In the United States, only a handful of women soccer players can truly be classified as household names.

Megan Rapinoe is certainly one. Christine Sinclair, the Portland Thorns forward, is another, and so is midfielder Sophie Schmidt of the Houston Dash.

After last year's resounding World Cup victory, the three became not just superstars within their sport but cultural beacons. But long before teaming up in France, the trio were linked by another connection: All of them played for the University of Portland Pilots.

Related: Megan Rapinoe's Climb to the Golden Boot Began Along North Portland's Bluffs.

For years, the unassuming Catholic college situated along the bluffs of North Portland has produced some of the best female soccer players in the nation, if not the world.

If you ask assistant coach Logan Emory, however, the university's high-profile alumnae may have earned the program major recruiting clout, but they're not necessarily the reason the program has thrived.

"They were just normal kids going to school here in Portland and just happened to be extremely talented," he says. "But really, it all goes back to Clive."

He's talking about late head coach Clive Charles, a former Timbers defender who took over what was a mediocre program in 1989 and gradually turned the Pilots into a powerhouse. He coached the team to its first national championship in 2003, with Sinclair leading the way.

Charles died that same year, at age 51, after battling prostate cancer. At the time of his death, he was one of only five NCAA women's coaches to log over 400 wins. The school's soccer complex is now named in his honor.

"What separates Clive and this program was how much he made soccer matter," says Emory, who played for UP's men's team from 2006 to 2008. "Players got the sense he cared about them not just as players, but as people."

The Pilots went on to win another national championship in 2005, to go with 13 total conference championships. The program has turned out seven Olympians, and dozens of professional players—three players from last year's graduating class are shipping off to tryouts this spring.

But to say the university has "produced" top-level athletes would be disingenuous, Emory says. They take in talent, and maintain that talent.

"This is a soccer school. It's a place where soccer junkies can come focus on being a high level soccer player," Emory says, "and sometimes be a little bit in the spotlight."

32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)
32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)