US SoccerUS Soccer

Eventful Autumn

Rising U.S. star Stephanie Lopez has two momentous events happening in her life over the next few months, one on the field, one off. But as always, the soft-spoken defender is approaching both with the maturity that has helped define her as a player.

Growing up in the quiet Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, like any kid, Stephanie Lopez had dreams of where her life would take her.

From a big family herself, she wanted to one day meet a great guy, get married and eventually have family of her own. Of course, as a talented soccer player, she set a goal of playing in a Women’s World Cup.

But doing both in a span of four months? This is the real surreal life.

In December, Lopez will marry her college sweetheart, Brian Cox, but first, another dream comes true. Lopez is set to be a major contributor to the 2007 U.S. Women’s World Cup Team in China, and at age 21, is the youngest member of the squad.

“At times, it does still seem surreal,” said Lopez, who got her first senior National Team cap at the 2005 Algarve Cup in Portugal. “You dream about these things your whole life and then all of a sudden, they are coming true. That can be a bit overwhelming, but mostly, I’m just very thankful. I know there has been a lot of work to get here, but I feel very fortunate to have such wonderful experiences to look forward to in my life.”

Lopez is the only player on the Women’s World Cup Team with college eligibility remaining. She red-shirted what would have been her sophomore season at the University of Portland to play in the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship in Thailand, and thus has one season left for the Pilots.

A fine student, the psychology major is just six credits shy of graduation, and will earn those through writing and researching her senior thesis. She will miss a major chunk of the collegiate season while in China, and she already has won a national championship, playing a huge part in Portland’s historic undefeated run to the 2005 NCAA title.

As an amateur player, she is not yet under contract to the U.S. Soccer Federation and will miss out on any bonuses should all go well in China.

Ummm…Steph, did you maybe think about turning professional and skipping your senior season?

If she did, it was just for a fleeting moment. She’s going back to pull on the purple of the Pilots a few more times and play her final games at Merlo Field, one of the most electric college stadiums in the country.

“Playing with professional players makes you think about the next level, the next step, not necessary as a soccer player, but where they are in life, earning money playing the sport that they love,” said Lopez. “The money can be very attractive, but I know in the long run, I will look back and be so proud that I finished off those last three months at my school.”

Lopez has missed more than a few college games over the past few years, as her consistent call-ups for the U.S. U-19s, U-20s and full WNT has seen her travel all over the country and the world. But to Portland’s co-captain, there’s nothing like coming home.

“Playing for Portland has just been an awesome experience,” she said. “My school and the program have been so patient and encouraging to me in playing for the National Teams. They’ve been so gracious for so long that the only thing I can do to show my gratitude is to be there for them when I can. I feel blessed that I have another season to go back and play with those girls, in such a special environment.”

Soccer is THE sport at UP, and the team regularly draws some of the largest crowds in women’s college soccer.

“It’s exciting to be at a school where your game is the one everyone wants to go on Friday night,” said Lopez.

“Even though I missed out going to a big football school and all that goes with that, it’s a very unique experience to play at Merlo Field in front of a sold out crowd. I know the crowds at the Women’s World Cup will be much bigger, but it’s fun playing in front of fans that know you. It’s an intimate setting on an intimate campus and in the small community. Even though I’m so proud to play for my country, the whole country doesn’t see me on the streets and say ‘hi’”.

More than just the Portland residents may soon be greeting Lopez after the Women’s World Cup, as she could play a key role at outside left back. The wonderfully aesthetic player has shown increased toughness and grit while adjusting to the international game, earning 24 caps heading into the tournament.

Like for any young player, at times her adjustment to the National Team has been difficult, and at times she has felt entirely in her element. There is no doubt that she’s been living on the razor’s edge of the international soccer life.

“Playing with the National Team, especially at my age, is always an experience that pushes your limits and tests your ability to perform outside your comfort zone,” said Lopez, who is known for her exquisite ball skills and composure. “There are moments when you are confident, and certainly times when your confidence drops, but always you are being stretched as a player. Excitement is brought about by emotionally charged situations, and the National Team certainly is always supplying those.”

This much, however, she knows. As veteran of two FIFA youth world championships (she captained the U-20s in Russia in 2004), three college seasons at a top program, countless youth National Team matches and two Residency Training camps with the full WNT, she is ready for the next challenge.

“You have to believe that you are ready for this because you have to believe in your coach’s decision, you have to believe in your teammates who are supporting you,” said Lopez. “Their support is grounded in the ability that I’ve demonstrated over the past couple of years I’ve been training with this team. Of course, with such an exiting opportunity, sometimes doubt creeps in, but you have to believe that at crunch time, you and your teammates will come through it together.”

Lopez’ senior thesis will focus on the perception of female athletes as role models to young women.

When talking positive role models, there couldn’t be a more appropriate author.