It wasn't so much the crowd of 16,805 at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday that said women's soccer is back in style, though that was part of it. The telltale sign was actually the before and after.
Before, meaning Friday at the training workout. Around 2,000 fans, many of them screaming pre-teens, waited along the railing and called for autographs, hoping for a quick snapshot. There was one guy – decidedly older and manlier than the teeny-bopper crowd – who held a hand-made poster that said, "Hey, Alex Morgan, this is crazy, but here's my number. Call me maybe."
Yeah, America's top scorer is sure to do that.
Again on Saturday, several thousand fans waited, cheering every move after a 2-1 U.S. Women's National Team win over Canada.
"Salt Lake City fans are special," said forward Abby Wambach, who stayed long after the game to sign autographs. "They get the game."
Or at least they get the concept: If you're young, sporty and have a smart phone, you love this stuff.
So the stars are back in soccer. The initial wave came when the U.S. Women won the 1999 World Cup. You know the moment. The penalty kick. The sports bra. Brandi Chastain pulling off her jersey like a butterfly shedding its cocoon.
Now they're back, bigger (physically) and better (theoretically). Following Saturday's winning goal by Amy Rodriguez in the 85th minute, players charged into the corner and made pretend snow angels in the grass. That was in reference to March 2010, when they did the same in real snow at Rio Tinto.
"We talked about that earlier," Rapinoe said. "Last time we did it here, it was a little bit more fitting, but it was pretty funny."
Asked whether she preferred snowy cold games or 100-degree heat, Rapinoe said "Heat. I prefer heat."
Yeah, well, USA soccer seems to bring plenty of that.
For a long time, it looked like Canada would do all the scoring. America got an own goal in the 15th minute when Carmelina Moscato deflected a shot past her own keeper. After Melissa Tancredi scored a powerful goal to tie the score 1-1, it looked as though the Americans would have to settle.
But Rodriguez countered from close range as the game grew short, after which the grass-angeling and "USA!" chanting began in earnest.
If a slightly jingoistic day, it was that sort of event, a final warm-up for the Olympics. Hence, when the American team was introduced, the announcer boomed: "And NOW, today's starting lineup for the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!"
Not USA. Not Americans. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!
Take that, Celine Dion.
Indeed, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA did control possession and aggression, outshooting Canada 19-4 and launching six more shots on goal.
Meanwhile, kids by the hundreds chanted "Alex Morgan! Alex Morgan!" repeatedly.
That didn't die down until Morgan left in the second half, following a collision.
And though it was partially a kiddie crowd, this isn't a kiddie team. Steeled by international competition, ranked No. 1 in the world, the Americans long ago passed the days of Juicy-Juice and owies.
These people are out for blood.
Speaking of World Cup revenge, that will have to wait. After America lost its emotional shootout with Japan a year ago in the championship game, life has been nothing less than a crusade. Even this week, when asked whether last July's bitter loss was something "you've forgotten about," goalkeeper Hope Solo said, "Um, no. I'm not about to forget about last summer. It is motivation."
And so the Americans look toward the Olympics in London, having gained a result against Canada for the 26th straight time. How nice for them. But the real prize is Japan, which Team USA finally beat 4-1 recently in Sweden after losing or tying in three previous tries.
If the USWNT isn't yet vindicated, you couldn't tell by the Rio Tinto crowd. USA shirts, face-paints and Uncle Sam hats were everywhere. Long lines packed the merchandise booths. Acknowledging the audience of squeaking girls and ebullient adults on Friday, coach Pia Sundhage labeled her team "the very best role models in the world."
She went on to say she was truly impressed with the attendance at a practice.
"That didn't happen back in the good old days," she said.
But it happened on Saturday, after the game, all over again.
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