One day during the first week of practice in mid-August, Winston Churchill High School girls soccer senior midfielder/forward Suzanne Johnson turned to 11th-year coach Haroot Hakopian and said, “The U.S. Women’s National Team plays a lot like us.”
“It was really funny,” Hakopian said. “Then she was like, ‘No, no that’s not what I meant.”
Johnson was referring to Team USA’s never-give-up mantra, which was best exemplified when it overcame three deficits to earn a 4-3 win against Canada in the Olympic semifinals in London on Aug. 6. The Americans went on to win the gold medal for the fourth consecutive Olympics.
The Bulldogs are similarly notorious for finding their way out of trouble. Eight of Churchill’s 12 victories last fall were come-from-behind wins.
“Watching the [national team] over the course of the Olympics [this summer], their mentality is that they’re never out of it. Not that we’re close to that level of skill or talent, but that is the way we play,” Hakopian said.
The three-time defending Class 4A West Region finalist Bulldogs aren’t the only county high school players feeling inspired by the U.S. National Team’s most recent run to Olympic glory.
Poolesville coach Christina Mann said former Washington Freedom forward Abby Wambach and other National Team players have a huge following in this soccer-rich area.
An estimated 2,000 fans turned up for the Celebration of Women’s Soccer charity match Aug. 25 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, where former Freedom defender and current D.C. United Women defensive player Becky Sauerbrunn was on hand, wearing her gold medal and sharing Olympic stories.
Every two years when the Olympics and World Cup roll around and the team’s long list of accomplishments are thrust into the limelight, young athletes are reminded where hard work can lead them, Mann said.
The National Team’s visibility and accessibility in this area — Mia Hamm, Wambach, Sauerbrunn, former National Team defender Cat Whitehill are just a few of the players who have compete for local professional teams — has created a culture. Players are becoming more competitive at a younger age, which has dramatically deepened the talent pool in Montgomery County high school soccer.
In many sports it typically takes athletes time to adjust to the varsity level, underclassmen are becoming more impactful in girls soccer.
Mann, Hakopian and Bethesda-Chevy Chase coach Rob Kurtz said they have continually kept more freshmen on varsity in recent years.
“Girls soccer is becoming so serious and competitive right now,” Mann said. “The [National Team] has a huge following and those girls are extremely inspirational. These are girls who just wanted to keep playing because they love it and it shows how doable it can be.”
Longtime Our Lady of Good Counsel coach Jim Bruno said that along with the growing popularity of women’s soccer has come greater opportunity for elite level soccer and better coaching available to younger players.
The next star of women’s soccer could come from close to home. Good Counsel senior forward Midge Purce is traveling with the U-17 National Team this month.
“If you look at the ratings for the Olympics, it’s pretty amazing,” Bruno said. “And what happens is the whole thing evolves. You go to a major [club] tournament and they’re always built around the NCAA championships. They see players there that end up with the national team and they really can relate to that, click with that. It’s something that’s been built and grown in recent years.”