University of Texas senior midfielder Julia Grosso didn’t have time to get nervous before taking the penalty kick that earned Canada its first gold medal in women’s soccer. Assigned the sixth spot in a five-shot penalty shootout during the championship game at the Tokyo Olympics, Grosso wasn’t guaranteed a turn before the match ended. She watched as the Swedish captain, Caroline Seger, lifted her shot, which could have won the match, over the goal, leading to an additional penalty kick. Seconds later, the 21-year-old Grosso was standing in front of the goal with a chance to win it all.
“As soon as I started running toward the ball, nothing was going through my head, just focus, just score,” she says. The kick angled left as the goalkeeper dived for the save, and Grosso’s heart stopped as the ball deflected off the keeper’s hand and upward. “Then, I saw the net move.” She barely had time to realize Canada had won before her teammates had piled on top of her in celebration.
More than a month later, she says the win still feels “surreal.” Grosso has been given a hero’s welcome in her home country and by her teammates at the University of Texas, who’ve gotten to share in her Olympic glory. Born in Vancouver, Grosso began playing soccer at age three, eventually playing for the Canadian youth national teams, before bringing her talents to Texas, where she led the Longhorns in goals and assists last season. Grosso says she hopes the Canadian women’s Olympic win inspires more girls back home to take up the sport.
“In Canada, we don’t have any professional teams, so we really want to make women’s sports in general and also women’s soccer more on the map,” Grosso says. Watershed moments like Canada’s Olympic gold and Grosso’s walk-off penalty kick have a way of doing just that. Austin FC superfan Roma Desai (who has attended all 23 of the team’s matches this season, including road games) remembers how the U.S. women’s national team cemented her soccer fandom with their 1999 World Cup championship run. “It’s crazy that a moment like that can change people’s perspective on things, and I’m really proud to be part of that,” says Grosso of Team Canada’s recent accomplishments. She finds herself at the nexus of converging factors, with soccer on the rise in North America generally and in Texas specifically, as well as the growing recognition that women’s sports offer a significant investment opportunity because of their potential for growth.
The National Women’s Soccer League has ten franchises across the United States, including one in Texas, the Houston Dash. The league will expand to twelve teams next season, with two new clubs based in Southern California. Some have speculated that the popularity of Austin FC might make the Texas capital a target for future NWSL expansion. Based on her four years living and playing soccer in the Lone Star State, Grosso says the prospect of a professional women’s soccer team in Austin is “pretty cool,” adding that she would love to see it become a reality.
Soccer fans Christine Hanley and Michelle Frasch are doing their part to make that happen. The two women hold leadership positions in Austin Anthem, one of two main supporters’ groups for Austin FC, and have started their own organization, NWSL 2 Austin, to advocate for Austin as a destination for a new women’s soccer team. The early success of Austin’s MLS franchise provides proof-of-concept for a women’s pro league in the city, with Austin FC’s home pitch, Q2 Stadium, supplying built-in infrastructure. Austin FC’s contract with the city specifically grants the franchise’s owner the exclusive right of “exhibiting Professional Soccer whether men’s or women’s and expressly including the National Women’s Soccer League and any successor thereto,” so it appears that team owner Anthony Precourt is eyeing expansion into the NWSL.
Austin FC has attracted one of the most stalwart and enthusiastic home crowds in Major League Soccer this year. “It has been a remarkable first year for both Austin FC and Q2 Stadium,” Austin FC president Andy Loughnane says. “While our primary focus at the moment is on successfully completing our inaugural season, we are also big fans of the women’s game.” The first match ever played at Q2 was a U.S. women’s national team friendly against Nigeria in June, which Loughnane calls “a great source of pride” for the club. Though he stops short of promising any direct involvement with the NWSL, Loughnane says, “Looking forward, we will absolutely continue to explore ways to bring women’s soccer events to Q2 Stadium, ranging from Big 12 women’s soccer all the way to additional USWNT events.”
Hanley, whose role with the supporter club keeps her in frequent contact with Austin FC executives, says the front office has communicated a desire to bring a women’s team to the city. According to her, the team’s messaging in those meetings has been: “It’s not an if, it’s a when.”
Until then, women’s soccer fans in Austin have Julia Grosso’s Longhorns to root for. In addition to their support for FC Austin, Hanley and Frasch lead a contingent of supporters who attend every UT home game (as long as it doesn’t conflict with an Austin FC match). “We go with a couple of drums and watch women’s soccer,” says Hanley, who was thrilled to watch Grosso’s triumph at the Olympics. The Horns are off to a slow start this year, with a 2–3–2 record, but they recently held nineteenth-ranked Rice to a draw and hope to build some momentum off of that strong performance. “We have a lot of new faces,” says Grosso, the second-leading goal-scorer on the team behind freshman Lexi Missimo. “They’re young, but they have all the talent in the world.”
Looking forward, Grosso resists getting too specific about where her career will take her after she graduates from UT this spring. She hints that she’s received interest from a number of pro soccer organizations in North America and around the world. That attention has only intensified following her performance at the Olympics. “Everyone asks me this, and I have no idea,” she says of her future plans. But she promises: “I will make that decision very soon.”