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How two Philly coaches helped Stanford build the U.S. women’s soccer team dynasty

Penn's head women's coach recruited Tierna Davidson to Stanford, and one of the Union's assistants helped develop Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press.

Kelley O'Hara (No. 5) and Tierna Davidson (second from right) led the charge onto the field at the final whistle of this summer's World Cup final.
Kelley O'Hara (No. 5) and Tierna Davidson (second from right) led the charge onto the field at the final whistle of this summer's World Cup final.Read moreFrancisco Seco / AP

Before Nicole van Dyke became the head women’s soccer coach at Penn, she helped recruit Tierna Davidson to Stanford.

Before Jay Cooney joined the Union’s coaching staff, he got wind of a Georgia high schooler named Kelley O’Hara and persuaded longtime Cardinal coach Paul Ratcliffe to go see her. A few years later, Cooney helped turn an unheralded forward named Christen Press into a scoring machine.

These days, the two former Stanford assistants aren’t the only ones who know those players. The entire world does because they’re World Cup champions.

If you hadn’t heard of the coaches until now, well, it’s a good time to get to know them. On Thursday night, their former proteges will play Portugal at Lincoln Financial Field (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1) in front of the largest stand-alone friendly game crowd in U.S. women’s national team history.

It’s a coincidence that Cooney and van Dyke both ended up here. He left Stanford in 2014 after 11 years there, with a stop at Sky Blue FC before joining the Union. She came to Penn in 2015 after four years on the Cardinal staff.

When they were colleagues, Stanford won the 2011 national championship, reached the Final Four again a year later, and grew a heap of future pros. Two of them, goalkeeper Jane Campbell and midfielder Andi Sullivan, will likely play big roles in the national team’s next era.

There are, not surprisingly, a lot of stories to tell about all that talent. This week, Cooney and van Dyke told a few of their favorites.

When Cooney persuaded Ratcliffe to fly across the country to visit O’Hara, Ratcliffe had yet to make it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That got fixed in O’Hara’s freshman year, and in her senior year the Cardinal reached the title game.

“She completely changed the program,” said Cooney, who has worked in a few roles for the Union and is now the team’s director of video analysis.

He recalled a game against nearby Santa Clara in which O’Hara was subbed off with Stanford up, 5-0.

“She grabbed a [teammate] by the neck that was going in [as a substitute]," Cooney said, “and told her not to let the level drop. ’And if you let the level drop, I’ll make your life a living hell.' ”

O’Hara returned the compliment.

“He always brought an enthusiasm to practice and games, and the program in general,”she said. “He was always joking, but he was obviously very serious, very competitive, expected a lot and raised the level within the team for us.”

Press went north from Los Angeles a year later. She was full of talent but had barely been noticed by U.S. youth national teams. Cooney knew better.

“She’s innately talented,” he said. “She had a serious ability to hit a just an outrageous off-angle shot, [or] if she played a cut-back ball, Kelley would have a tap-in.'”

In 2008, Stanford met a University of Portland team headlined by Megan Rapinoe and Canada’s Sophie Schmidt. The Cardinal were a win away from their first Final Four, and the game went to overtime.

“[Press] shot a ball where I think I may have said out loud, ‘Why is she shooting that ball?’ ” Cooney said.

She scored, the Cardinal won, and Cooney pledged to be quieter on the bench.

Press said Cooney’s lightheartedness helped balance players’ “very intense pursuit of excellence” at Stanford on and off the field.

Davidson grew up in Menlo Park, Calif., the next town over from Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto. She attended the school’s soccer camps as a kid and grew up wanting to play for the Cardinal.

“It was pretty amazing having such an elite women’s team so close to home,” she said, “and being able to go to those games and have them as role models and real-life inspiration, and being able to see myself in that kind of position one day.”

That dream came true when Davidson committed as a high school sophomore.

“She was much better than I think even when she initially committed,” said van Dyke, who took the Penn job in the months before Davidson’s college career began.

Stanford’s influence on the U.S. women’s team goes back to Julie Foudy, who played to the 1991 World Cup while still an undergraduate. The influence was especially strong this summer, though, and Sullivan’s rise will only make it stronger.

“Andi’s still one of the best players I’ve ever coached,” van Dyke said. “If you tackle her, she’s not really going to get up and tackle you back. She’s going to be like, ‘I’m just going to prove to you how much better I am.’ ”

One of Cooney’s last acts at Stanford was picking up a group of recruits at the airport that included Sullivan. Another player’s flight was delayed, so they sat for an hour and a half and talked about soccer.

“I could have been talking to another coach at that point, she was so well educated on the game,” he said. “It was probably my biggest lament, not coaching her.”

When he left the program, Cooney called a coach he knew on the U.S. national team staff.

“'You have to bring this kid in now,' " Cooney said he told the coach. "I said, ‘Look, I’ve got no more more horses in the race. I’m no longer in this in this game. But this is the best kid I’ve seen by far.’ ”

The response?

“I was just paid lip service, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “And then she went into her first national team camp and started the first game.”

Now, Cooney says, “I think it’s just a matter of time before she’s given the reins.” He isn’t alone in that view.

There’s also a star-in-waiting on the current Stanford team, forward Catarina Macario. The tradition continues, and Van Dyke will get to see it again soon. Penn’s season opener is at the Cardinal on Friday.