During Saturday’s match against New Zealand, there will be millions of eyes watching the US Women’s National Team chase the team’s fourth consecutive and fifth overall gold medal. 

And among all of those fans cheering on the team, there will be girls watching, dreaming, that one day, they’ll be able to share the same platform as these women are now, competing for their nation’s colors, on the world’s biggest stage, at the Olympics. 

But in order to get there, they have to start. And the work starts now. 

ECNL Girls, the nation’s top youth soccer platform in the world, registered more than 17,000 players at the club competition level, with an additional 24,000 players competing in the regional league. Those 41,000 athletes all dream of playing college soccer, of which 90 percent achieve that goal. 

They dream of playing professionally, following in the footsteps of the more than 175 athletes from the ECNL that were selected in the NWSL Draft. 

And they dream of being like Tierna Davidson, Mal Pugh or Catarina Macario, competing in the ECNL, playing professionally and for the USWNT, eventually being selected as a member of the Olympic squad. 

In Davidson’s case, she competed in ECNL with De Anza Force, won the 2017 NCAA Women’s College Cup with Stanford, along with such accolades as being named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team and Pac-12 All Second Team and was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and 2017 College Cup Most Outstanding Defensive Player, and then when she was with the USWNT, was named the 2018 US Soccer Young Female Player of the Year.

For Pugh, she was a member of Real Colorado, where she was named the MVP of the 2016 National Finals. After initially committing to UCLA, Pugh decided to turn pro, making her debut with the Washington Spirit of the NWSL in 2017. However, prior to turning pro, Pugh suited up for the USWNT, becoming the youngest player ever to play for the team in Olympic qualifying matches and earning three appearances at the 2016 Rio games. 

Macario had a stellar career at Stanford, where she was a two-time NCAA and three-time Pac-12 champion, a two-time MAC Hermann Trophy winner, a three-time ESPNW Player of the Year and a three-time All-American. Prior to joining Stanford, Macario scored an incredible 165 goals while playing for the ECNL’s San Diego Surf Soccer Club, leading the league in scoring from 2012-14 and 2016-17, including netting 50 in the 2012-13 season. She was a U-15 national champion in 2014, a runner-up at the 2017 U-18 championship and finished third at the 2013 U-14 and 2016 U-17 championships. Macario was projected to be the first overall pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft, but instead, she elected to sign with Olympiques Lyon in France, making her one of the few ECNL alums to play overseas. Much like Davidson, she has also had an incredible start to her USWNT career, scoring in just her second game and immediately making an impact on the pitch.

But it’s not just the current athletes who are serving as inspiration for the tens of thousands of athletes in the league, it’s also the heroes of years past who are determined to help pave the road for future generations. 

Brandi Chastain, THE Brandi Chastain, who scored the game-winning penalty kick in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup and has more than 30 goals in more than 190 caps for the USWNT, is now the Co-Director of De Anza Force, the same De Anza Force that developed Davidson. Shannon MacMillon, who is a 99er and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics, is the director of Del Mar Sharks. Tiffeny Milbrett won Olympic gold in 1996, Olympic silver in 2000 and a World Cup in 1999 and has been a significant participant in the ECNL’s National Training Camps for years. 

It’s not just in the ECNL either. Cindy Parlow Cone serves as the president of the United States Soccer Federation following her retirement as a player, where she won the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, a gold medal in the 1996 and 2004 Olympics and a silver in the 2000 Olympics. Erica Dambach is the head coach of Penn State women’s soccer and has also served as an assistant coach with the USWNT from 2007-2012 and again during the 2020 Olympic qualifying games. 

Each year, these athletes spend more than 425 hours on the pitch at training sessions, along with another more than 70 spent playing actual games. By the time they’re 18 and ready for college, that’s nearly 4,000 hours spent on the soccer field. For every college athlete that plays four years, it’s nearly 6,000. And for those who are lucky enough, who are determined enough, who work hard enough, they could spend upwards of 10,000 or more with a soccer ball. All in pursuit of a dream they had when they were little: to play for the USWNT at the Olympics. 

So when the USWNT kicks off against New Zealand, there will be thousands of little girls dreaming the same dream as those athletes had years ago. 

And now it’s time.The work starts right now. The dream starts here.