Two women in layer upon layer of stars and stripes — from bandanna to leggings, from sunglasses to sneakers — ran out of the downtown Edmonton bar the Pint, triumphantly held up an American flag, and then, just as quickly, hurried back inside.
“We were just like, America!” one of them giggled to the other, loud and sheepish. “Wait, it’s drizzling? Retreat! Retreat!”
Around them were kindred spirits: a group of four adult-league soccer players in cowgirl hats from Austin, Texas; a guy painting the face of a female companion as a waitress set some mini hot dogs on their table; and some friends who had grown up playing together in and around Sacramento. “Mia Hamm’s my idol,” said one, Felicia Novoa.
A man from Los Angeles named Carlos O’Brien who was dressed up like Captain America, face mask included — “Because who’s more American than him?” he explained — was in town with his wife for the Women’s World Cup. Last year they had traveled around Brazil to see the men’s tournament, O’Brien said, and now they were here to bestow superhero support on the women.
There were cheers and “USA” chants for each American supporter who walked through the door (those with under-18 minors in tow were apologetically turned away by Pint staff; most headed toward an ice cream parlor up the street to bide time), and random flair like temporary tattoos and red-white-and-blue plastic mustaches were left scattered on high-top tables. The TVs played NHL highlights — this being Canada, after all — until switching over to the early England-Norway match.
Most everyone was optimistic about the evening’s contest against Colombia, and had been high on the USA’s chances for quite some time: The majority said they’d booked this trip well before the tournament had even begun under the assumption that the Americans would finish first in the group stage and play their Round of 16 game in Edmonton.
Ironically, the same spirit that accounted for most of those in attendance probably also kept their numbers from swelling larger; many would-be supporters were holding out for something more. Dan Wiersema, a representative from the American Outlaws, the biggest and most boisterous supporter collective for the U.S. national teams, told me that 700 U.S. fans that he knew of had bought tickets for an upcoming game in Vancouver: the championship, on July 5.
“PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999,” read one sign held up by a fan sitting a few rows behind the benches at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. Another woman, an Edmonton local named Meenuka Singh, who said she has supported the U.S. since childhood, had taped gold medals to a poster board and written “Remember 1991. Remember 1999. We need to make new gold memories!! 2015.” Another behind-the-bench document of support, decorated with a hand-drawn glass of wine, proclaimed:
WE WANT THREE STARS
Oenophilia aside, it was a sentiment that deliberately echoed the official tournament hashtag of the American Outlaws — #WeWantThreeStars — a reference to the patch sewn onto the USA kits after each World Cup win. There are currently two of them, one for the team at the inaugural 1991 tournament and the other for the 1999 squad that memorably took it all when Brandi Chastain scored the winning goal, hollering in victory, knees on the grass. But somehow, for all the American team’s leadership in the global advancement of women’s soccer, the ultimate victories ended there.
Wiersema said that following the American men’s national team’s disastrous showing in the 1998 World Cup, he nearly “went full Euro-snob” in his soccer fandom. The 1999 victory, though, pulled him back in, and he now leads efforts to organize group get-togethers for the women’s team and broaden the Outlaws’ support base.
That said, he didn’t quite know what to expect from the Edmonton-area representation. There had been a ton of fans assembled for the tournament’s group stages in Winnipeg and Vancouver, but those locations could be planned for well in advance. Monday’s match, the first of the single-elimination knockout rounds, was determined just last week. The combination of the last-minute scheduling and the location — the Alberta capital is far enough north that the sun doesn’t set until after 10 p.m. this time of year — made for unpredictable numbers.1
Wiersema, who had traveled for the group stages but had to stay home for this one for day-job reasons, likened it to leaving his class with a substitute teacher: It’s not that you don’t trust the kids, it’s just hard to know what anyone’s in for.
Still, a few dozen people had gone to the Pint for the pre-party, then, initial rain-driven retreat aside, strutted through a sun-shower toward the subway singing various chants. Upon arriving at Commonwealth Stadium, most dispersed, their seats scattered among local ticket-holders — one distant Guy Fieri look-alike in a visor with a red maple leaf painted on his face gently waved a Canadian flag to and fro — and more cohesive groups of vuvuzela-toting Colombian fans in bright-yellow gear. (In one particularly robust corner section, people held up letters spelling WE ARE COLOMBIA and VAMOS SUPERPODEROSAS, the latter a reference to the Colombian women’s national team nickname whose Google results also return links to the translation of the cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.)
The Colombian fans were particularly fired up thanks to their team’s ongoing ascent from second-class soccer citizens in their own country to a team to be respected, even feared. Already in this tournament, in the group round, Las Chicas Superpoderosas had upset championship contender France, 2-0. In the days leading up to the USA match, Colombia’s Lady Andrade made headlines with the accusation that the Americans “belittle” Colombia and her assertion that “we’re going to beat them because they like to talk so much.” (Most of the perceived chatter regarding Colombia’s chances had probably originated from American media and not the U.S. players, but really, what’s the difference?)
As for the U.S. fans, even the most blindly supportive of the lot had to admit that their squad seemed kinda vulnerable, having relied almost exclusively on their defense in the absence of their usually reliable scoring touch — something that had already been dubbed a “minor identity crisis.” Even the proud Yanks who had come marching into the stadium singing were starting to nervously fidget.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
If you had walked into the arena at halftime, you’d have assumed Colombia had taken a multi-goal lead. The U.S. opened play with an offensive push that resulted in an early sliding Abby Wambach goal voided because of an offside call. After that, it was one American setback after another: Midfielder Lauren Holiday was issued a yellow card for a foul on Colombia, then midfielder Megan Rapinoe — the sort of player who seems to have the ball at her foot at all times — followed suit. For both women, it was the second yellow they’d been awarded during the tournament, which meant they were now automatically suspended for the next game.2 The Americans in the crowd grew subdued.
If there even were a next game, that is; Colombia had been connecting passes in the midfield in a way the Americans could not, and with each pretty sequence their supporters grew louder and stronger. Meanwhile, American fans were reduced to muttering about the FIFA fix being in.
In reality, though, it was 0-0, thanks again to a U.S. defensive corps that has allowed a lone goal all tournament and has ensured that goalie Hope Solo hasn’t really been tested. Alongside veterans like Becky Sauerbrunn, the back line featured 23-year-old breakout player Julie Johnston, who had, thanks to a succession of injuries on the roster, worked her way not only onto the squad but into a starring role. Just ask Tom Hanks.
Johnston’s boyfriend since college, Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, had been in Edmonton since Friday and was at the game with his mom. Both were trying to remain calm, but Ertz admitted before the match that he still hadn’t gotten used to being reduced to a helpless fan. In addition to her defensive responsibilities, Johnston, who runs upfield to contribute on set pieces, had nearly opened scoring in the 19th minute with a left-footed attempt that was blocked. “She’s gotta be up there in miles,” Ertz said, proudly. “You see that blonde ponytail running back on defense when there’s a change of possession. I always make fun of her because you can always point her out.”
A few minutes into the second half, it was brunette ponytails going flying when Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Perez came out to challenge Alex Morgan on a breakaway and wound up taking her out and picking up a red card. That meant three things: Perez was gone for the rest of the game, Colombia was docked an additional field player for the entirety, and the U.S. would take a penalty kick. Oh, and a fourth thing: The goalie coming in cold to defend it was a third-stringer, since Perez had been playing in place of Colombia’s usual starter, out serving a one-game suspension for accumulating two yellow cards.
Abby Wambach, presented with this gift, missed the goal frame altogether. Americans gasped, hands over their mouths, while Colombians vuvuzela’d and embraced. (The Canadian Guy Fieri, who had been up getting snacks, returned to his seat and quipped, “Did I miss anything?” A seam on his hair stuck out from under the visor: It was a wig, it turned out, and life was a lie.) Four minutes later, after a rare display of in-sync passing led to an off-footed Morgan goal, Wambach was the last to hang back with an arm around her teammate, giving her extra congratulations and, probably, a huge thanks.
In the 65th minute, Rapinoe, trying to make as much of an impact as possible in her final minutes before serving a one-game suspension, drew a yellow card on Colombia’s Angela Clavijo in the box and the USA earned a second spot kick. This time it was taken by Carli Lloyd, who converted for a more comfortable 2-0 margin. Despite the long odds now facing Colombia, their fans remained as loud as ever as the second half ticked away and the U.S. sat on its lead. One of the loudest cheers of the evening, a hearty Olé olé olé, came with just a couple of doomed minutes left on the clock.
Another sign inside the stadium managed to nod to both Jay Z and the USA’s last championship team. “I GOT ’99 PROBLEMS AND COLOMBIA AIN’T ONE,” it read. This turned out to be true, but recent history loomed large, which might explain why the celebration last night was timid at best. The defense had been great — once again, Hope Solo was essentially given the night off — but the midfield looked disheveled, the touches were uniformly sloppy, and the offense had trouble generating the sort of dynamic opportunities for which it used to be known.
Postgame complaints ranged from fan disbelief over head coach Jill Ellis’s stodgy lineup decisions — “I think Jill Ellis watched [Game of Thrones] and thought, ‘I like how that Stannis fellow sticks to a plan!’” is how one wag aptly put it on Twitter; former national team leader Michelle Akers went on the radio to similarly rip the coach — to Wambach whining over the calls that will leave both Holiday and Rapinoe on the sideline for the next game against China.3 It was hard to tell whether Wambach really meant it or was trying to deflect attention off the anemic offense and onto herself, but it wasn’t a promising look either way.
Incidentally, it was China that the USA defeated in 1999.
Still, as Julie Foudy pointed out, criticism can signify progress. The discussion around the women’s national team during this World Cup has been rife with the kind of frustration and second-guessing that demonstrates genuine sports investment. This is no longer a fan base populated by star-struck little girls in Hamm kits; it is one in which coed stakeholders rant and rave (the more ignorant rantings and ravings of certain sportswriters be damned) the way they would over, say, Zach Ertz’s Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s possible that an early U.S. exit in the tournament will give everyone — the media, the pundits, the rest of the world — plenty of fodder. But there’s also the chance that, absent two of her starting midfielders, Ellis will be forced to make some of the more creative lineup changes that many have started to agitate for. Either way, when Rapinoe was given relief near the 75th minute and subbed out of the game, she smiled and waved to the crowd for quite some time as she walked to the sideline. Who knows? It might have been a farewell. But she’s a confident player, and despite the setbacks, this remains an optimistic U.S. team. Most likely it was not a goodbye — it was just a “see ya later.”