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U.S. Victory Tour Atmosphere Shows Flashes Of English Soccer

PITTSBURGH -- In cities separated by an ocean but still known to many by the shared industrial might that defined their pasts, tens of thousands gathered Sunday for soccer.

In Manchester, England, they came for a game in which the result mattered.

In Pittsburgh it mattered that they came for a game in which the result meant nothing.

A few hours after 54,431 fans in England attended a Premier League game between Manchester City and Chelsea, a game that despite occurring in the second week of a new season promised long-term significance in the title race, a crowd of 44,028 fans came to Heinz Field in this Pennsylvania city not famed as one of this nation's soccer hotbeds.

The two sets of fans might not recognize each other, one predominantly young and female and the other, well, not, but they are what passion looks like.

The fans in Pittsburgh saw the United States rout Costa Rica 8-0 behind a hat trick from Christen Press, two goals from Heather O'Reilly and single goals from Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston and hometown favorite Meghan Klingenberg, who celebrated her strike with a "Terrible Towel" handed to her by her coach. But it wasn't the prospect of a win that brought people, not like in the World Cup final against Japan a little more than a month ago.

They came to celebrate a moment, and the team came to celebrate with them.

"As the games progress I think it will be more and more Olympic oriented," Press said of the 10-game tour that began here and builds toward Olympic qualifying and next summer's Games in Brazil. "Right now, especially the first two games, we're just here to celebrate. We're happy to be back together. There was a smile on everyone's faces. We had one practice, a quick meeting and here we are playing in front of 44,000 people."

Never before had so many people on U.S. soil attended a women's national team game that meant nothing and offered no second act. The only domestic crowds that were larger came during games in the 1999 and 2003 Women's World Cup or 1996 Olympics (in addition to an exhibition doubleheader with the men's national team in 1998).

Fans were already out in force more than two hours before the game, setting up tailgates and kicking soccer balls in parking lots or lining up to wait for the stadium gates to open as temperatures quickly climbed toward a forecast high of more than 90 degrees. A vendor with only a cardboard box for a stand, many blocks safely removed from an official merchandise tent adjacent to the stadium, hawked national team scarves with the less-than-convincing assurance that they were authentic. Traffic snaked around blocks as people waited to pay for parking what it not so long ago cost for a ticket to these games.

There are events in women's team sports that draw well, the Final Four in college basketball or a big game at a school like Connecticut, Louisville or Tennessee. But nothing else compares to this, something that felt closer to the Sundays experienced here during the NFL season.

Or like a game between Manchester City and Chelsea.

"I think certainly part of it is the team," United States coach Jill Ellis said of the atmosphere. "But I also think it's our sport. Now you look at MLS stadiums, and even these past few weeks since the World Cup, you look at stadiums where we have NWSL teams, there are fans out there and they want to be entertained."

Amid the celebratory atmosphere and a lineup that averaged 30.5 years of age, which was dictated as much as anything by spreading around minutes to those who didn't receive many in Canada, there were matters of genuine soccer consequence.

It took less than four minutes for the United States to take the lead Sunday. Pressing aggressively in the Costa Rican end, O'Reilly jumped on the sloppy square ball before it reached the feet of Daniela Cruz, took off toward goal and left goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz flatfooted with a shot to the near post. It was the first of many bright spots for O'Reilly, who turned 30 this past winter and barely played during the World Cup. She dominated the right flank and served multiple balls that could have been, and perhaps deserved to be, finished by teammates. Her second goal was partly a product of good fortune, the ball falling to her feet in front of an open goal after Press chipped a shot off the crossbar in the 60th minute, but it is also true that she still tirelessly chased a game long since decided to get in front of a Costa Rican defender to find that goal. Ellis called O'Reilly's performance "impactful," which is about as effusive as it was reasonable to expect.

Press' performance was similarly impressive. She scored one poacher's goal by cleaning up a mess in front of the net, but also finished two quality shots, one with power and one with finesse, and made a memorable 60-yard run with the ball that showed off both power and a second burst of speed, spoiled only by a cross at the end that drifted too close to the keeper. Playing as a true forward, even in a two-front less familiar to her than a three-front, seemed a more comfortable assignment suited to her immense skills than being shuffled out wide, as has often been the case with the national team. This is why Press, massive following notwithstanding, has only scratched the surface of her awaiting stardom.

For her, O'Reilly and many more, every minute on the field during the fall victory tour is an opportunity to earn an expanded role or even a place on the smaller Olympic roster.

"I think in specifics, it's just looking for players that are continuing to make an impact on the field," Ellis said. "Obviously, it's slightly different. You just evaluated players in pressure-cooker situations [in the World Cup]. You have that, and then this is a slightly different scenario. It's balancing all of that. It's a process for me to go through and looking at what our needs are and looking at who we want to continue to invest in."

But even those who best used to the day to their advantage were unwilling to make much of it.

"Especially these games right after the World Cup, we're here to celebrate the win, we're here to celebrate with our fans," O'Reilly said. "I think when we're loose and happy, good things come and people play well."

Defining precisely what this moment means may have as much to do with what happens in the Chicago suburbs Sunday night as what happened in Pittsburgh this afternoon. There, the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit will play a critical NWSL game without Press, Johnston and Lori Chalupny for Chicago, and Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger for Washington. As of Sunday afternoon, tickets remained available, although not in vast quantities at the small stadium. Bigger crowds and larger salaries in a stable professional league are the foundation needed to support a sport rather than merely a national team.

Which doesn't change just how impressive Sunday was in and around Heinz Field.

"When you walk out of the tunnel and you see that many people, that much red, white and blue," Press said, "you can't help but be reminded why you want to play this game."

The only other time the national team played at Heinz Field also occurred as part of a victory tour. Less than a month after Abby Wambach's 112th-minute goal against Brazil clinched gold in the 2004 Olympics, a crowd of just 6,386 showed up to watch the United States play Iceland in Pittsburgh.

Sunday was a celebration of change.

"I think that's what we all hope our legacy can be," Chalupny said. "[That] we left the game better than we came to it."