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The U.S. women's soccer team won its third consecutive match Tuesday night, beating North Korea 1-0 and finishing undefeated in group play for the first time since the women's game was added to the Olympics in 1996.
But that's not why these women made history. That happened before they even scored a goal.
According to Olympic officials, the only other women's match played at Old Trafford, the 102-year-old stadium that has been home to Manchester United all those years, was the 1989 Women's FA Cup between club teams Leasowe Pacific and Friends of Fulham FC and possibly a Norway-England friendly in the early 1990s. But this USA-North Korea Olympic match was the first international women's tournament game contested in the Theater of Dreams.
Fewer than 1,000 fans attended that FA Cup match in '89. By comparison, Team USA ran out to the cheers of 29,522 predominantly red-white-and-blue clad fans, many of them young local girls who are falling in love with the game that was once banned in stadiums like Old Trafford.
"In order to grow women's soccer, we need these big moments when the spotlight shines on our game," said forward Abby Wambach, the only player who walked out of Old Trafford knowing what it feels like to score a goal on such hallowed turf. "That's how we will attract the attention of not only soccer fans, but people outside of soccer. Today, 30,000 people watched our game. I'm hearing there were 70,000 watching at Wembley. I hope some of the owners of programs around here take notice and start putting money into their women's programs."
|The U.S. women's soccer team celebrates after its historic victory over North Korea on Tuesday.|
If any of those owners were in attendance Tuesday, they would certainly take notice that there is no shortage of spirit for the women's game. In the stands, for every Wayne Rooney jersey, there was a Megan Rapinoe jersey; for every Alan Stubbs, a Hope Solo. At minute 14, a wave flowed through the stadium, making it around three times before slowly fading in front of the media section.
When Wambach scored the only goal off a brilliant pass from Alex Morgan, a group of young girls wearing red, white and blue, guitar-shaped sunglasses and white shirts they'd decorated with "Go USA!" jumped up and down, high-fiving in celebration.
"We love the American team!" they shouted in unison, in thick British accents.
All four girls -- Jordan, Tamzin and twins Chloe and Caitlin -- play for their primary school team in South Wales and spent their pregame hours designing their sparkly shirts, dying their hair red and holding still while their dad painted American flags on their faces.
"We love football, too!" they added.
They just don't have the same opportunity to play as their American counterparts. At least not yet. The game is growing in Great Britain, but it has to make up ground lost during the 50 years -- from 1921 to 1971 -- when the women's game was banned by the FA because, according to the edict, "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." But in the past 40 years, the women's game steadily had grown, deemed quite suitable by parents and daughters alike.
That growth has much to do with Great Britain's national team -- as well as their star breakout player Kelly Smith, the UK's version of Mia Hamm -- and the success of the American team.
"Team GB, they are putting themselves in a position to grow the game and I am proud to be here, to be a part of it, to witness it," Wambach said. "Hopefully Team GB can keep the momentum going and remain in the tournament to keep the excitement for their home country."
Team GB scored an important victory of its own Tuesday, upsetting Brazil 1-0 at Wembley.
"The women's game has coming a long way," U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "We should be packing stadiums and playing on the best fields. We have a long way to go, but it's a good start."
At halftime of the game, sisters Mia, 9, and Sophie, 6, were draped in American flags and carrying "Go USA" signs as they stood in the concession area with their parents, Shirley and Gareth Rawling. Shirley Rawling, a phys ed teacher in Wales, and Gareth are starting a club team for girls ages 6-10 in their hometown.
"We don't have great facilities and there isn't a lot of opportunity, but the girls want to play," Gareth Rawling said of his daughters. "Me girls love football, and I want them to play."Added Shirley: "It's changing, but the feeling here still is if you want to be successful in girls' football, you have to go to the States."
With those words, Sophie tugged at her mom's pant leg, clearly unhappy with what she had just said.
"One day," Sophie said quietly, "I'm gonna play on that pitch."
That, indeed, is the goal.