Making Cary soccer central

From the Raleigh News & Observer

Women's College Cup championship gives Triangle national profile

Matthew Eisley and David Ranii , Staff Writers

CARY - For soccer fans and Triangle boosters, it's the ultimate give-and-go. The women's College Cup soccer championship is playing out at SAS Stadium this weekend while more than 200 high school soccer teams from across America compete throughout the region.

They're feeding off each other -- and raising the Triangle's national profile as a soccer Mecca.

"It's about branding Cary as the college soccer capital in the U.S.," said Scott Dupree, director of sports marketing for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. "What's important is the exposure and the branding."

Everyone involved seems to benefit.

About 3,800 high school girls get tickets to the collegiate Final Four, as well as exposure to more than 500 college coaches.

The NCAA gets a full house for its nationally televised tournament and motivates the next several classes of college players.

Teams and their fans get a friendly reception in the soccer-happy Triangle, and the region gets an economic boost estimated at $2.4 million -- and some marketing prestige.

"We're doing this for the area and for the good of soccer," said Charlie Slagle, chief executive of the Capital Area Soccer League, which runs the youth tournament and hosts the College Cup with Cary and N.C. State University. "I'd sure like to have something here permanently -- the women one year and the men the next."

That's not a given, says the National Collegiate Athletic Association, but it has worked out that way the past few years.

Cary's SAS Stadium hosted the women's College Cup in 2003 and 2004, the men's Cup in 2005 and the women's this year. It will host the men's tournament next year.

The NCAA will decide in the spring where to have the next two or three men's and women's championships, said Kristin Fasbender, the group's assistant director of championships. Cary is bidding again.

The recent competition has included Austin, College Station, and Dallas in Texas and San Jose, Calif., Fasbender said.

"I don't know if we'll look for a permanent site, but Cary will definitely be in the mix," she said before Friday afternoon's sold-out semifinal game at SAS Stadium between UNC-Chapel Hill and UCLA.

"This is a great facility for soccer," she said.

When the college teams aren't competing this weekend -- the championship game is set for 12:30 p.m. Sunday -- the high school teams are playing at dozens of Triangle soccer fields in CASL's Girls' Shootout Showcase.

"It's a tremendous recruiting opportunity for all the coaches," said one of the coaches, N.C. State's Laura Kerrigan. "This is such a great area to have it, because there is such soccer excitement here."

In the stands, too.

"There she is! There she is!" Morgan Mays, 10, shrieked to her friend Katie Vann, 12, a soccer player from Lynchburg, Va. "There's Mia!"

As in Mia Hamm, the Carolina alumna Olympic team leader and one of the world's foremost women soccer stars.

As Hamm took her seat near the press box, Morgan, Katie, and their sisters, Molly Mays and Lauren Vann, both 10, gushed over Hamm and their common passion.

"She's, like, my lifetime hero," Morgan said. "When I grow up, I would like to be in the Olympics and the NCAA championship."

Said Katie, "It's cool to see them do all the moves I'm learning."

The girls' parents drove them from Lynchburg to Cary for Friday's semifinal games.

"It's such a soccer Mecca down here," said mom Julie Mays, 36, a youth soccer coach. "I tell our girls that to see what you're made of, you need to come here."

On the other side of the packed stadium, several high school players from Pittsburgh enjoyed watching their elders play. The official attendance was 8,412.

"If we had an event like this in Pittsburgh, I don't think as many people would show up," said goalkeeper Katie Muller, 17. "There were a lot of coaches at our game. It's kind of intimidating and exciting at the same time.

"This is as big as it gets."

Her dad, Wayne Muller, 47, said he sometimes travels to Cary to train for repairing magnetic resonance imaging machines.

"Soccer seems like a very big sport here," he said. "It's good for the area and good for the sport. It creates a real good impression."

And that, as much as any particular championship, is the goal.