SANDY — Having rolled to yet another World Cup championship, America’s favorite soccer team broke up the party this week so players could get back to their day jobs. It has been a while since U.S. Women’s National Team members were available for NWSL duty.
For the Utah Royals, that means Friday’s match with Portland will include the return of Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press. It also means the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium should be both large and enthusiastic.
The trick is to keep it that way.
That will always be the challenge.
Maybe this year soccer fever will resonate throughout the National Women's Soccer League. Heaven knows the game has been visible, as the American women recently won their second consecutive World Cup and fourth overall. There are plenty of encouraging signs. Replica jersey sales are soaring. Players are appearing on late night talk shows. It’s virtually impossible to ignore them.
Remember the over-celebrating after each of their 13 goals against Thailand? What about the teacup mime versus England? The Trump shading?
Meanwhile, player revenue has been a daily discussion.
Clearly this is a complex and vocal team. When a reporter on Wednesday asked O’Hara about the perceived American arrogance, she delivered the understatement of the year.
“We are really, really good.”
Wednesday’s press conference at Rio Tinto with Sauerbraunn and O’Hara was a long time coming, considering the FIFA event ended nearly two weeks ago. But when you’re the best, there are repeated curtain calls. Did they celebrate too much in annihilating Thailand? Of course. Did they saturate the games with their politics? Yes, but that’s now standard in sports.
Athletes have as much right as anyone to their opinions.
Theirs just happen to influence millions. Alex Morgan, for example, has four million Twitter followers.
“But we also are humble,” O’Hara said.
Naturally, one of the questions was about how Salt Lake stacks up as a soccer city.
“I think from the get-go, it’s been really great,” Sauerbrunn said. “And I think if we can keep growing and adding more people to come see us play over the weekend, I think that would be wonderful.”
Drawing fans to regular season NWSL games has been a league-wide concern. Portland is by far the most popular team. This season the Thorns’ average attendance is a boisterous 18,267, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. But the rest of the league averages only 4,665.
Last year, the Thorns drew nearly one-third of the entire league’s attendance.
Yet Utah does comparatively well. The Royals are the second-most attended team in the league, averaging 10,790 this year. That’s twice as many as No. 3 North Carolina. Last place Sky Blue FC is attracting only 1,501 per game.
Having notables such as O’Hara, Sauerbrunn and Press surely plays into Utah’s numbers. At the same time, growth is an ongoing process. It has been 15 years since icons Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain retired. Hope Solo hasn’t played since 2016. With current superstars Megan Rapinoe and Morgan leading the way, the American women are the still world’s most visible team. Yet transferring that momentum to NWSL success has been a struggle in most markets. Solo worried in a July 8 column for The Guardian that more money needs to be funneled into the domestic league.
“I think as individual players, we have platforms and followers that maybe the league doesn’t have quite yet,” Sauerbrunn said. “So I think it’s important for us to promote the league in the best way possible.”
Along with international success comes criticism. Some of it has to do with the national team’s strong political statements. Other has involved the Americans’ swagger.
“I think it’s unfair to misconstrue self-belief with arrogance,” Sauerbraunn said. “If the outside world sees that as arrogance, I think that’s unfortunate. Because to us, it’s self-belief.”
By the time Sauerbrunn and O’Hara had reached Salt Lake, the celebrating had mostly run its course. But apparently it doesn’t get old. The USWNT has won four of the last six Olympic gold medals. O’Hara said playing in the Olympics and the World Cup are “different” except for one thing.
“Gold is gold,” she said.
That’s also what the Royals are shooting for as they head into Friday’s match with league-leading Portland. With 13 games left, they are 5 points out of first. Expect a healthy crowd for Friday’s match. The larger question is whether the entire NWSL can carry the World Cup momentum forward. If this year’s national team stars can’t generate it, no one can.