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If you’re driving north on I-5 and make the left turn onto I-580 heading toward the Bay Area, you may notice, just before you climb the last slight grade into Hayward, a prosperous suburb by the name of Castro Valley.

The census counts the population of Castro Valley at 55,000 and the median family income at $73,000. Or, to put it another way, J.M.R., posting on urbandictionary.com, says Castro Valley is “a boring town full of old white people, rednecks, undercover KKK, annoying rich Asians, and not much else.” One thing is certain: Castro Valley High School is hosting FC Gold Pride’s home-opener tonight.

FC Gold Pride is a franchise affiliated with Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), a professional soccer league now embarking on its second season. WPS is the top tier of women’s pro soccer in North America. There are eight teams in the league, and FC Gold Pride is the only club west of St. Louis. The other league teams are: Atlanta Beat, Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Philadelphia Independence, Sky Blue FC (New York/New Jersey), St. Louis Athletica, and Washington Freedom.

Tonight’s match is between the Bay Area’s FC Gold Pride and last year’s league champion, Sky Blue FC. Gold Pride lists 21 women on its roster. Two players are from San Diego, one from Del Mar, two from a little bit further up the road (Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo), two from L.A., and one from Northern California (Dublin). That’s almost 40 percent of the team.

Unless you follow soccer, you may not know how good American women’s soccer is. The U.S. women’s national team is ranked number one in the world by FIFA (International Federation of Association Football), the governing body for international tournaments. The U.S. women’s team won the Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999, won Olympic Gold Medals in 1996, 2004, and 2008, and have won the Algarve Cup (annual world tournament for women’s national teams) seven times since 2000.

FIFA has 208 member associations, and U.S. women are número um. As a bonus, and the reason why I’m going to the match tonight, is Marta, forward for Gold Pride.

Marta Vieira da Silva, now 24, was born and raised in Brazil and has been a professional since the age of 14. She was the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year in 2009. Women’s soccer is played worldwide, and Marta was the female athlete picked as Player of the Year. She was also Player of the Year in 2008. In 2007, too. Ditto, 2006. In 2005 she was the runner-up. The 2010 winner hasn’t been announced yet.

Consider the entire universe of women’s soccer, from Uganda to Iceland, India to Argentina, Estonia to Fiji, and the four-time best woman’s soccer player in the world is on the field tonight at Castro Valley High School.

I park in Suburbia World, known here as Mabel Avenue, and walk over to the high school campus. It’s a new stadium, two years old, sits 4000, has a nice arch entry, but it’s still a high school football stadium with aluminum benches for seating and an eight-lane track circling the field.

As the 7:00 p.m. start time nears, the stands fill up. It’s going to be very close to a sell-out. Tickets are not cheap: $95 for VIP On-Field, $15 to $50 elsewhere.

The FC Gold team walks onto the track and the crowd thunders. A portable air compressor is whining away, pumping up a black inflatable tunnel. Scores of 8- and 9-year-old girls, dressed in soccer uniforms, wiggling and laughing, line up behind the tunnel. The team mascot, Pounce, a friendly lion, leans against a tunnel wall. It’s stand around, stand around, and then — boom — comes incredibly loud stadium music. Little girls run through the tunnel, squealing and jumping, followed by strolling older teenage girls dressed in jeans and a few wearing their soccer team blouse. Now comes an honor guard — four uniformed teenage males sporting

wildly different heights and body shapes. A woman sings the national anthem. (Think Lakeside Rodeo and Western Days Parade.)

This is a dad-daughter event. Everywhere, dads sit next to their daughters, both of them looking intently at the same game. Does this happen anywhere else?

The Gold Pride wins 3 to 1. Marta, 5’4” tall, nailed a left-footed shot into the corner for a goal in the 82nd minute to seal the deal. This Marta person stands out from every other player even at first glance. She’s built for this, the way a panther is built to kill.

Readers can watch WPS games on Fox Sports Channel or by way of webcast at womensprosoccer.com or on your iPhone at http://wps.ollintechnology.com.

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