Women's Soccer Progress In England Spurs National Team Success

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Jodie Taylor says she started playing soccer with and against boys because there weren't many girls teams in England at the time. At 15, she started playing for the Tranmere Rovers women's team, then began her college career in the United States by taking a scholarship at Oregon State in 2004.

"Before I left for college over 10 years ago, the [women's] teams trained twice a week -- if you were lucky. I think Arsenal back then trained three times a week, which was amazing,'' Taylor recalled. "To see the teams now -- it's professional people who train full time and don't have to work other jobs. And the level has gotten a lot better.

"I think how well we're doing now as a professional team is a reflection of how women's football in England has gotten better.''

Taylor said this after scoring the first goal in England's 2-1 victory over host Canada to advance to Wednesday's semifinal against Japan, the Lionesses' first appearance in the final four of the Women's World Cup. And that strong showing is boosting the game's attention back home.

"It's been awesome, the support back home,'' England coach Mark Sampson said. "The photos of support the team is receiving, the messages of support the players are receiving. It's been a real incredible experience for all of us to see the women's game put in that place in England. We're excited to keep this journey going, determined to keep this journey going. Because we are all aware the further we go, the greater the interest will become.

"You listen to the stats on the viewing figures, the amount of people tuning in to watch our games -- it's all about the massive support we're getting. We're in a great place to really inspire the next generation of young female players in England.''

Men's soccer is a virtual religion in England, so much so that deceased fans sometimes have their ashes scattered near the pitch of their favorite teams. The women's game is not at that level, though it has a history dating back more than a century. During the First World War, women played matches for charity and their game grew so popular that a famous 1920 Boxing Day match drew 53,000 at Goodison Park in Liverpool.

Shortly after that, however, women were banned from playing on the same fields used by the Football Association men's teams, possibly due to concerns that the women could outdraw the men.

The ban lasted 50 years before being lifted in 1971. A women's Premier League started in 1992 before the current FA Women's Super League began in 2011. The game still has a ways to go but it is growing, as national team member Karen Carney could tell you.

Carney played for the Birmingham City women's team until its financial collapse in 2005. She joined Arsenal after that, then switched to the Women's Professional Soccer league in the United States in 2009. Two years later, she went back to Birmingham City after the WPS folded and when the WSL was beginning.

"The women's game has risen tenfold,'' Carney said. "I came back from playing in the States and there was no comparable. In England, it was not as successful as it is now. But after the last four or five years -- and the 2012 Olympics as well -- it just rocketed and went through the roof.''

The England women can draw more attention by reaching the World Cup final, but first they must beat the defending World Cup champion. "We know that will be a massive game against Japan,'' defender Steph Houghton said. "They're the world champions for a reason.''

England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley had to be replaced in the quarterfinal game against Canada due to swelling in her right eye but she likely will be back for the semifinal. That's important, obviously -- Japan has won every game this tournament by exactly one goal, the first time that has ever happened in the World Cup.

One thing in England's favor: It is undefeated against Japan in three previous meetings, including a 2-0 victory in the group stage of the 2011 World Cup.

Regardless of the outcome, Sampson said, England's national team is playing a World Cup semifinal for the third time, joining the English teams in 1990 and 1966. Those previous two semifinal games were played by England's men, of course, but the key is getting both the men's and women's game on equal par.

"Hopefully, as Mark says, we're trying to inspire a nation back home and get participation rates up and people enjoying the game, not just young girls and fellow females, but everyone,'' Carney said. "Football is a sport for everyone and we want to embrace everyone in our nation back home and make sure that our league, the WSL, keeps progressing and getting stronger and stronger and attracts the attention that we deserve.''