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) and United Women’s Soccer (UWS), just completed another successful regular season. One of the UWS teams, Houston Aces, was the league’s 2018 National Champion.
- A rapidly growing national amateur league, United Premier Soccer League (UPSL), started a Women’s version of its league this season. Four Texas teams, initially primarily based in the San Antonio area, will shortly conclude its first season.
- U.S. Soccer formed a Girls Development Academy (DA) in 2018, with a stated goal to improve player and coaching development throughout the country. Youth soccer clubs in DFW, Houston and Austin all have joined the DA and this year 3 of the 4 semifinalists, and the two finalists, in the National U16/17 Championships came from Texas. North Texas club, Solar Soccer Club, defeated Lonestar SC from Austin to win the title.
Another recent positive step occurred on July 9th when UWS side Austin Elite hosted San Antonio Athenians in their final regular season match at USL’s Austin Bold Stadium. 1,205 fans from both Austin and San Antonio came to the stadium to watch the Elite win 3-1. The record UWS crowd is 1,674, so the number of local fans turning up for the Elite-Athenians match is remarkable. This support did not happen magically, since both clubs have marketed superbly this season. Austin Elite, in particular, has done an excellent job of capitalizing on Women’s World Cup publicity and the renaissance of soccer interest in Austin driven by the two new men’s professional teams. The level of media exposure they have generated over the last few weeks in Austin would be envied by many lower level professional teams.
All of these positive steps would indicate that women’s soccer is on the rise in Texas and that the World Cup victory should help further grow the game here. Unfortunately, the problem is that this same wishful narrative has been advanced in the past each time the U.S. Women have won a major tournament. I was fortunate enough to attend the 1999 Final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA where the U.S. Women won their second World Cup. To this day, seeing that iconic women’s team win the World Cup is one of the best soccer memories I have experienced as a soccer fan. I was also part of large crowds at San Diego Spirit matches in the inaugural season of the Women’s league (WUSA), launched in wake of the euphoria generated by this World Cup victory. At the time, I thought the breakthrough for Women’s soccer had finally arrived.
Regrettably, the WUSA folded after three years and the promising breakthrough vanished. Since then there has been little further sustained growth in the sport generated from any of the numerous World Cup or Olympics gold medals won by the USWNT.
Recent national announcements do provide hope that this year may be different. A major new sponsor has come on board with NWSL and ESPN cable channels are televising 11 of the league’s matches over the remainder of the season (3 featuring the Houston Dash) and the playoffs. Every time the momentum grows, however, the NWSL appears to take a step backwards. Last week brought a video from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl calling into question whether the league would continue to exist after this year.
Whether the new momentum from the World Cup will translate into increased support and a breakthrough in our State for women’s soccer at the professional or high amateur level is an even less certain. Despite the large number of vibrant and successful girls youth soccer programs, especially in the DFW Metroplex, a look at current active rosters of NWSL teams shows few Texas born or developed players. No players on the USWNT that just won the World Cup come from here and only a handful were part of previous World Cup winning rosters. There are also 63 University Soccer programs (22 NCAA Division I) in Texas. Why there are so few women professional or senior national team players from Texas is a mystery, at least to me. There is certainly a lot of room for professional soccer growth, both with players and fans, here in the state that hopefully will be kick-started by the World Cup win.
All of these half-glass full issues make it easy to dismiss the excitement generated by the World Cup as another example of U.S. sports fans love of big events. In a recent interview discussing the new NWSL TV deal in The Athletic, ESPN VP of Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus admitted to not being able to figure out why popular Olympic events like track and field and swimming (and soccer in the World Cup context) are not bigger deals in the U.S. between these big events. He did suggest that the improving quality of women’s soccer and growing international fan support, combined with continuous and regular delivery of televised NWSL coverage, could produce a different outcome this time.
There may be some urgency to capitalize on the momentum now. The World Cup demonstrated that the rest of the world is getting better and not just on the field. The five largest TV audiences around the world for the tournament came from Brazil, a country roughly 2/3 the size of the United States that has shown tepid support for women’s soccer in the past. Despite facing the same earlier viewing window issues as the U.S., Brazil mustered 5 million more viewers than the U.S. for the Final, which did not include the Brazil women playing. These and other trends from the recent World Cup suggest that winning, both on and off the field, could be much more difficult in the future for the United States.
There is too much history to have a high degree of confidence that this World Cup will set the stage for high level women’s soccer growth in Texas now. I certainly have no control over whether this happens. Rather than throw in the towel though, I can and will take steps to, in some small way, help grow the sport here. Watching more Dash games, attending local amateur games next season and writing more about women’s soccer on this site are examples of commitments I will make going forward.
If all Texas soccer fans make similar small commitments to support women’s soccer, we can look back in 2023 when the U.S. defends its title on the positive progress made in the previous four years. Not having to ask the question posed in this article’s title again would be progress in itself.