If you were at the Union-Everton game on Wednesday, you might have seen four people walking around in very brightly colored yellow soccer jerseys.
Those jerseys were not some sixth alternate kit that the Everton marketing people drew up to sell for the U.S. tour. They were being worn by players from the Philadelphia Independence, who got together to do a bit of face-to-face marketing for what has been the best team in Women’s Professional Soccer this season.
I’m sure some of you already knew that. But I also suspect that a fair number of you did not. My suspicion comes from simple math. Although WPS and its clubs aren’t always straightforward about reporting attendances, the Independence can only afford to rent the 4,000-seat Leslie Quick Stadium at Widener.
Independence owner David Halstead has said before that he wants the team to play in PPL Park, but that won’t happen until the club raises enough revenue consistently to be able to pay the rent on the other side of Chester.
But if there was ever a chance for WPS and the Independence to get attention on a wider scale, it is right now. It is not an overstatement to say that the recently-completed Women’s World Cup genuinely captured the nation’s attention, delivering record ratings on ESPN and traffic on a wide range of social media websites.
The first WPS game played after the World Cup final showed that a few sparks might be flying. A sellout crowd of over 15,000 fans in Rochester, N.Y. - not far from U.S. star Abby Wambach’s home town - watched the Western New York Flash beat the Boca Raton, Fla.-based MagicJack SC.
Brazilian midfielder Marta and U.S. forward Alex Morgan are on the Flash roster, while U.S. stars Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo are on MagicJack’s squad.
Unfortunately, not all of those stars actually played in the game. But the matchup generated enough buzz that Fox Soccer Channel picked it up for a national TV broadcast.
The Independence have their own trio of World Cup stars: forward Amy Rodriguez, midfielder Lori Lindsey and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart were on the U.S. roster, with Rodriguez getting major minutes on coach Pia Sundhage’s squad. Another Independence player, Natasha Kai, has 67 caps for the U.S. team, though she did not make the World Cup roster.
Kai was one of the four Independence players who came to PPL Park on Wednesday. You might have seen her banging the drum in the River End during the game.
Before the game, I chatted with Kai for a few minutes about the World Cup, and what it will take for women’s soccer to continue getting attention now that the World Cup is over.
What has it been like for you watching the attention that Women’s Soccer has received over the last few weeks?
I think it’s been great, not just with the U.S. doing so well, but women’s soccer around the world. For Japan to come back and prove everybody wrong is great for their team and their country, with all the devastation that they went through. And the U.S., with those come-from-behind victories and shootouts, I think it’s great for women’s soccer.
The World Cup championship game smashed ESPN’s ratings record for a soccer broadcast, and was the second-most watched daytime program in cable history, drawing almost 13.5 million viewers. Do you think Women’s Professional Soccer can capitalize on that attention?
We hope so. Our goal in the United States is to make WPS the best professional league in the world. With how many people watched the World Cup, that’s great, and we hope the WPS stays around for a couple more years, and that women’s soccer keeps growing.
A lot of countries that don’t have much history in women’s soccer played well at the World Cup - countries such as Mexico and France, and even smaller nations like Colombia and Equatorial Guinea. Did that surprise you?
A lot of those countries and players are so young. They just showed us how much talent they have. Everyone else around the world needs to be prepared for these countries, because they are an unknown. But it’s also great, because there is so much more talent around the world in women’s soccer.
I feel like that gets pushed to the side sometimes, but with the World Cup now and the Olympics coming up, it’s shining.
It seemed to me, and to a lot of other people that I’ve talked to, that ESPN presented the Women’s World Cup really as a soccer tournament, and not just as a women’s sports event. In the past, women’s sports has not always been presented that way. Do you agree with that, and do you think that made a difference in how the World Cup was received?
I totally agree with that. There was Title IX, but as women we also fight for what we believe in. We are trying to make a statement here, that we love the sport just as much as men do. We fight and play for what we love - that passion and desire. I wake up every morning and I feel grateful that I get to play soccer for a living.
I love the sport and I have a passion for it, and I love it here in Philadelphia. The fans are great, my teammates are beyond amazing, and the coaching staff is the best coaching staff that I’ve ever had in my life. When you are happy, you play happy soccer.
The Independence are in first place in WPS right now, and you’ve gotten there without Amy Rodriguez for the last few weeks. Obviously, all the clubs have been without their World Cup stars, but what does it say about your club that they are in first place given how the season has gone?
This team has been together since the beginning of March. Our coaching staff did a great job of recruiting players who have been here 24/7, when some of our players were gone during the World Cup. We needed to be on our ‘A’ game with those players gone, and we had players who stepped up off the bench.
It’s great for the players who were missing that they were fighting for our country, and we missed them a lot.
I know you know all those national team players very well. What was it like to watch the World Cup from here instead of being there?
I still root for them - they are my friends, and they did their best. It was hard seeing them come so close, but fail. I was once told by a coach that you can’t go into a game and have it in your head that you have already won the game. Japan kept fighting until the end, and they put away their penalty kicks when it counted. That’s why they are world champions right now.
Do you think you might get back into the national team rotation at some point? You were on the 2007 World Cup squad and the 2008 Olympics squad.
My heart and my passion, and my desire to play right now, are with the Philadelphia Independence. If I get a callup, I’m going to think about it, and if I don’t, that’s fine. I’m still here, and playing the happiest soccer I’ve been. So my main focus right now is with the Independence.