Lopez is soccer's unassuming role model at World Cup

SHANGHAI, China -- U.S. Soccer's biography of Stephanie Lopez says she is the first woman of Hispanic descent to play a major role for the U.S. women's national soccer team.

That's a fact.

But everything else she is and does is what makes that fact meaningful.

Lopez is naturally inclined toward uniqueness, even in the select company of the 21 American women playing in the World Cup this month in China. The only active college player on the roster of the world's top-ranked team -- she will return to the University of Portland at the end of the tournament and finish out her senior season with the Pilots -- she is a defender with the moves and mind-set of a playmaker. She will take those skills and that mind-set into Saturday morning's quarterfinal match against England (8 a.m. ET, ESPN2).

That she stands out because of her heritage, too, is just one more piece of the package.

"It's an honor to be in this position, and it's pretty special to be able to say you're first in something," Lopez said. "Obviously, I'm just proud to be on this team, and to have that Hispanic ethnicity means a lot -- mostly just that I can be a role model for other young Latina girls."

In the world of women's soccer, that's an undeniably rare opportunity.

Mexico has qualified for only one World Cup since the women's event began in 1991 and bowed out in the opening round of its lone appearance in 1999. Even that tepid résumé represents something of a success story, though, because Mexico was the first women's team from a Spanish-speaking country to qualify for both the World Cup and Olympics.

Whether the reasons are cultural, financial or a jumble of both, women's soccer in Hispanic countries has lagged behind the game's development in places such as the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and, to some degree, even Africa.

The Mexican national program has made tremendous strides in recent years under coach Leo Cuellar, a former star in the men's game. And Mexico might have earned a spot in this World Cup if not for a flawed CONCACAF regional qualifying process that depended, to a large degree, on a one-game showdown against the United States. Mexico lost that game in the Gold Cup and then lost a subsequent two-leg playoff against Japan. But with limited funds and uneven support from soccer fans in the country as well as from the federation, Cuellar faces an uphill battle over infrastructure that tactical guile alone can't solve.

From prolific striker Maribel Dominguez to former American college players such as Iris Mora and Monica Gonzalez, Mexico has produced players worthy of attention. But partly because Mexican women's soccer has had difficulty claiming the spotlight at home, it is largely inaccessible to the Hispanic community in the United States, too.

Lopez uneasily steps into that void. With a mother from a German-Irish lineage and a Mexican-American father who didn't stress the heritage of his immigrant grandfather beyond occasional meals of menudo (a tripe soup) and pigs' feet, she is a California kid who primarily defined herself in ways unrelated to ethnicity as she grew up outside Sacramento.

"I was just like the rest of everyone else," Lopez recalled. "I didn't see myself necessarily as belonging to a certain group of people. I was more just an athlete and a student rather than in a certain ethnic group growing up and in high school."

Given her unique upbringing, that color-blind mentality makes sense. Lopez was raised in a household full of life and short on homogeneity. Cindy, her mother, has an adopted African-American brother, and took in dozens and dozens of foster kids throughout Lopez's adolescence, some for days and some for years. Her own adopted brothers, Justin and Daniel, are Caucasian.

Soft-spoken and introspective, Lopez seems to wear a bemused grin throughout much of her existence off the soccer field. But as she talks about her heritage and the attention it has received in recent weeks, that cheerful countenance grows more serious, her words coming carefully as she searches for answers to questions that perhaps never found the time or opportunity to occupy her mind before now.

"I think that I wasn't confined to that, growing up," Lopez said. "I guess, growing up, I didn't see what a rare thing it was for me to be of Hispanic descent and to be on this team, and how there aren't that many. But I think that you shouldn't confine yourself to the box that you're in, and [you should] see that there are opportunities out there."

For Lopez, the opportunity now in front of her is a chance to take a leading role for a generation of young soccer players, some of whom might go on to keep the United States on top of the rankings or perhaps lead Mexico there, and some of whom might use their athletic experiences to find success in other endeavors.

Every time the United States plays Mexico, as it will three times in quick succession following the World Cup, Spanish-language stations seek out the bilingual Lopez for interviews just as often as they seek established stars such as Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach. And if her Spanish isn't perfect or she doesn't know every detail of her family history, it doesn't really matter. There is a more important message getting across.

The message is this: That Lopez is a role model of Hispanic descent is a description, but it is not what defines her. And it's the sum total of what defines her that makes the description worth celebrating.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.