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England embraces rivalries, big venues for Women's WCup lift

LONDON (AP) — From her new home in Manchester, Jackie Groenen will gaze across to the nearby stands of Old Trafford visualizing the day she can play in the stadium. Groenen can dream big this year. Even before helping the Netherlands reach its first Women's World Cup final in July, Groenen had signed up as Manchester United's first overseas female player, ready for the team's debut in the Women's Super League.

United, the record 20-time English men's champion, only launched a professional women's side a year ago, and Groenen jumped at the chance to play for one of the most famous names in sports. "When I'm home and I tell people I've been playing at FFC Frankfurt for years they kind of go, 'Well, good for you,'" Groenen said. "It's a different kind of vibe and you don't get that with teams like Man United, Man City or Liverpool. For women's football to grow it's important to have that name and that badge on it."

Groenen will be pulling on the United shirt in a competitive game for the first time on Saturday when the opening weekend of the WSL season sees the first-ever Manchester derby in women's professional soccer.

While Groenen does not know when she will get to play at Old Trafford — United's women play in a 12,000-seat arena across town — City will be using its main stadium on Saturday for the derby. More than 20,000 tickets have already been sold for the game at Etihad Stadium, which seats 55,000 and is four times the capacity of the smaller venue that is usually home to City's women.

"That shows the impact the World Cup," City forward Georgia Stanway said. "There's nothing like playing in a full stadium with the atmosphere roaring." Stanway was part of the England team that reached the World Cup semifinals, losing to eventual champion the United States. But she did collect medals with City last season, winning both domestic cups. Fueled by the investment by Abu Dhabi that has transformed the men's team since 2008, City has now established itself as Manchester's dominant force in women's football without a local rival until now.

"Obviously we've got fans that have been here for years and Manchester's only ever been blue because Manchester United haven't existed," Stanway said. "Now we've got the competition, that's nice." It is the curtain-raiser to a season that the English Football Association hopes will build on a World Cup that attracted a record women's soccer TV audience of 11.7 million for the semifinal against the Americans. Every WSL game will be broadcast worldwide either on the FA's new free app or on channels in Central America, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, Mexico, Norway and Sweden.

"It is a step that had to come if you want to make the game a bit more famous," said Swiss midfielder Lia Wälti, who won the title with Arsenal in April. "It was a bit hard to follow women's football."

The WSL is preparing for its second season as the only fully professional women's soccer league in Europe. There is also now a title sponsor, with Barclays paying more than 10 million pounds ($12 million) over the next three seasons.

"Barclays coming in sets a precedent for other countries of what is to be expected," Birmingham midfielder Brianna Visalli said. "People are taking women's football more seriously," Visalli reached the FA Cup final with West Ham in May, losing to Manchester City. The San Jose-native decided to stay in England when her contract expired, joining Birmingham.

"I could have easily chosen a league outside the English league," she said. "But what is so attractive about this league is the direction it is heading." Lyon, though, has proved an attractive destination for players craving bigger salaries and European glory. Man United defender Alex Greenwood and Man City forward Nikita Parris were the latest English women to join compatriots Lucy Bronze and Izzy Christiansen at the winners of the last four Champions League titles, who pay annual salaries well over 120,000 euros ($110,000). Salaries in the WSL aren't known to get close to reaching six figures.

"Are we in a place where we can compete with Lyon financially? No, because we are in year two," Manchester United manager Casey Stoney said. "The women's game (in England) is not in a place where we should be paying those sorts of figures for players until we start getting more people in the ground.

"We want to do it the right way and we want people to be here for the right reasons. If I throw money at it I get a player who comes over for two years, takes the money and then disappears." But no longer do English women have to head to the United States to earn a living.

"I went to America and I played with Marta (at Western New York Flash in 2011), but now everyone wants to come here," said 32-year-old forward Gemma Davison, one of nine off-season signings by newly-promoted Tottenham. "When I was 16 my dad was told that women's football would never go professional ... and now I'm sitting here wearing a Tottenham Hotspur shirt, so happy days."

Reflecting the rise in interest in women's soccer, the Londoner was one of 24 players — two from each team — who descended on the England teams' training base at St. George's Park for two days of interviews to preview the ninth edition of the WSL.

The media interest needs to translate into rising WSL attendances. The average crowd last season was only 833 after reaching 1,128 in 2016 after England's third-place finish at the 2015 World Cup. Birmingham, which finished fourth behind Arsenal, City and Chelsea last season, is among a trio of WSL teams whose male counterparts do not play in the Premier League. But the men's second-tier games are played at St. Andrew's, which is six times the 5,000-capacity home of their female counterparts.

"It was frustrating," said Kerys Harrop, a defender with Birmingham throughout its WSL journey since 2011. "You felt, 'Why are all these people going to watch the men when they are a mediocre Championship side and not watching us when we are really successful and winning games?'"

It should be a record-breaking weekend, with City on course to eclipse the previous WSL attendance high of 5,265 fans. The record should be surpassed again on Sunday when Chelsea hosts Tottenham at Stamford Bridge where all 40,000 tickets have been distributed, albeit for free.

"I don't know whether it's going to be families," Chelsea and England goalkeeper Carly Telford said, laughing, "or the Shed End is full of hooligans." The priority is filling stadiums, and building interest as England prepares to host the 2021 Women's European Championship.

"If we step back now and don't push on, we'll lose that window to really push forward," Chelsea defender Millie Bright said. "Off the back of the World Cup, now is the time to keep people invested in the game."

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