The U.S. Women's National Team First World Cup Title since 1999, achieved in July in Canada after a stirring 5-2 victory over Japan (a rematch of the 2011 Final when Japan defeated the Americans on penalty kicks), has galvanized the American soccer scene.
In addition to a ticket-tape parade in New York City, a "victory tour" of an anticipated eight matches across the country began last month and so far has attracted huge crowds to see the triumphant women.
On August 16th in Pittsburgh, 44,028 came to see their first game on home soil since the World Cup; an 8-0 win against overmatched Costa Rica with Christen Press scoring three times and substitute Heather O'Reilly adding a brace. Pittsburgh has never been a vibrant market on the men's or women's side. In fact, the only previous women's international in the city was when 6,386 attended a friendly versus Iceland in 2004, so it was a tremendous show of support for the team.
Three days later, in a smaller venue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the U.S. continued to pour on the goals with a 7-2 victory against the Costa Ricans, with O'Reilly again scoring twice along with a pair from forward Carli Lloyd. The Chattanooga game drew a capacity crowd of 20,535, surpassing the city's previous record for the women's national team of 13,081 versus Sweden back in 1997. The crowd also set the the record for a WNT team game in the state of Tennessee, besting Nashville's total of 14,224 two years ago for a friendly versus Scotland (3-1).
The U.S. national team will host WWC quarterfinalist Australia in Detroit on September 17 and in Birmingham, Alabama on September 20. Brazil will face the Americans in Seattle and Orlando on October 21 and 25 respectively.
Similar tours after the 2011 finals and the 2012 have drawn sizeable crowds (typically up to 15,000 to 20,000 range), but the passion and excitement is bringing out crowds similar to what a men's national team game now draws, which itself has only seen consistent home crowds of 40,000 or more in the past half dozen years. Previously, large American crowds at men's game would come out only to root for Mexico or see a top opponent such as Germany or Brazil.
The attendees at these Victory Tour games want to see the 23 members of the winning squad in Canada but the games this fall present a tricky formula for the future of the national team. There is a short transition period ahead of CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying in February, to be hosted in Dallas and Houston, Texas. Two of the eight final teams will qualify for the Rio Olympics next summer. The U.S. is heavily favored to qualify, with Canada expected to book the second spot. However, the Americans were the oldest squad in Canada and desperately needs to blood new talent looking ahead to the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
The US has won 4 of 5 Olympic Game Gold Medals contested and, even during their 16 year draught of WWC medals that was finally broken in July, the Americans always seem to have extra motivation for the Olympics. Already Lauren Holiday (NWSL Player of the Year in 2013) and backups Lori Chalupny and Shannon Boxx have retired from the national team and forward Abby Wambach (35) and defender Christie Rampone (40) could decide not to continue by the end of the year.
Even if they stay through next summer's Olympics, the national team could look radically different in a few years' time. Goalkeeper Hope Solo should surely step aside after Rio (taking her drama filled distractions with her). Solid young prospects with youth international experience include Washington Spirit's Crystal Dunn (the NWSL Player of the Month for August with six goals and one assist, who has lead the Spirit to a 2-3-1 last month helped Washington to the playoffs for the second consecutive year and scored a league leading 15 goals after just missing the World Cup team). She should definitely make the flight to Rio but other NWSL-based youngsters such as midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo and forward Sofia Huerta (Chicago Red Stars), midfielders Sarah Killion and Katy Freels (Sky Blue FC of New Jersey), forward Beverly Yanez (Seattle), midfielder Christine Nairn (Washington), forward Jessica McDonald (Houston) and sisters Kristie Mewis (Boston who is joining Bayern Munich this fall) and Samantha Mewis (Western New York).
PRO GAME LEGACY
The U.S. World Cup victory in Canada also has had a substantial knock-on effect for the women's professional game.
In 2011, many Americans followed the national team's dramatic run to the finals, including a nail biting 3-2 win over Brazil on penalty kicks win over Brazil in the quarterfinals, when an injury time goal in overtime by Abby Wambach extended the game. The nationwide acclaim for the team did not register a consistent increase at the gates of the professional league at the time, Women's Professional Soccer, which never returned for the 2012 season.
This season is different; with the national team success driving dramatic increases in National Women's Soccer League attendances. In part, all of the 23 players are distributed across the 9 NWSL teams, with the exception of Abby Wambach, who took the season off to focus on the World Cup, so fans are guaranteed of seeing some of the champions in each game, plus some World Cup players from other nations.
League wide attendance has increased 25% with the two MLS affiliated franchise, Portland Thorns and Houston Dash, increasing by over 4,000 a game. Seattle Reign's post-WWC average of 5,465 places them third in the league during that period (up from 6th before the WWC) and has heightened the awareness of a wonderful team—led by Scottish internationals Kim Little and Rachel Corsie, Welsh international Jess Fishlock, American internationals Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo and English head coach Laura Harvey--in a soccer-crazed market where the Reign has struggled for support.
Part of the problem has been that the Reign has competed with a W-League summer team that--though independent--carries the influential Sounders brand name, and confused some fans as to which side was the fully professional one, particularly as they shared a suburban stadium in 2013. The Reign's move downtown last season, plus the U.S. Women's success in Canada, has helped the team establish a firm identity that should help them grow and prosper in the future.
Next week, the Women's Football Review will examine the NWSL playoff semifinals and the 5 teams who missed out on the postseason.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey
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