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Detroit — Fans jumped to their feet, clapping, hollering and high-fiving as they watched, eyes glued to TV screens.

"I'm just a soccer fan — and the women bring it," said Mike Crimmins, 57, of Washington Township said at Thomas Magee's Sporting House in Eastern Market this week as the U.S. women's national soccer team scored its way to the FIFA Women's World Cup finals. "They're a great team to watch."

The national team will face the Netherlands at 11 a.m. EDT Sunday in France to defend its 2015 champion title. If the U.S. is victorious, it would be the program's fourth World Cup win since it began in 1991.

With that success, interest across all ages and investment in the world's sport is proliferating in Michigan.

"American culture likes to see sports where there's a constant battle, constant pressure and constant excitement," said Nick Radu, president of the Michigan Soccer Association. "The women are able to bring that. You get caught up in their energy. It's those kind of events that help the sport grow."

Nationally, soccer is increasingly drawing the attention of Americans; 7% of U.S. adults said it was their favorite sport, surpassing hockey for the first time, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer is adding teams, though it has yet to accept a bid from Detroit, one of America's biggest sports towns. Semi-professional Detroit City FC in Hamtramck, however, is set to join an 11-club pro circuit later this year.

Adult and youth clubs and leagues in the state are growing, officials said. Thousands of youths play, and another 6,000 adults participate in a pay-to-play organized league from age 18 to seniors, according to the soccer association. That doesn't include the numerous other pick-up programs around Michigan.

"It gives you a reason to get out there and participate in physical activity," Radu said. "They're making lifelong friendships."

Thousands of dollars are going to soccer facilities. Pennsylvania-based Soccer Shots this week said it is in the final stages of selecting a franchise partner to launch soccer programming for children 2-8 years old in Metro Detroit. The company envisions up to six franchises each with an investment of around $47,000.

"We think there's plenty of room for programs like ours and for other organizations," said Matt Kurowski, Soccer Shots chief operating officer. "There's an increase in growth in the club level, which typically indicates an opportunity at that younger age, and the sheer number of young families in that market makes it attractive."

Michigan also is attracting overseas interest. Liverpool Football Club International Academy in Michigan grew from 425 youth participants in 2016, when it became affiliated with the professional English soccer team, to 1,700. With locations in Ann Arbor, Clarkston, Ferndale, Pontiac and Windsor, Ontario, it is the largest club connected to Liverpool FC in the world, said Andy Wagstaff, the academy's owner.

Greater interest in soccer and talented coaches here benefits the club, he said. Meanwhile, Liverpool is looking to grow its fan base in the U.S.

"We've had a spike in participation from the positive message that we're sending about life skills and camaraderie and cooperation," said Wagstaff, whose club uses the same curriculum as Liverpool's academy in England. "The national (U.S.) team provides that great role model to aspire to be like."

Its players are role models both on the field and in life whether young athletes choose to pursue soccer professionally or not, said Doug Landefeld, executive director for the Hawks, the girls' program at the Michigan Wolves-Hawks Soccer Club based at Schoolcraft College in Livonia.

The nationally ranked premier-level club has alumnae playing professionally in the U.S. and overseas. In June, it also helped launch Adidas' Three Stipe Live live-stream platform for girls' club sports during its conference's regular-season finale.

"There's always a bump in participation because of the World Cup," Landefeld said. "The media coverage helps the kids see how much fun it is to play at that level and that soccer is a cool sport. They watch it and say, 'I can be more than what I am.'"

Equal pay

The women's national team also are inspirational off the field, officials said. In March, the women's national team players filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination and equal pay. The federation cited differences in competition, leadership and revenues for the pay gap. Both agreed to mediation outside of court following the World Cup, according to reports.

"There's so many movements for equality across gender, race, all sorts of groups," said Krystle Line, a 34-year-old mom from Bloomfield Township who also plays soccer recreationally. "It's great to see them stand up for that."

Morris Lupenec, owner of the premier-level Vardar Soccer club in Rochester Hills, said his players are aware of the discussion through social media.

"We've seen improvement on the women's side in terms of support and salaries, and it's definitely better than it was 30 years ago," he said. "It's going to keep improving."

Female players earn a maximum of $4,950 per game compared to $13,166 per game for the men, according to the team's lawsuit.

"With the women getting to finals, they probably bring notoriety and value to the game in the United States as much as the boys do because of their success," said the Hawks' Landefeld, who added his club's coaching director, Michele Krzisnik, is one of the few women in that position. "It's hard for me to understand why there wouldn't be equal pay at the top level."

From 2016 to 2018, women's games generated approximately $50.8 million in revenue, more than the $49.9 million from men's games, according to U.S. Soccer financial statements.

"So long as the revenue and funds are there," said Brendan O'Leary, a 30-year-old doctorate student who plays on one of Detroit City's neighborhood teams, "it seems like there would be no reason they shouldn't get equal pay."

National anthem

U.S. co-captain Megan Rapinoe also has denounced the Trump administration, last month tweeting that if the U.S. won the World Cup, she would not visit "the (explicit) White House."

Trump responded with a series of tweets, saying he would invite her team to the White House — win or lose — and that Rapinoe "should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team."

Previously, Rapinoe had taken a knee during the national anthem before games in 2016 in support of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick's protest against police brutality and racial injustice. The U.S. Soccer Federation later adopted a rule that all players must stand during the anthem. At the World Cup, Rapinoe has stood but has not sung or put her hand on her heart.

"I don't think the game is the proper place to protest," said Deborah Alfaro, a 44-year-old Westland resident and longtime fan of the team. "You're an employee then. If you have a platform outside of that, that's where you can share your thoughts."

But Gabrielle Cager, a 48-year-old audiologist from Chicago who enjoyed the semifinals World Cup game Tuesday at Thomas Magee's with friends, was glad to see Rapinoe's support.

"People try to make it about the military," Cager said. "It's not about that. Sure, I think she should be able to kneel. It should be a choice."

Soccer club officials said they have club policies and core values for players that emphasize respect.

"We live in a country where we have a right to freedom of speech," Vardar's Lupenec said. "Those individuals are using their platform on some things that they feel strongly about. Personally, I don't think I would use my platform to do that. I still put my hand on my chest."

But that controversy won't stop most fans from cheering the national team to victory Sunday.

"They find ways to win," Lupenec said. "I'd be surprised if anyone is going to beat them in the final."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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