HARRISON, N.J. — The U.S. women’s national team returned to Harrison, N.J., for its third consecutive World Cup sendoff match, drawing an announced crowd of 26,332 —100 short of a sellout.
Before the 2015 World Cup, the team played in front of a sellout crowd as the team played South Korea to a 0-0 draw a little more than a month before winning the World Cup. In 2011, however, the team beat Mexico 1-0 in front of a crowd of 5,852.
The crowd at Sunday’s match was energetic and loud, particularly every time the U.S. attacked during a match that saw the hosts take 25 shots. The fans cheered during the pre-game and post-game festivities, with every player on the roster cheered on by the crowd.
“Great crowd, great stadium. It’s one of my favorite stadiums to play in,” said co-captain Carli Lloyd, a New Jersey native. “I was pleasantly surprised with Memorial Day weekend and kids in soccer tournaments this weekend — 26,000 people is incredible.”
Lloyd, headed to her fourth World Cup, has been able to watch the growth of the sport and the increasing popularity of the women’s national team from an intimate vantage point. Part of all three of the teams that played at Red Bull Arena before going off to the World Cup, the change is something she thought about during Sunday’s match.
“I was actually just talking about that on the bench with some of the players,” Lloyd said. “When I first got on the team in 2005, we were barely pushing 5,000 fans. I feel like the 2011 World Cup, we started to gain some momentum. Even though we didn’t win, it was building and building and we’re selling out crowds, and it’s just phenomenal to see and credit to the the team’s success from former players, past players, current players.”
Wambach, Gulati honored
Sunil Gulati and Abby Wambach were honored Sunday after getting inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. At halftime, both came onto the pitch to loud applause after years of working together as two of American soccer’s most highly regarded figures. They, too, had the progress of the sport in mind.
“We were just up in the suites,” Wambach said following the quick ceremony, “and I said, ‘Look at what you built,’ and of course, [in] some classic Sunil fashion, he said, ‘Look what we built.’”
Both were honored to be inducted together after years of working together. Gulati said his induction came as a surprise, but that he “can’t think of anybody I’d be more proud to come in the Hall of Fame with than Abby.”
Wambach, who was an elite U.S. goal scorer, joked that her induction reflected that she is “officially a has been, and immortalized in, I guess, soccer lore.” However, the honor also allows her to support the team she represented for 14 years and helped lead to a World Cup victory.
“It’s been the honor of my life to be able to represent this country for so many years, on the team, as a career and now it’s become the honor of my future and my the rest of my life to become its biggest fan,” Wambach said. “I feel like however this team moves into the future, I’m going to be its biggest supporter, and I feel really proud of the women for taking stances in off the field issues with contracts, lawsuits and all while preparing for this massive event. I don’t know if a team that I’m playing for takes on that kind of stress, although we did sue FIFA before the last World Cup.”
Gulati, too, was asked about female soccer players’ fight for equality. He said that he does not “miss having my name on the front of litigation” in his life after presidency, and argued that increasing prize money is not on the table for most of FIFA’s member nations.
“If you said to 209 members that were going to put $10 million more into women’s soccer, would you like it to go to prize money at the World Cup, or would you like it to go to development programs across the world, that [vote] would be 205 to four,” Gulati said.
He does believe that the sport’s governing bodies will increase investment, though, citing the newly released strategy of UEFA, the European governing body.
Few tests for defense
Throughout the USWNT’s final three matches before the World Cup, the team has scored 11 goals and conceded none. It is not unusual for the team to keep clean sheets, even against top opposition, but Sunday’s match with Mexico did not test the Americans’ defense.
It remains to be seen whether the pre-World Cup matches against South Africa, ranked 49th in the world; New Zealand, ranked 19th; and Mexico, ranked 26th, were enough to prepare the U.S. back line. During the three matches, the U.S. faced only nine combined shots from their opponents, but coach Jill Ellis said after the win over Mexico that finding better tests is easier said than done.
“We have to have three sendoff games, so teams aren’t going to travel from Europe this way to come play us,” Ellis said, noting that most teams will travel differently in order to get to France. “I think it’s trying to get opponents that are going to be in a World Cup because that’s a good feeling, to play teams that have qualified and then trying to get potentially different styles. … I think historically, it is challenging to get unless we’re willing to travel early.”
That said, members of the defense are confident with their preparation before the tournament begins in a few weeks. Defender Crystal Dunn noted the team conceded more goals during an experimental phase in between the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship, but that the problem has since been rectified. Ultimately, the defense is just as interested in attacking, making matches like the ones played this month a good chance to perfect game plans.
“The way our team plays, we commit a lot of numbers forward,” Dunn said. “There [are] risks that are taken sometimes with the way we play. We’re a transition based team and we love to go forward, especially myself as well but I think over the last couple games, we’ve been a strong unit and really got our ish together.”