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USA Today Features Portland's Stephanie Lopez

Aug. 15, 2007

By Marlen Garcia

CHICAGO -- To get perspective on Stephanie Lopez's soccer stardom on the verge of her first World Cup, her mother looks back at her daughter's modest upbringing.

Lopez's parents, Cindy and Rob, raised Stephanie and her three brothers while being foster parents to 90 children who have come through their Elk Grove, Calif., home in the last 15 years for temporary, protective care.

Despite their hefty commitments at home, the Lopezes traveled the world as missionaries. Stephanie and older brother Jeremiah, 22, chipped in when her parents led a group of teens to Egypt to paint an orphanage and to the Bahamas to clear land where an adventure learning center was built.

There also were frequent trips to Mexico in the family motor home to serve meals to American missionaries working there. From these experiences, Lopez emerged as a grounded and selfless woman, her mother says.

"Stephanie learned how to be a compassionate person, and that translates on the soccer field," her mother says by phone as Lopez prepares for Team USA's exhibition against New Zealand on Sunday at Soldier Field (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

The match will be the fifth of the team's six-game send-off series before the FIFA World Cup in China from Sept. 10-30. The USA won it in 1991 and '99, but finished third in 2003.

Lopez's early life experiences "make her a good teammate," her mother adds. "She doesn't need all the glory."

At 21, Lopez is the youngest player for the USA and has a team-leading four assists in pre-World Cup matches. The 5-6 defender from the University of Portland made her first senior appearance in March 2005 and has been a regular at the senior level since early 2006.

Officials for Team USA note Lopez is the first player of Hispanic descent to make a major impact on the women's national team.

Lopez, whose paternal grandparents are Mexican, says she isn't mindful of the distinction. "I just feel like I'm one of the rest of the girls," she says.

Lopez has raised her profile on the team as a skilled and composed defender with a sharp corner kick since veteran Heather Mitts injured her knee which could keep her on the sideline until next year.

Despite Lopez's newcomer status at the World Cup level, "Stephanie can handle it," U.S. coach Greg Ryan says of the added responsibility.

Her play in the last few years has prepared her well.

In addition to her major role on youth national teams, in 2005 Lopez helped Portland win the NCAA women's soccer tournament with a 23-0-2 record. The West Coast Conference defender of the year was named to the NCAA all-tournament team.

"In Portland, we had such a talented team," Lopez says. "We were able to play the way we wanted to play and we could dominate games. Now I'm getting a greater appreciation for how hard it is on the international level. I really respect the grit the U.S. has always had, how they fight to win."

Lopez, who became engaged last week to former Portland pitcher Brian Cox, will return to school for her final college season after the World Cup. She expects to graduate in December with a degree in psychology and a minor in Spanish.

She will play only about half the college season. If she were willing to forgo it, she could be salaried under contract with Team USA. NCAA rules do not allow athletes to accept compensation, and Lopez doesn't make a bit of profit."I have my whole life to earn money," she says. "It's important to be loyal to the program."

She's devoted to her cause, in line with her family's dedication to helping others.

Growing up, her parents' emphasis on family gatherings left no time for television.

The family didn't subscribe to cable, so watching the highlight reels of stars such as Mia Hamm on ESPN was out of the question. But Lopez doesn't feel she missed out.

"I feel I didn't get burnt out on soccer," Lopez says. "The exposure to soccer now is a bonus, not an overload."