Aven Alvarez is only 16, but she already knows where she wants to be in 10 years—playing professional soccer for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) like her hero, Emily Fox.

“She’s amazing,” Alvarez says. “I watched her at UNC and was just so impressed with not just her soccer ability, but also her character off the field. I really look up to her.”

Fox is a starting defender for the U.S. team at this year’s Women’s World Cup, which kicked off July 20 in New Zealand and Australia. She’s one of a dozen or so players on the international stage who honed her game in North Carolina, either at the college level or by playing for the state’s professional team, the NC Courage.

For Alvarez, a New Hope local, it’s not hard to imagine going pro. In North Carolina, there’s a clear path forward for female soccer players—one that can lead to the highest levels of play. 

The next (next) generation of soccer stars

Alvarez, like many children in North Carolina, started playing soccer as part of a recreational team that doesn’t require tryouts. This is how most people picture local soccer: a hot summer day with volunteer coaches and orange slices. It’s a non-competitive environment where youth can make friends and get exercise. 

But unlike some of her peers, Alvarez didn’t quit after a few years. Instead, she’s kept climbing, joining a competitive team at age 10. She knew she wanted to get serious about the game after watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup when the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) clinched their fourth international championship. 

“It just really inspired me,” Alvarez says. “Ever since then, I’ve had the goal of being able to do that someday—represent my country at full team level.”

A talented defender in her position as outside back, Alvarez already has a leg up as a member of the Women’s National Team for players under 17. That’s where a few current USWNT players made their start, and she’s already being recruited by several top college teams, though she can’t talk about the details. In 2019, she was invited to train with the NC Courage, where she got to meet Fox in person and play alongside the pros.

Alvarez admires Fox’s speed and technicality, she says. In practice, she’s set her own goal of winning the ball in more advanced positions, as well as creating attacking chances and assisting goals. 

It’s a strategy often utilized by defenders on the USWNT. In the team’s last match before the World Cup on July 9, Fox created several scoring opportunities by crossing the ball toward the opposing team’s goal. She and forward Ashley Sanchez made a formidable pair on the right side of the field. 

These kinds of aggressive plays by newcomers make the World Cup thrilling to watch. You never know who’ll become the next soccer superstar. 

North Carolina’s training ground

The path to going pro often starts with a league like the Triangle’s North Carolina Football Club (NCFC) Youth, a group for kids ages 2-19. Many who play competitively for NCFC go on to have college careers, including Macey Bader, 20, who plays for UNC-Charlotte. Bader was serious about soccer from a young age, but playing with NCFC helped her realize her goals.

“Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to go pro,” Bader says. “But specifically, I remember middle school, because we weren’t allowed to play on our middle school team [while playing for NCFC]. That didn’t really bother me much because I just wanted to be at the highest level.”

After graduating from a youth league like NCFC, the next “highest level” of soccer can be found on college campuses. Fortunately for aspiring pros, North Carolina is home to 17 Division 1 women’s soccer teams, including what is arguably the best women’s soccer team in the nation—the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels. 

Over the past four decades, the Tar Heels have won 21 NCAA championships and launched the careers of soccer greats Mia Hamm (who once held the record for most goals scored), Tobin Heath (a two-time World Cup champion), and Crystal Dunn (who is returning to the USWNT this year as a defender with 24 international goals). 

Coached by Anson Dorrance since 1979, UNC’s team was the first varsity-level women’s program in the Southeast. 

Dorrance has seen many of his college players move on to professional careers, including Hamm, Heath, and Dunn. In 2017, North Carolina secured its own pro team with the NC Courage. That’s provided even more opportunities for female soccer players, says Paul Forster, NCFC Youth Director of Soccer. 

“We have these professionals playing at our own back doorstep,” he says. “These young girls can go and watch every Saturday, and say ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

The growth of women’s soccer

NC Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy (1) during a match between the NC Courage and the Portland Thorns in Week 6 of the 2023 NWSL regular season at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC – Saturday, May 6, 2023. Photo by Lewis Gettier

Over the past ten years, the success of the USWNT has sparked a growing interest in women’s soccer. With that interest comes growing support through higher salaries for professional players and more money going into the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). 

It wasn’t easy, though. Professional women’s soccer didn’t even exist in the United States until 2000, when 20 USWNT players, fresh off their second world championship, organized to start their own league—more than 30 years after the first men’s soccer league was founded in the U.S. 

Despite the players’ success on the field, that first league folded after only three years. The second attempt, in 2007, lasted only five years. It wasn’t until 2012 that the NWSL was formed, the first women’s pro league to get sustained support. And thanks to the hard work of players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, women’s professional soccer is finally taking off. 

Home to 12 teams, the NWSL is set to add two teams in 2024 and another two in 2026. This year, bids to buy the new San Francisco team (dubbed the “Bay Football Club”) reached a record $53 million, more than 10 times what owners paid for NWSL teams just a few years ago. 

Celebrities, as well, are throwing their support behind the league by becoming investors. Movie stars like Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, and Reese Witherspoon all have a stake, as well as renowned female athletes like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka (an investor in NC Courage).

“We’re at the nexus of an economic revolution for the women’s game,” says Dorrance, citing a recent instance in which one investor, Michele Kang, paid $10 million above the asking price for a team, the Washington Spirit.

“She was indicating not only that her franchise was worth more than the $25 million they were asking for,” Dorrance says, “but also that all of the franchises across the country in the NWSL were worth more.”

When it comes to player pay, it’s the same story. USWNT players led the charge, filing a legal complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2016 over unequal pay and treatment. Although the USWNT was generating way more revenue than the men’s team, top female players at the time were being paid five-and-a-half times less than the men. As a woman, winning the World Cup netted you $75,000. Men received a bonus of $390,000. 

NC Courage defender Emily Fox (12) during a match between the NC Courage and the Portland Thorns in Week 6 of the 2023 NWSL regular season at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC – Saturday, May 6, 2023. Photo by Lewis Gettier

And it wasn’t just the pay. USWNT players also received less travel compensation, were put up in worse hotels, and played on poorer fields. Despite years of lobbying U.S. Soccer leaders for better treatment, the women’s proposals were rejected over and over again.

Then, in 2020, Cindy Parlow Cone (another UNC-Chapel Hill alumni) was named the first female president of U.S. Soccer

All of a sudden, things started to change. In 2022, U.S. Soccer reached a settlement with the USWNT players that provided nearly $24 million in back pay and pledged to equalize pay between men and women. Last year, NWSL players finally secured a living wage through a collective bargaining agreement, which also instituted long-overdue reforms to the league schedule and contract rules. 

“Female players are now in a position where they’re getting paid enough to actually live,” says Forster. “They’re not all millionaires, but there’s been so much positive change to support the growth of the female game at all levels.”

More people are also playing and watching women’s soccer. The 2019 Women’s World Cup final was the most-watched match in the tournament’s history, netting an average live audience of 82.18 million across the globe, 56 percent more viewers than the 2015 final. But in the U.S., women’s soccer still needs to attract more fans, Dorrance says. 

“[UNC-Chapel Hill has] always been a leader, but most of our leadership in the early years was just developing great players that win games. Now we also want to be a leader in attendance,” he says. “If people are paying top dollar to watch women compete athletically, then their salaries are going to improve. I want to be a part of that.”

Going international

Cary, North Carolina – Sunday June 19, 2022 – The 10,000-seat Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC is the current home of the NC Courage soccer team.

Today, there’s more excitement than ever around the U.S. Women’s National Team as they head to their ninth World Cup. North Carolinians, in particular, can be proud of the fact that six players from the N.C. Courage represent nations from across the globe. Two will be playing for the U.S.—defender Emily Fox and goalkeeper Casey Murphy. 

“To see their evolution has been tremendous,” says NC Courage Head Coach Sean Nahas. “It’s a little bit personal for me, just because I know where they started several years ago. I’m looking for them to go and have a big impact for the States, and hopefully, they come back … as world champions.”

Like many other young USWNT players, this will be Fox’s first World Cup. She made her first appearance for the national team in 2018, went on to play 28 more international matches, and helped the U.S. win the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year. 

“Foxy is sort of a free spirit,” Nahas says of her play style. “She’s quiet, but when she plays, her personality comes out. She’s great on the ball, she’s great at getting forward, she’s great in tight spaces.

“Her ability to get out of trouble, her ability to pass and combine … That’s what makes her dangerous at the next level,” Nahas adds. “If she’s in a situation where the U.S. asks her to get forward, down, and back, it could be a lot of trouble for the opposition because she’s so hard to track.”

Murphy also has a chance to make her first appearance at the World Cup this year, likely as a substitute for longtime USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Although Naeher has more experience, Murphy is a rising star. She made her first appearance for the USWNT in 2021, when she saved an astonishing eight goals against Australia.

Where to Watch 

July 21, 9 p.m. | USA v. Vietnam | Group Stage

Hi-Wire Brewing | 800 Taylor Street, Suite 9-150, Durham | The brewery is teaming up with soccer.com to offer swag.

Durty Bull Brewing Company | 206 Broadway St., Ste. 104, Durham: The brewery also will be airing next-day replays of the game. 

The Boot Room | 2501 University Drive, Durham

Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub | 427 W Main St, Durham | These pub is also showing other group stage matches (not USA) at 10:30 p.m., July 20; 10 p.m., July 24; 8 pm July 27; 10 pm Aug. 5 (round of 16) and 9 pm Aug 10 (quarter-finals)

The Bridge DTR | 110 E Hargett St, Raleigh, NC 27601

Tap Yard Raleigh | 1610 Automotive Way, Raleigh | This one-acre beer garden is showing the big game on a big screen, with the added bonus of a food truck. 

The Winchester | 6164 A Falls of Neuse Rd., Raleigh

Moore Square | 201 S Blount St., Raleigh | Join viewers from around the world at an outdoor party with food trucks, a local market, and games and crafts, 6-11 p.m.

July 26, 9 p.m. | USA v. Netherlands | Group stage

The Boot Room | 2501 University Dr, Durham

The Bridge DTR | 110 E Hargett St, Raleigh

Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub | 427 W Main St, Durham

Durty Bull Brewing Company | 206 Broadway St, Suite 104, Durham

Tap Yard Raleigh | 1610 Automotive Way, Raleigh

“I was pretty clear when I joined the team what my goals were … to be the best goalkeeper in the world,” she adds. “He helps keep me to that standard.”

Thackeray, who has coached Murphy for about three years, says she’s made “major progress, both on and off the field.” Like the player herself, Thackeray credits some of her growth to the competitive NC Courage environment. Also crucial, however, is Murphy’s personal drive.

“She’s relentless in her approach to getting better,” he says. “She wants to win in everything that she does. Without her attitude, her mentality toward being the best, she wouldn’t be where she is.”

All in all, Murphy has played more than 1,000 minutes of international soccer. But this year’s World Cup comes with the added challenge of defending the U.S. title and vying for a third consecutive championship, a feat unprecedented among either men or women. 

Avid fans, including Alvarez, will be watching. She says she always watches the World Cup at home, surrounded by her family. She’s rooting for the U.S. 

“It’s the pressure of having the target on our back, to win the game and advance in the tournament,” Murphy says. “What gives me comfort is knowing everyone’s feeling the pressure. It’s a matter of how you handle it.” 

The 27-year-old goalkeeper sees the tournament as “an opportunity to acknowledge that I’m going to feel pressure for the rest of my career, especially playing with the national team.” 

This will not be Murphy’s last World Cup, Thackeray says with confidence. He hopes to see her shine on the world stage, but he and Murphy both know her role in the lineup is someone else’s decision, he adds. 

“I would love it if she was to start and be the number one because I think she has that quality,” Thackeray says. “But to be honest, I hope she just embraces the moment. She’s got a long future in the game.” 

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.comComment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.  

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