U.S. women’s national soccer team has ‘friendly’ party in Charlotte in front of 30,000

Young Charlotte soccer stars get one-on-one time with world champs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - If Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper gets his way, Bank of America Stadium will look like it did Thursday night a lot more often.

Three days before a Panthers home game, the field was transformed into a soccer pitch, with the U.S. women’s national team playing a “friendly” against South Korea before a family-oriented crowd that came out to cheer on a school night. Red, white and blue was everywhere, and 30,071 fans almost entirely filled the lower bowl of the stadium as the U.S. defeated South Korea, 2-0.

Although the crowd was loud in volume and respectable in number - it wasn’t the most fans on this “Victory Tour” for the American champions, nor was it the fewest - that won’t be the determining factor one way or the other in Tepper’s quest to lure a Major League Soccer expansion franchise to Charlotte to share the stadium with the Panthers.

That will come down to money, as such things always do.

In the meantime, Thursday was a lot of fun as the most famous team in women’s soccer played a game in Charlotte for the first time in 19 years.

That previous contest, in 2000, was a real downer — a 0-0 tie against an Iceland team that the U.S. should have beaten badly, in front of a crowd of only 10,315.

This time, in front of a crowd three times as large, the U.S. did more of what it was supposed to against South Korea, the 20th-ranked team in the world. If you call it a “Victory Tour,” after all, you better emerge victorious. It was the U.S. team’s 17th straight win.

As U.S. coach Jill Ellis said before the game: “Hopefully, there will be a party on the stands and one on the field as well.”

And mostly it was a party in what was Ellis’s next-to-last game as the U.S. coach - although if the Americans didn’t hit the post or crossbar every 10 minutes and instead found the back of the net more often, it would have been a bit rowdier. “We could have finished a few more,” Ellis allowed, “but coaches always say that.”

Ellis will step down after five-plus years, following a final exhibition game against South Korea in Chicago on Sunday.

Although standout striker Alex Morgan didn’t play in Charlotte due to a knee injury, plenty of other stars like Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz and Carli Lloyd did.

“A lot of these people didn’t come to France to get to watch us play,” Rapinoe said before the game, referring to the team’s gold-medal World Cup run. “So it’s sort of a thank-you, to put on a show for the fans. … It’s fun for us. Everybody gets to play and, obviously, give back to the fans. So it’s pretty cool.”

As for the game: the players flew into Charlotte from various places, as most are nearing the end of the U.S. women’s pro league season.

The U.S. looked somewhat disjointed for the match’s first 44 minutes, controlling the ball but misfiring on a number of opportunities. But then, after a foul just before halftime, Rapinoe curved a beautiful free kick into the box, and midfielder Allie Long finished it on the move from about 5 yards out for the game’s first score. “It was just a perfect service,” Long said.

The U.S. added a second goal in the 76th minute to take a 2-0 lead on a well-placed header by Mallory Pugh, also off an assist from the purple-haired Rapinoe, who left the game to wild cheers moments later.

In terms of attendance, the Charlotte game ranked third-highest of the four games so far on the U.S. tour. The crowd drew high marks from the U.S. players and coaches.

“It was awesome,” Long said. “On a Thursday, when it’s 90 degrees, I didn’t know what to expect. But it was lively. The game got a little slow at times and they kind of gave energy to it, so it was awesome to see.”

Ellis, who became the winningest coach in the U.S. national team’s history with the win, said of the crowd: “It was an amazing turnout.”

The five-game “Victory Tour” began in California at the Rose Bowl, where 37,040 came. A crowd of 19,600 sold out a smaller, soccer-specific venue in St. Paul, Minnesota. And 49,504 — the largest crowd for a “friendly” in USWNT history — showed up in Philadelphia.

Soccer games in Charlotte have drawn more than that several times, including as recently as June when a Gold Cup doubleheader featuring the extremely popular Mexican men’s national team drew a crowd of 59,283.

An MLS team in Charlotte would need a number of upgrades to a stadium that was built primarily for football. A center tunnel and additional locker rooms would be required. The team itself would need a headquarters and a training facility in Charlotte.

A decision on additional MLS expansion and whether it includes Charlotte could be coming in a matter of months, depending on the negotiations between Tepper and the league and also Tepper and the city of Charlotte. The Observer has reported that Tepper may ask Charlotte for up to $215 million toward Bank of America Stadium renovations and other costs associated with acquiring an MLS team.

In the meantime, Thursday was a lot of fun. Did the women tear up the field? No. As Panthers coach Ron Rivera had joked prior to the game, he wasn’t worried about that, since the USWNT fielded a lot of “110-pound players” and his team had a passel of 300-pounders.

Rivera attended the game, as did a number of Panthers players.

“Obviously, they are trying to get that MLS team,” Rapinoe said of Charlotte. “That would be great. Charlotte seems to be an up-and-coming city. You need more than just football and basketball, right? A little more diversity in the sports would be nice.”

David Tepper couldn’t agree more.

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