April 10, 2009

Athletica vs. Red Stars - The Opening Day Experience

When you are a fan of a new franchise in a new league, you wonder exactly what to expect on opening match day. Just like the team and the league, the fans are feeling their way. I was lucky enough to experience the opening match between Saint Louis Athletica and the Chicago Red Stars at Korte Stadium on the campus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. The stadium is located about 15 miles from downtown St. Louis.

Except for the wind, the weather was perfect and I arrived 3 hours before the match to meet my friends from Laclede's Army, a supporter's group for Saint Louis Athletica. After we found a place to tailgate, more of our fans started arriving. Just among our group, there were people coming in from North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Columbia, Missouri. It was great to see this kind of support for the team from different parts of the country. One of the largest contingents was the Inferno, a group of FC Dallas supporters that drove up to St. Louis for the game. The conversation was enjoyable and they gave us valuable input on chants that we could use for the game.

By 6:00, an hour before the game, the main parking lot had filled up and fans were diverted to another parking lot down the road. It wasn't long before we saw dozens of fans making their way across the surrounding practice fields. Our group marched into the stadium about 20 minutes before game time, but there were still people coming into the stadium well after the match had started.

The announced attendance for the game was 5008, a sellout. The bleachers weren't quite full, but many fans chose to stand around the sides of the field rather than find a seat. Soon, the chants and drumming began. Our friends from Dallas lent their assistance, both with the content of the chants and the volume of their voices. Another Athletica fan group, Verde Azul, also made their voices heard behind the Red Star goal. To our right, a fairly large group of Red Star fans had their flags waving. The crowd was given thundersticks and the mood was festive as a Latin band played in the corner to our left.

After a scoreless 1st half, I made my way around to the far corner of the field for a little different angle. Although, there is a track between the main bleachers and the field at Korte Stadium, the rest of the bleachers are within a few feet of the pitch. You could almost reach out and touch players attempting a throw in.

Much to the disappointment of the home crowd, Lindsay Tarpley scored in the 78th minute, giving the visiting Red Stars a 1-0 victory. Although the result was not what they had hoped, many of the enthusiastic crowd stuck around afterwards for autographs and the players very graciously obliged. The Red Stars acknowledged the crowd, trotting over to two different sections of Chicago supporters. Athletica players signed autographs for 20 minutes or more after the game. One group of Saint Louis players actually did 5 minutes of windsprints before coming over to sign autographs.

One of our Dallas friends had made up a sign for the game, "Hope, Will You Marry Me?" and Solo actually wrote "Yes" and signed "Hope Solo #1". Laclede's Army president Elizabeth White gave Hope one of our scarves, which she happily threw around her neck and continued signing. Team officials finally had to pry her away from her fans, who were serenading her to the tune "We've Got the Best Goalie in the World", so that she could do a post-game interview.

And that's one of the reasons I admire these players so much. Unlike many professional leagues, where the game sells itself, these players have had to go out of their way to promote themselves and their league. I don't know how many public appearances they have made in the past few months, but at the ones I have attended, they have always been friendly and accommodating. Here is a group of very young women, many just out of college, who not only have to worry about doing their job and competing on the field, but also have to play a big part in promoting the game off the field. In my opinion, they are doing a wonderful job.

Next up, Athletica travels to Harvard Stadium to take on the Boston Breakers on Saturday. I will not be able to make the trip and the game is not being televised, so like other Athletica fans, I will be glued to my computer for information about the match.

Both teams are coming off tough losses in their first game. It will be the home opener for Boston, who lost last week at FC Gold Pride 2-1, on a late goal by Tiffeny Milbrett. The Breakers are led by English National Team player Kelly Smith, American veteran Kristine Lilly, and #1 overall draft choice Amy Rodriguez. It should be a great game.


Anonymous said...

Nice work, and the blog layout is looking good.

Go Boston!