Fans turn out in record numbers for U.S. Women's Team victory over New Zealand

CINCINNATI -- The story of Tuesday night was the return of the United States Women's National team, which dismantled New Zealand 5-0 in an international friendly before an emphatic, American flag-toting record crowd of 30,596 at Nippert Stadium.

The return of the women's national team, like so many other things in the Cincinnati soccer community in the past two years, was facilitated by host FC Cincinnati and enhanced by the Orange and Blue's wildly successful soccer presence in this town.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it's that this city is sold on soccer.

"That was amazing what we saw out there tonight in terms of intensity and just a fan base," national team coach Jill Ellis said.

U.S. star Alex Morgan, who scored two goals, seconded that on Twitter:

Other incarnations of professional soccer in the Queen City -- the Cincinnati Comets, Cincinnati Riverhawks, Cincinnati Kings, Cincinnati Silverbacks and Cincinnati Ladyhawks -- have come and gone. FC Cincinnati fandom has grown exponentially because of the organization's ability to tap into local soccer interest, present a successful product and build upon it.

It's no coincidence that, counting U.S. Open Cup matches, FC Cincinnati's regular-season home attendance total was 477,300 this season. That's better than two-thirds of Major League Soccer teams, and an impressive feat for a United Soccer League team.

"We've said all along that this is a major league sports city. It's a city that comes out and supports its pro teams, and we were convinced that if we built the franchise in an organic manner, the right way, the way fans want to see and support and be a part of it, we knew that the potential would be there to have this great soccer movement," FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said.

"We already knew this was a great soccer youth market, one of the best in the country. There was just never anything at the top end. We were just convinced that if we did it the right way, this soccer movement was there to build."

FC Cincinnati's movement has been focused on all soccer -- not just the men's sport -- with an eye for the future. That includes the Orange and Blue's Major League Soccer push and potential future appearances by both national teams. Thus, Tuesday's international friendly and FC Cincinnati were intrinsically related.

So how did the U.S. Women's National Team's return to Cincinnati come to fruition?

The Orange and Blue's sizzling debut season in 2016, complete with substantial fan support, caused many in the soccer world to take notice. FC Cincinnati expressed its interest in hosting the U.S. men or the U.S. women if an opportunity presented.

"We had a call from U.S. Soccer at some point earlier this year asking if we would be interested in hosting this friendly," Berding said.

The rest is history. But to even reach the point where FC Cincinnati was a viable product, the franchise had to combine a lot of key ingredients: A dedicated ownership, experienced management team, resources and a stadium to accommodate the initial push.

"We also needed a strong league where soccer was played at a high enough level to pass the credibility test, the eyeball test and…we had to build a relevant sports brand in the market. I define relevant as a winning brand, a family-friendly brand and a visible brand," Berding said.

The expectation for FC Cincinnati's inaugural season was to draw an average of 10,000 fans at home matches. The 2016 final average -- 17,300 -- exceeded that prognostication. Ditto for the 2017 numbers, as the expectation (20,000) was supplanted by a more robust reality (21,700).

Nippert has hosted two major soccer crowds in the last four days. FC Cincinnati's Saturday regular-season finale against New York Red Bulls II attracted a USL regular-season record of 30,417 while Tuesday's friendly drew the aforementioned 30,596 -- the most-ever in Ohio for a U.S. Women's National Team match.

It also was the biggest crowd this year for the U.S. Women's National team, and a contrast to its Sept. 15 international friendly against New Zealand in Denver. Team USA's 3-1 win fielded 17,301 fans.

Although supporters at Nippert wore a great deal of FC Cincinnati blue apparel, the resoundingly patriotic crowd was peppered with as much red and white. Fans waved signs like "Julie Ertz rocks!" and "It's my birthday and I want to meet Alex Morgan."

Mount Notre Dame and University of Wisconsin product Rose Lavelle was well-received in her hometown, and not just by her 230 friends and family members. One fan wielded a poster board with "Let's go Rose!" splashed across the front and another tossed a long-stemmed rose on the pitch. She was warmly greeted when she was introduced in the starting lineup.

Lavelle said she felt rusty in her first meaningful minutes back from a June injury but glad to get some touches on the ball in such an energized setting.

"It was so surreal. I got a little teary-eyed driving down and just seeing the atmosphere. It was so awesome," Lavelle said.

The soccer community's support included a glut of girls' youth and high school soccer teams. Middletown residents Tom and Priscilla Bennett were part of that contingent, as their daughters play for the Edgewood High School varsity team.

"This is our first real soccer game here. We follow the U.S. women's team. Our girls do, so we do," Tom Bennett said.

They were among those who witnessed Alex Morgan's two goals in the shut-out. Lindsay Horan, Mallory Pugh and Lynn Williams also scored in the victory.

The outing yielded a better combined crowd than the United States' last two trips to Cincinnati. A 2008 scoreless tie against South Korea at Paul Brown Stadium drew 5,877 fans and 2004 rout of New Zealand attracted 18,806 at the same stadium.

Although the national team appeals to a much broader geography than the local USL team, FC Cincinnati set the stage by harnessing the appetite of soccer fans and creating a ready-made soccer environment ripe for Tuesday's friendly. Fans' support helps FC Cincinnati, too, as the club makes a case for its own stadium and a MLS bid.

Ellis said the U.S. Women's National Team would be willing to play again in Cincinnati in the future. That would suit Lavelle just fine.

"This is incredible. I mean, they showed up. Cincinnati showed up, and I just feel like this is further testament to showing the country that this is a soccer city," Lavelle said. "And hopefully a good case to bring an MLS team here."

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