Soccer players in Sonora shouted and screamed and raised their arms when U.S. striker Christen Press scored the first goal against England on a big screen TV at a coach’s house on Tuesday.

The go-ahead goal gave the United States women a 1-0 lead over England early in a Women’s World Cup semifinal in France.

“Slightly nervous,” Emily Kroeze, 14, an incoming freshman trying out for women’s soccer at Sonora High School, said a bit later when the U.S. led England 2-1. “There’s always a chance England can turn it around.”

Kroeze said she prefers playing right back and she likes watching the U.S. women play because they have “quick reactions, they’re working well together, on defense and offense.”

More than 30 soccer players, parents and coaches gathered Tuesday at the home of Kurt Wolken, women’s varsity coach at Sonora High and a coach with Sierra United club soccer to watch the Women’s World Cup semifinal between the United States and England. The televised match started at noon, about an hour after most of the soccer players and coaches took part in two hours of summer practice at Sonora High School.

Alexia Villegas, 14, a right midfielder who’s also trying out for Sonora High School soccer, wore a No. 13 Alex Morgan jersey and she was delighted when Morgan scored a second goal for the United States. Villegas has been playing soccer eight years and she’s coming to Sonora High from Columbia Elementary.

“She’s my favorite player, she inspires me,” Villegas said. “She dedicates everything to soccer and she’s always working to improve herself.”

Villegas said she also likes to watch one of the U.S. captains, Megan Rapinoe, who often plays the same position as Villegas. She likes Rapinoe’s accurate crossing and goal-scoring. Villegas said she wasn’t worried about the final result against England. She said, “I know the U.S. is going to win.”

Rapinoe, a firebrand and lightning rod for the U.S. team for more than a decade, was on the bench but did not play Tuesday.

Reggie Van Sleet, father of Bethany Van Sleet, 15, a sophomore this year at Sonora High, said he prefers watching women’s soccer to the men’s game.

“The way they communicate, the way the players talk to each other and the quick passes,” Van Sleet said. “The women are more successful, but I like watching the women play more than the men anyway. It’s more exciting. I’ve been watching the last 10 years at least.”

Van Fleet said he also watched the 1999 Women’s World Cup final on TV, when the U.S. defeated China on penalty kicks in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. His 19-year-old son, Reggie Van Sleet IV, was named the Sonora High soccer player of the year for 2018.

Julie DeSilva, sat right down front for the start of the U.S.-England match and she raised her arms and hollered when the United States scored first. She has two daughters, center midfielder Martha Gonzalez and left back Bella Gonzalez, who play for both Sonora High and for Sierra United.

“I hope Martha learns from watching the women,” DeSilva said. “She wants to go on and play soccer at the college level.”
Wolken and at least three other coaches, Sonora High junior varsity coach Denise Wheeler, assistant junior varsity coach Sara Maitchell, and John DeGrazio, head coach with Sierra United, watched the Women’s World Cup semifinal Tuesday with their players.

Earlier in the day, Wolken taught Sonora High varsity and junior varsity players how to execute Cruyff turns and roulette turns. The Cruyff turn is named for Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, and Argentina’s Diego Maradona made roulette turns world-famous. Wolken teaches a few men’s moves but he wants his players to take more from the United States women.

“I hope they embrace their passion, the U.S. team this year is so together,” Wolken said. “Watching them create on the field, watching on the TV they can the shape of the U.S. attack and transitions. I want them to be more creative. Watching more, I hope it gives them more ideas. I like the girls to watch the women because it’s more ball control and they work the ball more. More methodical passing and sharing the ball. It’s not as direct as the men.”

DeGrazio wore a Carli Lloyd No. 10 shirt on Tuesday. He said he wears it to show his admiration for Lloyd, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, 2015 Women's World Cup champion, and two-time FIFA Player of the Year, because he and Lloyd both grew up in New Jersey and both attended Rutgers University.

“I think it’s important that anyone can wear anyone’s jersey,” DeGrazio said. “A man can wear a woman’s jersey and I’m just saying she plays the game the way everyone should play it. Her fire, her fierce competitiveness, her motor is always going. She’s the most determined player on the field, whether she’s a starter or a sub. When she comes in its instant energy.”

At least one of Sierra United’s players, Moriah Machado, who plays fullback, plays with the same intensity as Lloyd, DeGrazio said.

The U.S. held their 2-1 lead, thanks in part to Lloyd’s savvy game-killing skills near the end of the match, and the U.S. women defeated England to move on to the World Cup final, against Holland or Sweden, scheduled at 8 a.m. Pacific Time on Sunday in Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon, the same venue where the U.S. won Tuesday.

Bella and Martha Gonzalez, who were at Sonora High soccer practice earlier Tuesday, said they were pleased with the U.S. win.

“I think they did really good,” said Martha Gonzalez, 15.

“They worked together as a team,” said Bella Gonzalez, 14. “I think they’ll do good in the final.”

The early start for the World Cup final on Sunday might be challenging for some, but plans were already in the works by the end of Tuesday’s semifinal.

“I’m going to host a watch party for the final at my house,” DeGrazio said. “We’ll probably have to do bacon and eggs. . . . Win or lose, I hope my players see the amount of preparation that goes into playing the game on such a high level, the amount of mental toughness needed, the ability to rise to the moment. Even when mistakes happen, to stay mentally strong.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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