By Gideon Rubin
Rachel Buehler was still in grade school when she developed a passion for soccer scampering the Del Mar Polo Fields.
That passion helped propel her to high school stardom at Torrey Pines High, a Stanford scholarship, two Olympic gold medals, and stints in two professional leagues.
These days, she’s bringing her passion for soccer to playing and growing it at the same time.
Buehler, who played for Torrey Pines teams that won San Diego Section championships in 2000 and 2003 and won gold medals with Team USA at the Beijing and London Olympics in 2008 and 2012, now plays for the Portland Thorns in the newly-formed National Women’s Soccer League.
Buehler is a starting defender for the Thorns, but she considers her role as an ambassador — one that she shares with players throughout the new league — to be just as important.
“It’s such a huge part of it,” Buehler said, noting that players throughout the league have launched an aggressive grassroots efforts to promote the league, including holding clinics and other outreach programs.
“We’re really trying to make a strong effort to promote the league to be sustainable,” she said.
“I think we’ve really taken that on ourselves as a big responsibility. We think it’s really important for soccer in our country, for girls in our country and for women in general it’s a pretty cool thing.”
The NWSL, which kicked off its inaugural season last month, fields eight teams. It hopes to expand to 10 by next year.
“It’s so important for the growth of women’s soccer in our country,” Buehler said. “A lot of girls have actually been leaving the United States to play for professional teams in other countries. I think for the growth of soccer in our country it’s important to keep the very best players here.”
The NWSL is the third professional women’s soccer league to launch in the United States.
Buehler played for two years for Santa Clara-based FC Gold Pride in Women’s Professional Soccer, a league that folded within three years of its 2009 inaugural.
The Women’s United Soccer Association, which fielded a San Diego team (the San Diego Spirit), folded within three years of its 2001 launch as well.
Buehler believes the viability of a professional women’s soccer league is important for several reasons. She believes it incentivizes the game at all levels, from youth club teams all the way up to the elite collegiate level, something to play for.
“There’s just so many benefits to it,” Buehler said, noting that in the absence of a professional league, top-level players are limited to competing for just a few open spots each year on the national team.
“Such a small percentage of girls actually get to do that, but having a league, some girls that maybe aren’t on the national team, or are (on the national team), they can continue to play after college and that’s pretty exciting,” she said.
A viable professional women’s soccer league can also play an important societal role, Buehler said.
“Role models aren’t as accessible to a lot of the young girl athletes as they are to the boy athletes who have male sports figures they can look up to,” she said.
And the NWSL is a gold mine in that department, she said.
“We have a great bunch of female role models” in the NWSL, Buehler said. “The character and the quality of people that are in this league, there are just so many great women for girls to look up to.
“A lot of our fans at our games are young female soccer players and they kind of look up to us as role models and we can kind of provide that.”
Buehler, whose career highlights include standing atop Olympic podiums, still counts her youth-level experiences among her most memorable.
She’s remained in contact with former teammates at Torrey Pines and on the Del Mar Sharks and San Diego Surf club teams.
She considers her experience at Torrey Pines crucial in her development as a person and as an athlete.
“I just had an incredible experience at Torrey Pines academically and athletically,” she said, noting the school’s outstanding academics and athletics programs. “It’s just an incredible institution.”
She credits coaching legend Dennis Costello, who retired in 2011, with creating an environment that pushed players to their limits without pushing them out the door.
“Dennis made things fun,” she said. “He was a really positive coach, and he definitely taught me a lot about taking responsibility that empowered me to succeed.”
Costello’s program also taught her to be a better teammate.
“The program helped me understand what it means to represent your school or something bigger than yourself,” she said.
Buehler continues to do that in her ambassadorship role.
“It’s very exciting to be part of this pioneering group of women starting up this league,” she said.
“Hopefully over time the league will expand. It would be great if there were a California team or a San Diego team; that would be amazing to play for my hometown.
“We’ll have to take it one step at a time, but the most important thing at this point is just getting it out there and making (the NWSL) sustainable.”