U.S. Women’s Soccer team draws record crowd to South Philly

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Young soccer fans play pickup games on the grass outside Lincoln Financial Field while waiting for the start of the U.S. Women’s soccer game against Portugal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Young soccer fans play pickup games on the grass outside Lincoln Financial Field while waiting for the start of the U.S. Women’s soccer game against Portugal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A record-setting crowd of 49,504 descended on Lincoln Financial Field Thursday night to watch the U.S. Women’s soccer team drub Portugal, 4-0, in a friendly match.

The match itself was a foregone conclusion, window-dressing for the real drama: Can the perpetually dominant and popular national team translate its success into sustainable interest for women’s professional soccer in the U.S.?

Fans fill Lincoln Financial Stadium to watch the U.S. Women’s soccer team play Portugal as part of their victory tour. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

There were signs of hope in South Philadelphia — foremost the crowd size.

It was the largest crowd ever to see a U.S. women’s match that wasn’t part of a larger competition, smashing the previous high by more than 5,000 fans. And Thursday’s turnout far surpassed the roughly 32,000 who watched the last U.S. Women’s game at Lincoln Financial Field, a group play match in the 2003 World Cup.

The Portugal game was part of a five-match “victory tour” meant to celebrate the squad’s World Cup title this summer and capture the fan momentum from that dominant run.

The 2019 women’s team drew praise for its play and attention for its politically-outspoken stars. More than two dozen of the U.S. players are suing the national federal for what they consider pay discrimination.

Political currents swirled around the stadium Thursday night, evidenced by the “Equal Pay” t-shirts vendors hawked outside the stadium.

Vendor Jamir Branch sells “Equal Pay” t-shirts outside Lincoln Financial Field, where the U.S. Women’s soccer team played Portugal. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Some fans said it was the team’s strong statements that attracted them as much as the squad’s soccer prowess.

“It’s pretty cool how they timed [the lawsuit] to when the World Cup was,” said Julie Morningstar of Philadelphia. “And then they showed everyone and they won.”

South Philly friends Stephanie Burn (left) and Julie Morningstar have enjoyed following the U.S. Women’s soccer team since the 2015 World Cup victory. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Women’s soccer seems stuck in a holding pattern. Fans adore the national team and its stars, but it’s been difficult to establish a popular and profitable women’s soccer league in the U.S. The nine-team National Women’s Soccer League started in 2012 after two prior efforts went bust.

The political dimension of 2019’s team could add a new layer of fan interest. And there is always grassroots fandom among the many women and girls who play the sport recreationally.

Members of the Methacton United Blue Crush — an under-14 travel team based about an hour outside of Philadelphia — excitedly rattled off the names of their soccer heroes as they waited outside the stadium before game time.

Megan Rapinoe!

Tobin Heath!

Alex Morgan!

Members of the Methacton Blue Crush soccer team in Montgomery County came to Philadelphia to see their favorite players on the U.S. Women’s soccer team. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Abby, a midfielder, sported the number-eight jersey of Julie Ertz, a national team megastar and wife of Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.

Why?

“’Cause she’s amazing!”

Nearby, clusters of girls played pickup soccer in the same tailgate lots where you’ll usually find men tossing American footballs on autumn Sundays.

From a competitive perspective, those impromptu games mattered about as much as the ritual sacrifice that took place inside Lincoln Financial Field Thursday. But they were a small indication that this version of the women’s national team — with its strong play and strong statements — may help usher women’s soccer to new heights.


Correction: This article was updated to reflect the correct number of fans who had turned out to watch the last U.S. Women’s game at Lincoln Financial Field.

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