Fresh off a World Cup title, Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates aim to keep women’s soccer rolling

The case could be made that the United States Women’s National Team is really America’s Team.

It’s a diverse group of 23 women soccer players — black, white, and biracial, young and old, gay and straight — that won the Women’s World Cup in France this year, claiming the title for the U.S. for the fourth time. And like the other winning franchises in other sports — think the New England Patriots in the NFL, Alabama in college football and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA — there are legions of fans and plenty of detractors, too.

Arrogant, sore winners, too political — the USWNT has heard the criticism.

“It’s only polarizing because we are women,” said Megan Rapinoe, the team’s star forward and member of the Reign FC.

“I think that this team, as female athletes, takes up space that no other team does with the exception of a few female athletes. Think of a Serena Williams; she’s always being accused of doing too much or having too many antics. Or just having big personalities in a way that we want to be but we know exactly who we are, how good we are.

“We just won a world championship, so we’re gonna take up all the space. I just found it ridiculous.”

For many fans, it’s the soccer and not everything else surrounding the team that matters. On Sunday, the Reign welcomes back its two champions, Rapione and Allie Long, when they host the Chicago Red Stars at 1 p.m. at Cheney Stadium. While Rapinoe will not play because of a minor Achilles’ injury, Long is probable for the game.

Reign FC, playing its first season in Tacoma, and the National Women’s Soccer League, are counting on a boost from the players who spent the better part of a month in France to keep the game in consciousness in the U.S. While fans flocked to the their television to watch the World Cup games, the NWSL is hoping they’ll now watch them at stadiums around the country.

“I don’t feel like it’s our responsibility to keep the conversation going,” Rapinoe said. “Anymore than we already are, I don’t think we can bring it to a higher level than we’ve already brought it especially during the World Cup.

“ I think it’s everybody else’s responsibility, whether it be media or Allie was saying, a way to continue the conversation and continue to invest in women’s sports or women’s programs. I think it’s time that everyone else steps up.”

The NWSL got a boost from ESPN earlier this month. The network announced on July 4 that the league would broadcast 14 games in the second half of the season on its family of networks. Even with that commitment and added exposure, the league is seeking to expand its corporate sponsors and capitalize on the popularity of the U.S. team’s World Cup title to remain viable.

“We need people to invest in this league,” Long said. “(As Rapinoe said recently) we don’t just need people in the stands but we need more corporate sponsorships, groups to buy in and believe that this will be something someday. People step up, take that leap of faith and just go with it.

“I’m still in airports and people don’t know that there’s a professional women’s soccer league. We need to be marketed better; there’s so many little things that have to come from people with money, to put it plain. (We need them to) pour money into us and the investment will pay off.”

The popularity of women’s soccer has ebbed and flowed since the USWNT captured the attention of the American public with its World Cup title in 1999. However, no women’s league has been able to turn that into long term success.

Whether this time is different remains to be seen but the profile of such women soccer stars as Rapinoe has rarely been higher. Her goal celebrations in France, her comments both on politics in general and those of her sport surrounding the issue of equal pay for the women’s national team, has given her a big platform and nation-wide exposure.

“We’re used to the media attention,” Rapinoe said.

“We’re far more used to it than any other team in the World Cup, so we always have that. I feel like for us, we know exactly who we are ... We take on so much off the field and we are aware and proud of the place we have socially and we do things the right way.”

Does that turn on more fans to the sport or turn them off? That is the question that remains to be answered.