Lilly Price said it was “all kind of like a big dream.”

While much of the country was locked to televisions to watch the U.S. team march to the Women’s World Cup championship over the past month, Price and her teammates with the Bend FC Timbers 12-13 and 13-14 girls soccer squads were enjoying the World Cup up close and personal in France.

Like so many other young girls and boys, the players from Bend were enthralled watching Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and the rest of the U.S. women on their way to their second straight World Cup victory.

“I think that they make other people’s dreams more of a reality because they can show that it’s possible to do stuff like that,” said Price, 12. “I think they’re great people to look up to, and they inspire a lot of people to keep playing soccer.”

A group of about 90 — including players, coaches, friends and family — associated with the Bend FC Timbers soccer club made the trip to France to watch two U.S. games in the knockout round, victories over Spain and France. The youth teams also played matches against European competition in France, Belgium and England.

Tara Bilanski, the executive director of Bend FC Timbers and coach of the 12-13 girls team, said she started planning the trip about 18 months ago.

She said she has traveled, coached and lived abroad, and she wanted to provide that sort of opportunity for kids in the Timbers youth soccer program, though players and their families paid their own way.

“And then when I kind of started lining things up, I realized the World Cup was happening in France,” Bilanski said. “So I looked into it and I found a sports travel company that specializes in this. I put it out to people and it really caught like wildfire for those 90 people.”

The group had to purchase the World Cup tickets well ahead of time for the knockout round, so they did not know what opponent the U.S. would be playing or even if the U.S. would be playing in those games.

“We gambled on two games in Paris, thinking if the U.S. finished in first place in their pool we’ll end up seeing them play some unknown opponent,” Bilanski said. “If they finished second, they would have been playing in Nice and we would have been watching two other teams.”

The group ended up with front-row seats to watch the U.S. defeat Spain 2-1 in the round of 16 on June 24 and then had seats just a few rows back to watch the Americans beat host France 2-1 in the quarterfinals on June 28 in front of 45,595 at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris.

Most of the group from Bend returned home on July 2, while the U.S. would go on to defeat England 2-1 in the semifinals and then beat the Netherlands 2-0 in the final this past Sunday.

Bilanski said the highlight of the trip for her was being so close to the action during those matches in Paris.

“You could hear every word that they were saying to each other,” Bilanski said of the U.S. team. “The U.S.-France game was amazing. Just seeing that atmosphere, with the host country and everything on the line, it was just awesome. The soccer gods were looking down on us. We picked the right games to go to.”

Price said it was “pretty crazy.”

“Seeing them work as a team and do all this stuff that they can do in front of your eyes is kind of unreal,” she said.

“It was really intense in the stadium,” said Maggie O’Sullivan, a member of the 13-14 Bend FC Timbers team. “There was so much energy.”

The 13-14 girls played a French youth team and then for the second part of their trip traveled to Belgium, where they played against a Belgian youth team. The Bend 13-14 team also traveled to the Belgium national team training center outside Brussels, where they received some coaching and instruction from coaches affiliated with the Belgian national team.

“There were some really good teams,” O’Sullivan said of the Bend FC Timbers’ European opponents. “Our first game in France was really fun. They play soccer much differently than the U.S. does.”

The 12-13 Bend girls also played a match in France, then traveled to London to play against an English youth team. They also received some training from a coach affiliated with the world-famous Manchester United professional men’s team.

The Timbers teams lost all of their games, but that mattered little in the bigger picture of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

“Those were really good learning experiences because we got to see how they play, and then use that when we play other teams here in Oregon,” Price said. “So we can learn from them. Even though we lost both games, it was more of a learning experience to see and meet them, and it was really cool.”

John O’Sullivan, coach of the 13-14 Bend FC Timbers girls team and Maggie’s father, said it was important for the young girls to see the U.S. women play, not only because of their talent but because of how they have represented their gender. Rapinoe — who hosted a camp at Central Oregon Community College in Bend last December that many of the Bend FC Timbers players attended — and other U.S. team members have been brash and outspoken in their call for pay equal to that of the U.S. men’s national team. They continued that call during a parade in New York City on Wednesday celebrating their World Cup win.

“It’s not like men’s sports, where people have a platform all year round,” John O’Sullivan said. “U.S. women’s soccer for a long time has seen themselves as more than just advocates for a sport — they’re advocates for a gender. And so to take a bunch of young women to see these strong, proud, confident women who not only can get it done on the field but have strong, well-thought-out positions on many things in life, as a father of a 13-year-old daughter, I think it’s important.

“They have one month every four years to sort of say, hey, people will listen to us. And they used that time well. And they got it done on the field as well.”

And some lucky young female soccer players from Central Oregon got to be part of it, witnessing firsthand what is possible.

—Reporter: 541-383-0318,

mmorical@bendbulletin.com

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