PARIS — In the feel-good final scene of the 2002 British film “Bend It Like Beckham,” best friends and teammates Jess and Jules bid farewell to their parents at London’s Heathrow Airport, having convinced them that playing soccer isn’t morally corrosive for girls, and fly off to America, where full college scholarships at Santa Clara University await.
Fast-forward to today, and the movie’s happy plot twist has become a trend, with the number of international players competing in NCAA Division I women’s soccer steadily growing.
The upshot is on dramatic display in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, where NCAA-schooled internationals are anchoring the squads of Canada, Chile, Jamaica and New Zealand, and playing integral roles for Nigeria, Scotland, Spain, Thailand and others.
In back-to-back victories over Cameroon and New Zealand, Canada got goals from a UCLA Bruin (two-time all-American Jessie Fleming) and a former Ohio State Buckeye (Nichelle Prince) and West Virginia Mountaineer (Kadeisha Buchanan), while a onetime Connecticut Huskies goalkeeper (Stephanie Labbe) kept a clean sheet.
In fact, 20 of Canada’s 23 World Cup players competed or currently compete for Division I powerhouses. Their captain, 36-year-old Christine Sinclair, who is three goals from matching Abby Wambach’s international career record of 184, helped Portland to NCAA championships in 2002 and 2005.
Halfway around the world, 19th-ranked New Zealand selected a 2019 World Cup squad with seven current or former NCAA players.
So, when Canada played New Zealand on Saturday in a Group E clash, 14 of the 22 starters (nine for Canada, five for New Zealand) played for NCAA Division I programs.
At the World Cup, it’s not just the United States that’s reaping the long-established benefits of Title IX, the federal legislation that in 1972 required equal opportunity for girls and women and, in doing so, laid the foundation for soccer dynasties at North Carolina, Stanford and Portland. Nations around the world have rosters sprinkled with athletes who were recruited by U.S. colleges and have been shaped, in meaningful ways, by NCAA competition.
Noted North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance, whose Tar Heels have won 21 NCAA championships: “In that band of 17- to 22-year-old players, the American college game does a fantastic job of preparing them to make the transition from the girls’ to the women’s game. The two countries that have benefited most from the college game are the U.S. and Canada. But even teams like Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia . . . a lot of those kids are playing in American colleges.”
Among them is Chile’s outstanding goalkeeper, Christiane Endler, who won player-of-the-match honors for her fierce performance in fending off one on-target blast after another in the U.S. team’s 3-0 victory over Chile on Sunday that clinched a spot in the tournament’s round of 16.
Endler, 27, played two seasons for South Florida before turning pro, and it was key to her development.
“Everything helps you. Every step in your career helps. You get better, learn different things and learn English, also,” Endler said of her two seasons competing for the Bulls, in which she made 170 saves.
Australia’s Teagan Micah, who is also UCLA’s third-year starting goalkeeper, has called her move to play for the Bruins one of the best decisions of her life.
“The standard is at such a high quality, and you can see that by how many players are representing UCLA at the World Cup,” Micah, 21, told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times this spring, alluding to Canada’s Fleming, New Zealand’s Rosie White and U.S. squad members Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper. “It has allowed me to further my knowledge of the game and also adapt to the different playing styles around the world.”
Not all imports sign with big programs. Spain defender Celia Jimenez, 23, enrolled at Iowa Western Community College before transferring to Alabama.
The percentage of NCAA Division I athletes in all sports from other countries has risen nearly 50 percent over the past seven years, from accounting for 7.9 percent of all athletes in 2009-10 to 11.9 percent in 2016-17, according to figures compiled by the NCAA.
The percentage is negligible in sports with U.S. roots, such as football and softball. Tennis represents the other extreme, with internationals accounting for more than half of Division I players.
Division I women’s soccer falls in between, with international students accounting for 10 percent of players in 2016-17, up from 7 percent in 2010.
Dorrance predicts the percentage may rise.
In his case, he’s increasingly looking overseas to stay competitive with his West Coast rivals, Stanford and UCLA, which are often the first choice of top recruits and their families.
“I don’t want to lose to Stanford and UCLA, so where do I have to go to get the best players in the world to compete with the best players in the U.S. that I’m losing to Stanford and UCLA?” Dorrance asked rhetorically.
Moreover, if more top U.S. prospects decide to skip college and turn pro, following the lead of U.S. World Cup players Lindsey Horan, 25, and Mallory Pugh, 21, NCAA coaches will have to cast wider nets to replace them.
Both parties stand to benefit when international players hone their skills in the U.S. college ranks.
Mewis, who scored two goals in her World Cup debut, said she and her fellow Bruins learned a great deal from their international teammates. Mewis played with New Zealand’s White for four seasons, and the two were close friends.
“I’m sure she took a lot from the environment, but I also learned a lot from her,” Mewis said. “She had a really high standard of fitness and nutrition and taking care of herself. That was cool for me to see — someone who was already playing at this level. I wasn’t quite there yet and [was] kind of learning and adapting to her habits and picking up on some of those things.”
Dorrance, who also coached the U.S. team that won the inaugural World Cup in 1991 (with nine Tar Heels on the roster, including Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs and Kristine Lilly), is emphatic on that point.
Lucy Bronze, a standout on England’s World Cup team, played one season at right back for North Carolina. While Dorrance doesn’t take credit for Bronze’s development, he surely helped launch her career. She, in turn, helped the Tar Heels to the 2009 NCAA championship. Moreover, the Tar Heels benefited from Bronze’s exemplary standard of professionalism. And that’s largely why North Carolina’s current roster has two rising stars of English soccer: forward Alessia Russo and defender Lotte Wubben-Moy.
Dorrance describes them as a joy to coach because of their professionalism, humility and attentiveness — qualities he finds remarkable given that each could have signed pro contracts in England (Russo with Chelsea, Wubben-Moy with Arsenal) but enrolled at North Carolina instead.
“What these kids wanted was a superior education, and the University of North Carolina, with its commitment to athletics and academics, was a great opportunity,” Dorrance said. “I don’t want to pretend we transformed them, but the platform they have with us is helping them continue to evolve.”
In exchange, the English players are great examples for many incoming homegrown recruits who, in Dorrance’s experience, often arrive on campus a bit self-satisfied.
“They are professional in the way they train. They don’t take part of practice off,” Dorrance said of his English players. “One of the downsides to the American soccer culture is obviously that every girl who gets a great Division I soccer scholarship has been the best girl on any team in her life. That often comes with a complacency, a lack of humility that is disconcerting, certainly, for someone who’s trying to shape them for a higher level.
“When you coach a professional like Lotte or Alessia, all they do is nod. They know the game well enough to know that what you’ve just said is correct.”