By Emily Cohen
I was literally left speechless upon entering Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field nearly two weeks ago for the U.S. women’s national team friendly against Canada, the second game in the so-called “Celebration Series.” It was still an hour before kickoff and, as Fats Waller famously sang, "The joint is jumpin'!"
Living in the Bay Area, I’ve been to my share of packed -- even hyped -- sporting events: The “Big Game” between Cal and Stanford football each year, San Francisco Giants games during last year’s NLDS, NLCS, and World Series, a San Francisco 49ers game during their heyday in the 80s, a San Jose Sharks game last year during the NHL playoffs. But soccer? And women’s soccer, to boot? (no pun intended).
The last women’s soccer event I had attended was the now-defunct FC Gold Pride’s WPS Championship game last September, at Cal State East Bay’s Pioneer Stadium, with a mere 5,228 in attendance.
This was something special. A soldout stadium of 18,750 spectators for a friendly on the heels of the U.S. team’s gutsy run to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final and a heartbreaking loss in the final game to Japan in Germany this past summer. You couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement. (Five days before the Portland game, 16,191 fans packed into Kansas City’s Livestrong Stadium to watch the women tie Canada, 1-1, in the first game of the Celebration Series.)
But it wasn’t the fact that the stadium was sold out that struck me most; it was the sheer numbers of young girls -- many with their soccer teams -- in Hope Solo and Abby Wambach jerseys at the game. Throngs of girls -- from age 4 through high school --cheering their idols. And it was the number of grown men with “Wambach,” “Morgan”, and “Solo” -- and their respective jersey numbers -- painted on their bare backs. When was the last time that happened? Certainly not for the Williams sisters, Picabo Street, or even Natalie Coughlin.
As former University of Portland star, Megan Rapinoe, told me after the game, “Portland is a soccer town. Along with Seattle, it truly has a European feel in terms of soccer. The rest of the U.S. is catching up to these two towns and their affinity for soccer.”
Interestingly, Shannon Boxx echoed Rapinoe’s Europe comments. “The Germans are true soccer fans. They understand the game and appreciate it as a whole. It’s not only about who is playing but it’s about the game itself. Portland is nearly there. If it could be like tonight every time we play, that would be amazing!”
As for the fans in Portland, their love for -- and understanding of -- soccer was obvious in talking with many of those in the stadium that night watching the game. Members of the FC Portland U-13 girls team, who were designated ball girls for the evening’s match, were more than happy to talk to me about their favorite players on the U.S. team:
“I like Abby Wambach because she’s never afraid of the ball and she’s always in the middle of every attacking play.”
“Megan Rapinoe is my favorite player because she takes her time with the ball and makes great decisions.”
“Alex Morgan has so much energy and always looks like she’s having fun on the field. That’s what I love about her!”
What started with Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm in 1999 finally found a sequel in a new generation of women’s soccer players in 2011. It took 12 years for young female soccer players to have new role models to inspire them. My daughter’s entire life!
During the game, every shot on goal, every save, every great pass by the U.S. team was greeted with raucous applause and cheers. The hometown girl, Rapinoe, twice-denied in the first half with shots that hit the crossbar, was cheered loudly whenever she touched the ball.
After Wambach scored two goals in the second half and threatened with a third, cheers of “Abby! Hat Trick! Abby! Hat Trick” washed across the stadium.
Ultimately, it was not Wambach who scored the final goal for the USA that night. Rather, it was spunky former University of California star, 22-year-old Morgan, scoring the third and final goal for the U.S. in stoppage time. In recalling the goal after the game, Morgan said, “It was probably the easiest goal I’ve ever scored in a U.S. jersey. I looked down, the ball was on my foot, and I just poked it in.” Humble comments from the newest women’s soccer superstar.
(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball, basketball, and softball teams -- and has a blog at TeamSnap.com.)