World Cup champs hope to make statement at Heinz Field
While it has been dubbed a victory tour for the U.S. Women's National Team, make no mistake. There still is work to be done.
That was the message from coach Jill Ellis on Saturday at Heinz Field, where her players took part in an hour-long practice in front of thousands of fans on the same field where they will play their first post-World Cup match at 1:30 p.m. Sunday against Costa Rica.
“With this program, and always trying to be at the forefront, you have to have one eye on the future,” Ellis said. “I think (the tour) is certainly a recognition and acknowledgement, not just for the players, but for the fans. … But it's a short window from the World Cup to the Olympics, and qualifiers are in February. Certainly, at the latter stages of the tour, we're going to be looking toward the future and to qualifying.”
Adding to the seriousness of the match is the fact the team begins with a pair of matches — Sunday's and Wednesday in Chattanooga, Tenn. — against Costa Rica, a team from its own continental confederation, CONCACAF.
“To me, this is an opportunity to make a statement,” U.S. defender and Richland native Meghan Klingenberg said. “They're one of the best teams in our region, and we're going to have to face them in February. To me, it's an opportunity to show the world and to show CONCACAF that we're not taking this lightly. We want to go after the gold in the Olympics.”
While hometown girl Klingenberg has been the star attraction this week, the mostly red, white and blue-clad fans at the training session could be heard shouting the names of all of their favorite players, from goalkeeper Hope Solo to World Cup Golden Ball winner Carli Lloyd.
This is the second time Pittsburgh has hosted a women's national team game, and the first, in 2003 against Iceland, was played in front of fewer than 7,000 fans. The crowd at the training session and the more than 40,000 tickets sold for Sunday shows the rise in the sport's popularity, and the victory tour is a chance for U.S. soccer to bring the team to new markets.
While places such as California, the Pacific northwest, New York/New Jersey and Texas hold established soccer markets, this tour includes matches in cities such as Detroit and Birmingham, Ala., which gives a new set of fans a rare chance to see the national team in action.
“I really love it. Often, we'll play in certain, populous cities, but I think it's so cool that we'll get the opportunity to play in front of fans who maybe have never seen us play but have supported us along the way,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said.
“I think it's really cool that we are going to places that we really haven't been to,” Lloyd said. “I've never been to Pittsburgh, and so far, it's an awesome city. I'm enjoying it, and that we've sold 40-some thousand tickets in a market we haven't been to, it's really going to help. It's going to spread the love everywhere, and the fans are going to get to see a good product on the field.”
All 23 members of the World Cup squad are on the team for the match in Pittsburgh, and only forward Sydney Leroux, who is recovering from ankle surgery, did not participate in practice Saturday. Solo and forward Alex Morgan practiced and are considered questionable for the match.