WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five weeks after leading the United States to a stirring World Cup championship, Carli Lloyd is convinced Americans are finally ready to embrace women's professional soccer for the long run.
The North American Soccer League has enjoyed a significant attendance bump since the title and Lloyd said the post-World Cup euphoria feels "extremely different" this time around.
"We've built a legacy that will carry on forever," Lloyd, who scored three goals in a 5-2 triumph over Japan in the World Cup final, told Reuters in an interview. "That's what's so cool about it. The excitement didn't just last a couple days."
The nine-team NWSL, in its third year of existence, averaged about 4,400 fans prior to the World Cup final but nearly 5,800 since the July 5 match in Vancouver, Canada. There was not one sell-out prior to the World Cup but 13 since.
It's not like the sport hasn't seen this before in the United States.
Attendance at U.S. soccer leagues generally rises following a World Cup -- men or women -- when fans are excited but then wanes within a few weeks when soccer falls back into second-tier existence in the American sporting landscape.
Therein lies the task at hand for NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, a former managing director of the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, the top U.S. men's league. His goal is to make the recent attendance gains "the new normal, and not just a bump."
"We want to take this opportunity to hold ourselves to a different expectation," he said. "We're seeing now what's possible and that's exciting. We can hold ourselves accountable to different metrics, a different story."
Prior to the NWSL, the Women's United Soccer Association and the Women's Professional Soccer battled each other to gain traction in the American market. But both folded within three years.
Lloyd, a 33-year-old midfielder who plays for the NWSL's Houston Dash, stressed the importance for women soccer players to have something to strive for beyond of the national team.
"This league is so important for young girls dreaming and aspiring to play professional soccer," she said. "We weren't able to get the attendance up in the beginning of the season.
"But we knew if we won the World Cup it would help the league. And it has. We've seen it in full force. The fan support has been awesome. They're not just cheering for their team but for the players on the national team."
Fifty-three NWSL players from 10 countries played in the Women's World Cup, providing the league with plenty of star power. Five Americans, including Lloyd, played in every minute of the tournament.
Becky Sauerbrunn, one of those American players who never left the pitch during the tournament, said the women's title, the third for the United States, won over neutral fans.
"We've always had very strong, fanatic, loyal supporters," said Sauerbrunn, a defender who plays for FC Kansas City in the NWSL. "But we're starting to win more people over into that group. The interest that we got in Canada has definitely carried over. And we hope to keep riding that success."
The NWSL saw its potential last month when the Portland Thorns hosted the rival Seattle Reign before a league-record crowd of 21,144 at Providence Park.
"When we talk about advancements in women's soccer, it's baby steps," said Heather O'Reilly, a midfielder with the U.S. national team and teammate of Sauerbrunn's at FC Kansas City.
"But we've taken many, many baby steps in the last couple of months."
The NWSL has attracted large-scale sponsors such as Nike and Coppertone, and has an agreement in place with Fox Sports to televise a package of regular season and playoff games.
Plush said a key difference between the U.S. men's and women's leagues is that men tend to play longer and the MLS can keep its drawing cards on the field.
"We'll have women retire in our league at a young age to do other things," he said. "Men will play until they drag them off the field. Women have a better balance and maybe a better outlook on life. But with that, it creates some challenges."
Plush said the NWSL's version of LeBron James is Lloyd, who scored her hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the World Cup final and was awarded the Golden Ball Award as the tournament's best player.
"Carli has got to be one of the greatest big-game athletes ever," said Plush. "In any sport."
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Alan Crosby