In English, Spanish, Lopez Means Talent
Monday, September 17, 2007
SHANGHAI, Sept. 16 -- Years ago, before she became the youngest player on the U.S. women's national team and a starter in this month's World Cup, Stephanie Lopez was visiting Mexico, her paternal grandparents' birthplace, when she decided to join the local boys on the soccer field.
Not only were they taken back by the presence of a female player -- an absurd sight in Latino culture -- "they were so surprised that the girl was actually decent in soccer," she recalled.
Lopez, 21, parlayed her skills into a distinguished college and international career and, along the way, became the first female player of Hispanic descent to become a major contributor to the U.S. team. While the men's program has benefited from Latin influences the last 20 years, starting with Tab Ramos and Hugo Perez and continuing with Claudio Reyna, the women's team lacked ethnic diversity until Lopez emerged.
"It's definitely more of a male sport," Lopez said of her heritage. "It's now starting to change and is more acceptable for women to play."
Lopez has started the first two matches of the Women's World Cup and is likely to be in the lineup at left back Tuesday night when the Americans (1-0-1) play Nigeria (0-1-1) in their Group B finale at Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium. Although the United States needs only a tie to secure a quarterfinal berth, it would prefer to win convincingly in order to finish first in the group ahead of North Korea and avoid a possible matchup with defending champion Germany in the next phase.
Despite being championed as a pioneer in women's soccer -- she was recently featured in a Spanish-language magazine -- Lopez has played down her cultural impact. She reminds everyone that she is also part German and Irish, that her parents were born in the United States and that she did not speak Spanish fluently until she studied it at the University of Portland.
Recently engaged, her traditional Latino last name will change as well -- to Cox.
"I'd love to be a great role model" for young Hispanics, Lopez said, "but I am not too tied to the culture."
The U.S. Soccer Federation has placed greater emphasis in recent years in identifying talent from Hispanic American families, which now comprise 15 percent of the U.S. population. And while its efforts are primarily targeted toward male players, it does see potential in the women's game.
"Steph is the first and you are going to see more," USSF spokesman Aaron Heifetz said. "With the current state of our culture, they have kids, they have daughters, and there are opportunities for girls to play."
Said Coach Greg Ryan, "The potential that those players could develop should they adopt the game, they will be fantastic and we look forward to that day."
Lopez grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento, and has been involved in the national team system since she was 14. She was a member of the U.S. under-19 team at the world championship in Thailand, captained the under-20 squad at the world tournament in Russia and, when veteran Heather Mitts tore a knee ligament early this year, Lopez became the top candidate on the left side of defense.
"Even though she is young, she is a very mature kid and very steady," Ryan said.
While Lopez chases a world title here, her Portland teammates have begun their pursuit of a second NCAA championship in three years without her. Lopez, a senior, has been following their progress online -- the Pilots are 4-1-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country -- and plans to make her season debut in mid-October. To retain college eligibility, she had to pass up the USSF contract offer that pays a base salary of between $50,000 and $70,000 and substantial bonuses for finishing first, second or third.
"It was gradual, so I was able to get accustomed to it," she said of her national team emergence. "It's definitely surprising looking back at it, playing a full 90 minutes in a World Cup. On one hand, it seems like it was a process, on the other hand it seems like: 'Wow, I'm here. How did I get here?' "