Print and Go Back News & Opinion [Print without images]

Saturday, July 16, 2011
Friends and family in the stands

By Michelle Smith

FRANKFURT, Germany -- Hope Solo was headed over to the goal for the penalty-kick phase of the team's quarterfinal match against Brazil. She was trying to clear her head before the biggest moment of her soccer career.

"As the goalkeeper you're told to go stand in your little corner off to the side, and it turned out to be the corner where the family and friends were," Solo said. "I felt their energy. I felt their love and their passion and it gave me so much confidence. I was away from my teammates and they were holding on to one another. I thrived off the support."

Friends and family. They have come to Germany; traveled around the country on buses; donned their red, white and blue clothing for each match; waited patiently for a short visit with their athletes and hung on to one another for dear life in the stands in what has been an exceedingly dramatic tournament run for the U.S. team.

"At one point [during the Brazil game] I thought my husband was having a heart attack," said Carol O'Reilly, mother of midfielder Heather O'Reilly. "He sat and put his head down and I said 'Are you OK?' and he didn't answer me right away."

It turned out he was fine. But these games can be tough on loved ones.

Debbie Christopher is going through this experience for the first time. Her daughter, Ali Krieger, is a first-time World Cup participant. She converted the winning penalty kick in the match against Brazil.

"Denise Rapinoe and I have been holding on to each other with every single shot," said Christopher, referring to the mother of midfielder Megan Rapinoe. "You're jumping up and down and hugging people behind you who you don't even know. People must think we're crazy."

No, just parents and loved ones of the athletes. Some family members have taken vacation time from work or swapped shifts with co-workers. Others have come in and out of Germany depending on work schedules.

Christopher is a physical education teacher at an all-girls parochial high school in Miami. She checked her e-mail for the first time in a while Friday afternoon and found 96 e-mails from her students congratulating the family on the team's accomplishments.

Christopher has been in Germany for nearly a month, joined by a rotation of family and friends.

Rita Cheney, meanwhile, has been in Germany since July 5, before the quarterfinal round. She was in a restaurant near Indianapolis with the rest of the lunch crowd watching the first U.S. game in the tournament June 28 in Dresden when her daughter, Lauren, scored the first World Cup goal of her career against North Korea.

"I was screaming and crying and it was pretty surreal to experience it that way," Cheney said.

The Cheney entourage includes Lauren's parents, her aunt, her boyfriend, NBA guard Jrue Holiday and his cousin. The O'Reillys' group has been as large as nine, but is down to seven heading into the final game.

"We are all getting a little tired at this point," Carol O'Reilly said. "I can only imagine what it's like for the girls, because they've been here longer. But Heather is as used to this as she can be."

There are nearly 100 family members and friends in the team's traveling party.

USA Soccer has a special itinerary set up for the "Friends and Family" group during the tournament, with arrangements ultimately paid for by the family members when they return home after the tournament.

They stay in a separate hotel from the team, ride together to the games on buses, go on organized tours and share meals and time with their athletes when the team comes over for visits and immediately after games. The federation also provides liaison staff to work with the families on logistical matters like tickets, transportation and travel arrangements.

The arrangement leaves athletes and the people who have come to see them play with the freedom to spend time together -- however limited that time may be.

Carol O'Reilly said over the past three weeks, she's probably spent a total of five hours with her daughter.

Ali Krieger said it's difficult to carve out time with the people who have come so far to watch her play.

"They understand that this is a big tournament, that you've just got to deal with it," Krieger said. "We have to find time to hang out with them whenever we can between meetings and massages and training and media. It's tough. Most of the time, they come to us. But it's nice to get out of the hotel and get your mind way from football a little bit."

Players and their families typically stick close to the hotel, sit, relax and chat.

"We just do restful things," Rita Cheney said. "She doesn't want to go walking around or anything. Usually we just have something to eat and relax."

Former national team member Julie Foudy said she always remembered her time with friends and family at a big tournament as a "de-stressor."

"It's nice. Obviously, you aren't going sightseeing with them; you're having coffee or sitting in the lobby," Foudy said. "But it's good to have an hour to sit and chill and catch up, because it's exciting for them to be able to share their stories with you. I think it's important to have that balance.

"Teams that lock their players up and really limit their ability to enjoy their surroundings, they don't do as well."

Cheney admitted that she's had an emotional experience watching her daughter and her teammates reach the World Cup final.

"I'm an emotional kind of gal anyway," Cheney said. "I cry at the national anthem, just watching them run out on to the field to play. It's been incredibly intense. You think you're having a mini heart attack and there are tears at the same time. I feel like you can take any experience you've had as a parent and multiply it by 100."

Christopher said she finds herself thinking back to the days when she would take her daughter to youth soccer tournaments and sit with the other parents on the sidelines.

"You wait your whole life for something like this," Christopher said. "I didn't know any of these parents when we got here -- I think I'd met the Wambachs once. But you are thrown into this situation and we are all living together. We've got extended family here, aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and they've all been doing the same thing you've been doing for 20 years.

"It's unbelievable, and USA Soccer has really taken care of the families. I'm just in awe. It's so amazing to sit in the stadium with all these people and you just feel like you're a part of something. There's all the American flags and the people with their faces painted, and I'm thinking, 'Just pinch me.'"