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U.S. women's soccer team inspiring young fans back home

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Fans watch a Women's World Cup game
Lydia Holker makes a poster to cheer on the U.S. women's soccer team, while wearing a jersey to support her favorite player, Alex Morgan. Lydia and other soccer fans gathered in Burnsville on Sunday to watch the televised game between the U.S. and Chile.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

As the U.S. women's soccer team rolled to another World Cup win on Sunday in France, young soccer players in Minnesota watched their every move.

And these kids are more than just casual fans.

Sisley Wessel, 13, was among a group of BV United soccer club players and parents gathered at City Hall in Burnsville for a watch party as the Americans took on Chile. She's been playing since she was 4 or 5. 

As the game was projected on a big screen, she kept an eye on the action and described how she savors the pregame moments — when she's the one taking the field.

Fans watch a Women's World Cup game
A crowd of soccer fans gathered in Burnsville to watch the Women's World Cup on TV reacts after the U.S. missed a goal against Chile on Sunday.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

"(It's) where you see how good the other team is or you try to figure out what you need to do in the game, when you're watching them warm up."

Braden Holker, 9, also kept a strategic eye on the game.   "I think (U.S. coach) Jill Ellis, like, had seven changes to the lineup because last game we crushed Thailand 13-nothing. So she wanted to make it a little more fair and give them a rest," he said.

Braden has a long list of his favorite players on the U.S. women's team, and a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of this year's roster. 

"I like Megan Rapinoe 'cause she's smart and she can read the game really well and she knows when to make the right passes. And I like (Alex) Morgan because she can just score a ton of goals," he said.

Fans watch a Women's World Cup game
Aubrey Sandbo, left, makes a poster to show her support for the U.S. women's soccer team on Sunday in Burnsville, while Amelia Noonan and Lyndsey Aldrich appreciate each other's face paint.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

As they watched the game Sunday, the young soccer players made posters and applied face paint to show their support for the U.S. players. The BV United coaches were intentional about opening up the watch party to girls and boys on their teams. Last week, they showed part of the U.S.-Thailand game at soccer camp.

"One of the boys who was at camp, like, created a whole bracket for the whole World Cup, was like tracking scores, is predicting games," recalled Jen Larrick, the girls' director of coaching and player development. "And to just see him be like, 'Oh yeah. This is a big deal,' I think tells ... his fellow female peers that it matters. (It) makes me believe that he'll grow into, like, a more informed young man around gender. I think it's really, really encouraging and exciting."

But of course, the World Cup games are a big deal for young women, too. Larrick, who is also the co-founder of the youth sports nonprofit Like A Girl, remembers watching the U.S. women win the World Cup in 1999 and how transformative that was. She sees that empowerment happening with her young players now, as they follow the game — and the players' battle for equal pay.

Carli Lloyd of the U.S.
Carli Lloyd of the U.S., left, vies for the ball with Chile's Maria Urrutia during a Women's World Cup Group F soccer match at Parc des Princes in Paris on Sunday.
Alessandra Tarantino | AP

"One of the girls on my U11 team, you know, she knows all the stats. She loves Alex Morgan. She has the jerseys, she watches every game and it means a lot to her. And I think there's something really, really, really important about just seeing yourself represented in media in a way that's not over sexualized and in a way that's taken seriously," Larrick said. "And, right, she's also aware of the lawsuit and she's aware that the women get paid less. And so, she has an understanding of, like, the complexity of being a woman in sports, too.

To the kids, these women are role models — and also just really talented athletes. During the game, the group gathered at Burnsville City Hall cheered during each of the goals, and agonized over the shots that Chile's keeper successfully blocked. 

Sisley was too invested in the game to talk much about strategy and the players, but she did make a prediction. 

Fans watch a Women's World Cup game
Youth soccer players in Burnsville work together to make posters and put on face paint to show their support for the U.S. women's soccer team.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

"I think that the score is going to be either 3-0 or 3-1," she said.

Ever the knowledgeable soccer fan — she was right. The Americans defeated Chile 3-0, and will take on Sweden later this week. In Burnsville and across the state, young soccer players will be watching.

Like A Girl will host a watch party for the Women's World Cup final on July 7 at Matthews Park in Minneapolis. Find more information on the group's website.