Pittsburgh Soccer Stars Shine In Women’s World Cup
Pitt’s women’s soccer head coach and an incoming Panthers player are leading the Nigerian National Team at the largest women’s soccer tournament in history.
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup has captivated soccer fans around the world since the first kick off on July 20, but Pittsburgh residents have a new reason to celebrate the games this year — the Steel City will be showcased on the world stage by two University of Pittsburgh representatives.
Pitt’s head women’s soccer coach, Randy Waldrum, has coached the Nigerian women’s senior national team, the Super Falcons, since October 2020 and will lead its players through the World Cup this summer. He is joined by 19-year-old Super Falcons midfielder Deborah Ajibola Abiodun, who is an incoming freshman at Pitt planning to lead the Panthers to victory in the fall.
But Waldrum, the only active NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer head coach to lead a team in the World Cup since Anson Dorrance, says his and Abiodun’s place in the spotlight should be seen as more than just a nod to Pittsburgh.
“I hope [Pittsburgh locals] are proud of Deborah and myself for being part of the Pittsburgh community and having this opportunity,” he said in a phone interview from Brisbane, Australia. “I would encourage them all to watch not just because there’s two people from Pittsburgh there, but because we want to grow the women’s game. There’s so much that still needs to be done to help young females in sports.”
The Women’s World Cup wasn’t established until 1991, 61 years after FIFA established the men’s international games. The women’s competition grew from 12 teams in 1991 to 16 in 1999 and 24 in 2015. The ninth official FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer is the biggest women’s soccer tournament in history, with 32 teams competing in the host countries of Australia and New Zealand. The event is on track to be the most attended standalone women’s sporting event in history as well, with more than a million tickets sold already.
While women’s soccer has grown in international viewership, Waldrum says many young female athletes are still not given the opportunities and resources necessary to join professional teams.
Abiodun, who grew up in Nigeria, said in a phone interview from Brisbane that she had to train with boys’ teams when she was a child because there were no girls teams in her area. She had to work harder than the male athletes around her to be awarded opportunities, from when she started in youth leagues at 8 years old to now being a starting player for the Super Falcons, an 11-time Africa Cup of Nations winner and the only African team to compete at every Women’s World Cup.
“It’s a big dream come true for me,” Abiodun says. “I told myself this is my chance to make myself and my family, my coaches, my country and everyone out there rooting for me proud.”
Waldrum says the opportunity to coach the Super Falcons was a dream come true for him, too.
“There’s a lot of value in me doing this,” he says. “Both selfishly for our program at Pitt — with recruiting players and with coaching education — and also giving back to the players in Nigeria.”
Waldrum started coaching the Panthers in 2018, and has traveled between Pittsburgh and Nigeria for the past three years to support the teams he leads. He says the schedule has been busy, but manageable, because Super Falcons practices were only held for about one week every few months to accommodate the national team members’ commitments to other professional soccer clubs. He relied on his son, Pitt Women’s Soccer Associate Head Coach Ben Waldrum, and other Pitt staff members to lead the Panthers during his trips to Nigeria.
The countless airplane flights and hours of jet lag were all worth it, Randy Waldrum says. While coaching the Super Falcons, he says he was challenged to lead more tactically and plan more “chess playing” during each game to compete at the international level. He brought those experiences back to Pitt, and he cites them as one of the reasons for the Panther’s recent success — the team had a school-record 11 wins in 2020 and finished the 2021 season with a program-best in the league standings by tying for ninth place.
But the Nigerian national team benefited from Pitt’s experiences as well. Waldrum says he devised a new defensive strategy for the Panthers when they played powerhouse teams such as Florida State last year; he applied the same defensive block to the Super Falcons’ first World Cup game on July 20, and plans to use it again throughout the tournament.
Even after playing professional soccer himself with the Los Angeles Skyhawks and Indianapolis Daredevils and coaching 30 years of college-level soccer at universities including Notre Dame and Baylor, Waldrum says he is still learning more about soccer every day. Every new experience contributes to his impressive record: the coach ranks 10th in Division I history in career head coaching victories with a total of 431.
Waldrum says all of his accomplishments stem from his love of soccer that has guided him since he was a teenager.
“Instead of going out on the weekends with my friends, I’m heading over to my coach’s house and we’re just talking X’s and O’s and soccer and he’s sharing his experiences. It just really gave me the love and the passion for the sport which I’ve never lost,” Waldrum says.
The coach’s passion for the sport is evident on the field, Abiodun says.
“He’s one of the greatest coaches I’ve come across,” she says. “He makes sure the players have a good understanding about the game. He takes his time to explain in detail what he wants you to do, and how much he wants you to enjoy the game because you have to enjoy it to be able to give out your best.”
While the Super Falcons have the same love for soccer that Waldrum does, Waldrum says it has been difficult for the team to overcome the challenge of not having enough time to practice together. Practices have been limited over the past three years, and Waldrum says the team only had 10 days to prepare in the weeks leading up to the World Cup even though he initially planned for a three-week-long camp.
Regardless, Waldrum describes the Super Falcons as “gifted,” “talented” and “nothing short of outstanding” — all qualities that led the team to a 0-0 draw with Canada in their first game of the World Cup. The tie was impressive to fans around the world, considering that the Canadian team entered the contest ranked 7th in the world by FIFA, whereas Nigeria was ranked 40th.
But the Super Falcons have a long World Cup journey ahead. They are now competing in the group stage with the other three teams in their group: Canada, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland. They will face Australia on July 27 and the Republic of Ireland on July 31, with both games airing at 6 a.m. Eastern Time on FOX Sports.
Starting on Aug. 5, the knockout stage will begin as teams from each of the eight World Cup groups compete against each other, vying for a spot in the semi-finals on Aug. 15 and 16 and the final on Aug 20.
Many local restaurants plan to bring Pittsburgh’s soccer fans together for the next month of games, including Cork Harbour Pub in Lawrenceville, Trace Brewing in Bloomfield and Mike’s Beer Bar on the North Shore, a bar that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports as the “go-to place to see soccer.”
Waldrum and Abiodun will return to the Steel City after the games conclude in August to begin preparation for the Panthers’ season. Abiodun says the opportunity to study in Pittsburgh is just as important to her as the opportunity to play in the World Cup.
“Since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to become a professional soccer player, and I’ve always wanted to pursue my dream of being a college graduate. Being in the University of Pittsburgh is achieving the two dreams at once for me,” Abiodun says. “It might not be that easy, but it’s worth the effort and hard work.”