The atmosphere Sunday felt like any other soccer stadium. Fans holding their breath with every pass, chewing their nails, and sitting on the edge of their seats. It sounded much like what you’d hear at any local high school game, but these fans weren’t watching a game being played in front of them. The game was actually being played across the ocean, across time zones, some 4,000 miles away in Paris.
And the fans weren’t players’ parents, friends, or family. In fact, most of the fans in attendance were young enough to be their little sisters.
The Rives Theater in Uptown Martinsville opened their doors for every USA game in this year’s Women’s World Cup, streaming the games on the theatre’s former movie screen, as a free event to any local soccer fan who wanted something more than just watch the game in their home.
Sunday’s World Cup final between the US and the Netherlands brought about 40 fans to The Rives, and while there were some adults and older soccer fans, most in attendance were players themselves — young girls who have grown up with the US Women’s National Team, never knowing a time when the women in red, white, and blue didn’t dominate on the pitch.
Piedmont Youth Soccer League players Baylie Coleman, Annie Laine, Amanda Goad, Callie Ferguson, Camille Underwood, and Claire Warner Coleman, watched just about the entire World Cup tournament at The Rives together. During halftime of Sunday’s game, the six girls, all between the ages of 11-14, went into the lobby of the theatre and sat down on the couches, talking about the first half.
“Stressed,” “very stressed,” “really nervous,” were the prevailing thoughts among the girls heading into the second half. At that point, the US and Netherlands were deadlocked in a 0-0 tie, despite several near misses by the Americans.
“It’s very nerve-wracking because this is the first game they haven’t scored in the first 15 minutes,” Goad said.
While most other sports have one season every year, allowing fans the chance to see their favorite team play on a weekly or even nightly basis for months at a time, young fans who follow international soccer only get these moments once for two events — the World Cup and Olympics — both of which are only played every four years. The National Women’s Soccer League is slowing gaining in popularity, but it’s still far behind other professional sports leagues, and watching games and following teams and players can be difficult.
So young players take advantage of any chance they get to watch the best women’s soccer team in the world. They take notes, and choose favorite players — Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, and Alex Morgan were the popular choices among the PYSL players Sunday. They wear uniforms, and dream of maybe one day getting the chance to play on that same stage, or at least play for their own championship.
“They make it look really fun and it makes me want to be part of something like that with my team,” said 15-year-old Morgan Smith, who plays at Magna Vista.
“It’s just fun watching them go out there and play their game because it’s like you want to be out there too. It just makes you want to play and be out there with them,” said 17-year-old Allie Perez, who also plays at Magna Vista.
Wherever their own soccer careers lead, young players in the area relish any chance to get together and watch their favorite sport with friends. The atmosphere at The Rives was a huge draw, especially given what was at stake in Sunday’s championship.
“Everyone bonds together. Even if they’re from different schools we’re all playing together on club teams so we all get to hang out together and it’s really fun,” Smith said.
“It’s only a few Magna Vista girls here. Most of them are Bassett, so we all get to come together and watch the game and it’s just fun because we’re from opposite teams,” Perez said.
Rivals on the field came together with one goal in mind throughout the tournament – watch the US win another one. The American women have been a dominant force in international play for more two decades, winning World Cup titles in 1991, 1999, and 2015, coming into this year’s tourney as defending champs. They’ve also won Olympic gold in 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012. Much of that dominance came before a lot of the young players in Martinsville were even born. They never got the chance to see Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, or Mia Hamm. For them, all they know is this bunch led by Rapinoe and Morgan.
And they’re ride or die with their soccer heroes.
“I was at the pool when they played Spain, so when Megan Rapinoe scored the second PK I started running around the whole entire pool and I had to be told to stop running,” said Baylie Coleman, who wore a blue Alex Morgan jersey to Sunday’s watch party.
“Callie and I went to the bathroom and Amanda ran in and said, ‘There’s a PK! Get out here!’ and then we ran back,” Claire Warner Coleman said of the US win over Spain to make the tournament quarterfinals.
“Baylie screams every time they score,” said one of her teammates.
Every young PYSL player knew if the US found a way to score in the second half the entire theatre would go just as crazy. When video review proved a penalty in the 61st minute Sunday, a silence came over the crowd at The Rives as Rapinoe stepped to the line for a penalty kick. At this point, she’d been automatic, but even still, when the US captain easily put one in the net, faking out Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal for the first goal of the match, and what would ultimately be the goal that gave Rapinoe the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the tournament, the screams rang out loud in the theatre.
Eight minutes later, an even bigger roar came across when Rose Lavelle found her way past Netherlands defenders and put in a perfect strike to essentially put the game away.
The cheers were fewer when the final whistle blew. At that point, everyone had seen their heroes succeed, as expected. The most dominant team in the world did what they’ve been doing for years now.
Claire Warner Coleman still uses a soccer ball that says 2015 World Cup. Most young players in the area probably started closely following the US women’s national team around that same time.
Now they’ve seen two World Cup championships, and have big dreams of not only seeing more, but maybe even being a part of it someday.
“It kind of gives me something to work towards because I want to actually do it, so I know I can,” Underwood said.
Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.