The line of cars backed up behind the exit off interstate 435 to State Road. The gorgeous Livestrong Park was in sight - so close yet so far away. I had close to an hour to make the kickoff but looking at the cars inching off the exits, down State Rd. and into the different parking lots let me know that I had little hope. I had driven through this kind of traffic yesterday morning in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, as the town prepared for a Huskers game at home. But this was a women's soccer game. Was I dreaming?
Nope, I wasn't. I ran from my parking spot into the stadium, estimating that it was approximately three-quarters of a mile jog. I could hear the crowd erupt for each player on the U.S. roster as they were announced in the starting lineup.
Is this how it should go for these superstars? Yes, but I'll never take it for granted. What should happen is not always a luxury we get to enjoy.
A strong and rowdy section of rabid soccer fans led the rest of the stadium in multiple, well-organized chants throughout the game and consoled players with missed shots or slip-ups on the slick turf by chanting their name as if they've just scored instead.
In the sixth minute, Abby Wambach was scaring the Canadian defense in the box after being fed by Heather O'Reilly, but she missed a solid touch and Canadian defender Emily Zurrer, who should have been named Defensive Player of the Game if they gave out that award, was called for a handball after scrambling to get between the ball and the goal.
Wambach, a study in sports psychology, volunteered to take the penalty kick without hesitation. She set the ball in place, back up several steps and hunched down to stare at - or at least appear to stare at - the ball. The big screen focused on her intensely focused stare. Then in one motion she glided to the ball and placed it neatly into the left corner, leaving Canadian keeper Erin McLeod diving the other way.
The crowd was deafening and on their feet. It was later announced that the attendance was 16,171 in a stadium capable of holding about 18,000. That many people can make a lot of noise.
The rest of the first half consisted of the U.S. dominating the offense but missing shots wide or above the goal, much like the first half of the World Cup final. Canada struggled to put together solid runs of possession and relied on their defenders to put out many fires, but they certainly were having a stronger showing than they did this summer, where they failed to advance out of the Group Stage. The team has undergone a coaching change since then, and certainly they have plenty of fuel left for the fire, having not used it much in Germany.
Megan Rapineo #15 of USA and Carmelina Moscato #4 of Canada © Kyle Rivas/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Near the end of the first half, the Canadian women seemed to be connecting with each other a bit better, and Kelly Parker flicked the ball into some open space for Melissa Tancredi to run onto, take a few touches to beat Christie Rampone and place the ball into the net out of Hope Solo's reach.
"It wasn't the best defense on all of our parts, mine included, but we've had time off and it's a new system. Decision-making in the defense is difficult because we don't know our roles in the midfield. But it's been 3 days. You can see the flair in the attack at times."
That new system Solo was referring to is exactly that - a fancier formation of 4-2-3-1 that Coach Pia Sundhage had the team working on in the 48 hours leading up to this first of two friendlies against Canada. The system is an upgrade from the traditional 4-4-2, which the U.S. has been successful with, but as Solo noted, "In order to keep winning medals, we have to build on our power and strength with a more sophisticated attack."
Coach Sundhage elaborated on the testing and tweaking of the system and her thoughts on its effectiveness in tonight's game. "They're coming off a break and they weren't sharp, but what we're trying do is tweak the system a bit but keep consistent the style. There will be a lot of practices to see if we try to change the system a little bit or if we go back to 4-4-2, because we know we can play 4-4-2."
The formation could prove difficult for defenses to handle, with three feeders for the lone striker offering multiple run options. But the U.S. will need to work on their own defense, particularly in the back midfield, where holes on the outside could be dangerous.
The game ended in a 1-1 tie, taking some of the joy of the fantastic Kansas City reception from the U.S. players, who certainly wanted to take home a solid win. But the hard-fought tie was maybe a bit of redemption for Canada, who will look to avenge their World Cup disappointments in London next summer. It will be interesting to see how far the U.S. can come with their new system in a week, as the two teams will face off again in Portland, Oregon, on September 22.
Portland has a lot of work to do to match Kansas City's enthusiasm and numbers.
"They said it was loud and when everyone gets rockin', it is pretty loud here," said Megan Rapinoe of the Livestrong Stadium.
"We won the gold medal in 2008 but the impact we had in 2011 when we won silver was that much more incredible. You never know when you're going to get the chance to give your sport more exposure. This is what a soccer game should feel like in America," added Hope Solo.
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