Daniel Schwartz recalled spending countless hours in the car, schlepping his daughters from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley for practices and games with the Sherman Oaks Extreme Soccer Club.

After a while, it seemed silly. Santa Monica United was an established youth soccer club much closer to the family’s home; it just lacked the volume of opportunities for girls that Schwartz was able to find elsewhere.

Of course, that was then.

Schwartz and others have spent the last few years building up the girls ranks in Santa Monica United, which will field 14 girls teams this coming season after hosting just three half a decade ago.

“We had always been known as a boys program,” said Schwartz, the club’s current president. “But the girls side of the program has really exploded.”

And as Santa Monica United prepares to celebrate its 40-year history with an anniversary celebration Sunday at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, Schwartz is perhaps most proud of its growth on the girls side in recent years.

Girls now make up a significant percentage of the 600-plus players ranging in age from 8 to 18 who will participate on 33 teams in the nonprofit organization this coming season.

Schwartz said interest in soccer among girls has grown since the U.S. women’s national team defeated China to win the Women’s World Cup in 1999, although few of the girls currently enrolled in the local youth soccer club were alive to witness Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain lead the Americans to victory.

But women’s soccer returned to the foreground last month, when the United States defeated Japan in the finals to win World Cup gold thanks in part to Carli Lloyd’s hat trick.

A week later, perhaps inspired by the Team USA triumph, an SMU girls team captured a national championship at the Presidents Cup tournament in Kansas. The accomplishment capped an outstanding season for the girls, who also won state and regional titles and a sportsmanship award with the guidance of coaches Fabian Amezaga and Robert Bahedry.

The girls will be recognized by Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown during Sunday’s 40th anniversary celebration, which will also feature a history exhibit and an auction as well as games and food.

Meanwhile, Santa Monica United has also begun producing college talent on the women’s side, a trend that Schwartz thinks will continue thanks to the club’s relatively new under-19 girls team.

Recent players making the jump to the next level include Santa Monica High School alumna Ella Sinfield (Wesleyan), Shannon Green (Illinois Wesleyan), Maya Gray (Highline College), Carolyn Savich (Vassar College), Raleigh Lemiere-Barnes (Roger Williams) and Kara Beshay (Las Positas College).

And Schwartz said he believes there’s more growth to be had on the girls side in the future.

“We put several girls in college on scholarships,” he said. “And these girls who just won again will help the girls side even more.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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