Heather O’Reilly moved back to Chapel Hill last year, where she starred for North Carolina and her husband played lacrosse. That made Wednesday’s appearance for the United States against Switzerland at WakeMed Soccer Park officially a home game for the star midfielder.
“I’ve made this my home base,” said O’Reilly, who entered the game as a substitute in the 66th minute. “I couldn’t be more happy to be back here in Cary, playing in a fantastic stadium like this.”
It isn’t just an adopted home for O’Reilly, who is originally from New Jersey. The Triangle has become an adopted home for women’s soccer, as the frantic rush for tickets to Wednesday’s game illustrated.
They sold out in two days last month, all 10,000 tickets gone weeks ago – and the real news was that it wasn’t even all that newsworthy. It was entirely expected.
“And that’s good news,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “That’s where we hope to be, right? From here we can only continue to grow.”
Nowhere has the game grown more than here. Starting with the women’s soccer dynasty at North Carolina, continuing through the days when the Carolina Courage was a model franchise in the ill-fated WUSA, including the successful hosting of six NCAA Women’s College Cups at WakeMed, the Triangle has always been particularly fruitful territory for the women’s game. Wednesday’s comfortable 4-1 win over Switzerland was certainly savored and appreciated.
“You can definitely feel the enthusiasm,” said Megan Rapinoe, whose 3rd-minute goal opened the scoring. “Driving up the stadium, people were already going nuts. That doesn’t get lost on us.”
The United States last played here in May 2011, a World Cup warm-up match against Japan that turned out to be a preview of the eventual final in Germany, which the Japanese won on penalty kicks.
An announced crowd of 5,323 came out for that one despite a pregame soaking that discouraged. Wednesday’s crowd of 9,992 was the fourth-largest to see a women’s soccer game in North Carolina and the largest to see the Women’s National Team.
At Tuesday’s open practice, hundreds of kids and their parents stood in line outside the stadium an hour before the team even took the field. A similar line awaited Wednesday’s opening, with a mad rush for the merchandise stand as soon as the gates opened and a boisterous crowd that was quickly rewarded by Rapinoe’s early strike as well as Christen Press’ stunning volley off the crossbar for the third American goal.
That helped push the final score to what fans have come to expect. As World Cup finalists in 2011 and Olympic champions in 2012, the U.S. team continues to try to capitalize on the momentum that started building with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
“The population, they like winners, and we tend to trend in that area,” Wambach said. “It’s a feel-good, but the work isn’t done yet. If we bring home the World Cup in 2015, we’ll see even more popularity growth in and around the game. That’s our goal, not just winning, but affecting positive change.”
While the professional league never took hold, the Women’s National Team continues to be a draw, especially here. This was the Women’s National Team’s sixth visit to Cary. Given the level of interest, it presumably will not be long before it returns. O’Reilly, now personally invested in such things, has even bigger ideas.
“Hopefully we can get a women’s professional team down here to Cary,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big dream of mine, bring back the Courage. We’ll see.”