When I heard that the U.S. women’s national soccer team was scheduled to play a friendly against Brazil in Orlando – which is all of 90 minutes away from my home – I am not lying when I say my heart nearly pounded straight out of my chest with excitement. And when we bought the tickets? Well…have you ever seen video of those kids who find out they are going to Disneyland? That was me. I was a shrieking seven-year-old girl nearly reduced to tears at the prospect of finally getting to see the Magic Kingdom.
I’ve been following the USWNT since the 2011 World Cup, but for me that has meant sometimes seeing matches on TV and mostly watching them online (often while working – shhhh don’t tell). The idea of seeing Wambach & Co. in person seemed like a far-off dream that would never come true, yet another event reserved solely for people who live in more centrally located places like California and Illinois and North Carolina, as few major cultural events venture to the swamps of America’s Wang, where I make my home.
The match happened this past weekend, and I am not exaggerating when I say it surpassed my expectations. My first inkling that this was going to be something huge came when we made our way through Orlando toward the Citrus Bowl and drove right into some major traffic, all of which was waiting for parking. (By the way, no thanks to the city of Orlando for failing to spare a cop or five to help with traffic control. Good lord.) We parked at the first spot we could find, in between two men who looked like father-son, both of whom were in USA shirts, and a soccer family who tumbled out of an SUV, also dressed in red, white and blue.
This was the crowd: twenty thousand people, mostly dressed in patriotic colors. Lots of preteen and teenage girls in the jerseys of their favorite players. Lots of grown-ups in US Soccer gear. A smattering of people in Brazil jerseys. Parents escorting entire youth soccer teams.
Twenty thousand people.
I had worn a white tank top but I quickly changed that out for my new Solo #1 shirt, which we bought after making our way through the scrum around the merchandise stand. (I’d wanted a Wambach shirt but they were out of my size. I have an ongoing fascination with Hope Solo – read her book and everything – so I was totally fine with wearing her number.) Then we found our seats and waited for the match to begin.
I’d never been to a pro soccer match before – not even for a men’s team – and immediately I was swept away by the atmosphere. In one corner, a local soccer club was standing on the benches, singing and jumping up and down, while in the opposing corner, some Brazilian fans were drumming, playing a funky, badass beat that had us all shaking our asses. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I watched some grown men talk sports with a couple of kids in soccer jerseys, including one girl in a well-worn Landon Donovan jersey, and heard a couple of soccer moms behind me talk about their daughters’ experiences in the Olympic Development Program.
The crowd was going crazy for the team’s big stars. When the goalies warmed up, they jogged across the pitch, and each time Hope Solo ran up to one side, the girls on that side went nuts, then when she ran to the other side, it was time for those girls to lose their minds. She was a total rock star. The crowd also lost their minds for Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Sydney Leroux. Like I said – rock stars.
When the actual match got underway, I marveled at how fast-paced the game was in person. I watch a lot of baseball at Tropicana Field and for the most part I love it, but one thing you cannot say about baseball is that it is fast-paced. You can spend three hours watching what amounts to fifteen minutes of action. (The same is true for football.) With this match, it was a constant back-and-forth – well, not really back-and-forth, as Brazil was kind of dominated by the U.S. – and you never had the chance to lose interest in the game because it was always changing. I could particularly understand why so many people refer to soccer as “the beautiful game” when Sydney Leroux had the ball. She was so fast and her ball-handling skills were gorgeous. I could watch her play for hours. (Here’s a recap of the game if you are interested. The Cliff Notes version is U.S. won 4-1.)
Not only was the game fast-paced but we were also all really into it. Someone would attempt to score a goal and the entire audience would suck in their breath in unison. A player would score a goal or Hope Solo would make a save and everyone cheered and gave high-fives all around. (By the way, my favorite piece of fan art of the night was a huge SOLO constructed entirely out of red Solo cups and held up on four wooden dowels.)
The last time I’d been in the middle of an audience that was so engaged in a sporting all of the normal socially-correct barriers had fallen away, it was during the 2008 season when the Tampa Bay Rays were making the most improbable run at the World Series. That kind of fan unity is a rare thing and it is so glorious when it happens.
In fact I became so absorbed in the game and the atmosphere that I often forgot I was seeing something I’d never seen in person before, which was a major professional sporting event where every single person on the field – player and ref – was a woman. Usually when I am in a group of thousands of people watching a professional sporting event, the only women who ever step in the playing space are cheerleaders, dancers or ice girls. Occasionally I might see a female sideline reporter, but mostly its cheerleaders, dancers and ice girls.
I don’t know if any of you have ever had the opportunity to watch professional women’s team sports under the bright lights of a big venue with thousands of other screaming, cheering people, but I came away from it with two opposing and yet complementary feelings: that what I had seen was both revolutionary and yet also completely, perfectly normal. I can only explain it by saying that it’s not that the sight of women playing professional team sports is weird, but rather that the cultural mandates that say women shouldn’t play professional team sports that are weird. And so seeing those cultural mandates upended – even for a single night – felt less like turning the world upside down and more like a glimpse of how the world actually should be.
The evening was over way too fast for my liking, especially since I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to see them play again. For some reason women’s professional soccer just can’t get going in the United States, but even if it were, the odds of a team being placed in Florida are basically non-existent. So I tried to relish the moment as it happened, because it really was something special to be part of, and remain hopeful that some day soon we might actually have women’s pro soccer again, and that it might actually be successful.
P.S. I just need to point out that I got to see the USWNT play in the same three month span as getting to see Kerri Walsh Jennings play beach volleyball and wishing Mirinda Carfrae good luck before Ironman Florida. It’s like the sports multiverse is smiling upon me.