NCAA soccer gains British influence

Central Connecticut State University was the perfect place for Laura Duncan to play soccer when she arrived from England in 2000. But the middle of New England proved to be a less ideal location for a lifelong Tottenham fan to keep tabs on Spurs.

"There used to be a Portuguese bar in New Britain somewhere that we used to find the games at, a real random place," Duncan said with a chuckle, a thick English accent still present years after her relocation.

Nearly a decade later, it's never been easier to watch the Premier League on this side of the Atlantic, a fortunate development for expatriates like Duncan, now in her fifth year as an assistant coach at Fairfield University. But it turns out that it's not just television signals being imported at a greater and greater rate when it comes to the English game. As women's football gains a foothold in England, more and more of its players are heading to a new world of sorts.

It's not the Beatles or New Wave, but a British invasion has hit women's college soccer.

From rosters available online for the 323 Division I women's soccer teams, there are currently 61 players from the United Kingdom playing at the NCAA's top level, including 48 from England, six from Wales, five from Scotland and two from Northern Ireland. There is little historical data to confirm exactly where that mark ranks in comparison to seasons past, but at least anecdotally, it seems to represent a sharp increase from a time when coming over was quite literally a foreign concept.

"I don't think there was a hell of a lot of English people out here playing," Duncan said of the time preceding her arrival. "I personally didn't know anybody playing in the States. I wouldn't say it was really talked about much [in England] because we didn't know anyone who'd done it."

That's a perception backed up by statistics from England's Football Association, which notes an increase from 10,400 female participants in 1993, when the women's game was brought under FA oversight, to more than 150,000 registered players now.

The daughter of a professional footballer who played for Scottish giant Celtic, Duncan played with boys in an Under-9 league in her home near Brighton, on England's south coast. But girls weren't allowed to play in the next age group up, and it wasn't until she hit the Under-14 level that she found a team and league for girls (and even that was only seven-on-seven).

When she later enrolled in the first 24-person class at the Women's Football Academy in 1998, Kelly Smith was more or less the nation's only recognized export in women's football. And even then, as Duncan noted, Smith -- now a mainstay for England's national team and the Boston Breakers in Women's Professional Soccer -- was such a unique talent that few of her countrywomen knew what to make of her foray abroad. Sure, the former Seton Hall star could make it, the thinking went, but nobody else was at her level.

Fast-forward just a decade, and football academies for girls have popped up across the English landscape at a rate more often associated with Starbucks -- the FA now recognizes 52 academies. Never an international force before, England women won the Under-19 European Championship this summer and reached the final of the full European Championship on Sept. 10.

The result is a boom -- and for Georgina Giddings, a University of Connecticut freshman from Feltham, England, it meant that the idea of playing college soccer in the United States was nothing out of the ordinary.

"It was always a big thing back home for girls to come over to America, like just from when you were younger growing up," Giddings said. "I think everybody has that ambition to try new things and go to different places."

At least for the time being, the growth of participation for girls in England is outpacing the training opportunities for many. Part of that stems from a sporting culture where academics and athletics are less intertwined, at least at the highest competitive levels, than in the United States. In the States, college sports feed the NBA and NFL and to a lesser degree MLB and the NHL, and the result, even for sports that don't have corresponding big-money professional leagues, is a system in which the college environment offers the best training, coaches and competition.

For Giddings, who was part of the youth system run by the Chelsea women's team, staying in England to go to university while also pursuing a future in soccer would have meant trying to merge two worlds that aren't necessarily designed to coexist.

"That was another thing for why I came over, because [here] university and my schedule is like done for me around training," Giddings said. "Whereas if I'd stayed back home and gone to university, it was travel on public transport to go to university in London and then come back out to home and then go to Chelsea for training and stuff -- it just wouldn't have worked. And I wouldn't have been able to be as good of a player as I could potentially be."

It can be a mutually beneficial situation. Automaton stereotypes aside, there are plenty of American players who play with instinctual, creative flair -- pick a DiMartino sister (senior Boston College forward Gina and former UCLA midfielder Christina), for example. But the English imports come from a culture where soccer is part of the fabric. Maybe they can't do the same things as male footballers Steven Gerrard or Jermain Defoe -- or Kelly Smith, for that matter -- but there is something to be said for growing up around the sport.

"When I'd first come, I thought English players were more skillful but not as fit," Duncan recalled. "Like at home, I think our game is very skillful, it's very technical, but we're not necessarily, like, the fittest players out there. When we first came to the States, that's the first thing I noticed is maybe the kids aren't as skillful we were playing with, but they can outrun you, they're stronger than you -- it's just such an athletic game."

As she was quick to point out, that gap is closing from both directions. American girls are raised with easy access to better coaching and, yes, things like Tottenham games on television. And English girls are raised with more and more opportunities to train and play, the newest additions to a national identity.

It has taken England a long time to find the same footing in the women's game as the United States, along with other European countries such as Germany and Scandinavian mainstays Norway and Sweden. But now a new generation of players is venturing abroad and staking claim to its share of a national identity.

"That's the biggest thing with the English culture of football -- even if you don't play, you love it," Duncan said. "Like my mum couldn't kick the soccer ball in a straight line if you asked her to. But every time England's on, she watches the game."

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.