Canada prepares to throw the summer’s biggest soccer party
There's a snarky way to write this piece, and there's a not-so-snarky way to write this piece. So let me get the snark out of the way first.
Yes, the organizing committees in the six Canadian cities that will be hosting Women's World Cup games are well aware that they are about to be besieged by swarms of invading Americans.
And yes, they're happy to have you.
It's no secret that thousands of U.S. women's national team fans will be crossing the border next month to watch the World Cup in person. Over the last few weeks, I've talked with event organizers about what they're expecting, and about what fans heading north should expect.
Let's start with Vancouver, which will host the U.S.' group stage finale against Nigeria on June 16 and the championship game on July 5.
During my recent trip there to cover the Union-Whitecaps game, I spent a fair amount of time talking to local officials about their preparations for next month's spectacle.
Many of you know that Vancouver's love affair with soccer goes back decades. So do its rivalries with Seattle and Portland, as you've seen since the three cities joined Major League Soccer.
Vancouver's support for the sport extends to the women's game as well. Over 40,000 tickets have been sold for the United States' group stage finale against Nigeria at 54,000-seat BC Place on June 16. The final, at the same venue, is already sold out.
"Soccer is our most popular field sport by far," city councillor and deputy mayor Andrea Reimer told me. "Being a country of immigrants, we have a lot of people who immigrate here from soccer-obsessed countries, and they're very excited to see that not only are the boys playing, but the girls play right alongside them and have equal participation."
Among Vancouver's many soccer players is Reimer herself. She's part of a recreational league with other municipal officials.
The city spent $1.2 million on the official fan zone right around the corner from BC Place, and a further $60,000 on other projects, including a women's sports exhibit at the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and a soccer program for at-risk youth.
Reimer told me the city expects to recoup that money from tax revenue on food and beverages. I would imagine that won't be too difficult.
Among the reasons why: quite a few of the fans who will be at that U.S.-Nigeria game will be traveling into town from the rest of Cascadia. Vancouver's local organizing committee specifically marketed ticket sales promotions to Portland and Seattle, and those efforts appear to have paid off.
If you're going, what should you expect? You've all seen me write on here and on Twitter about my travels to Vancouver in the past, and you know it's one of my favorite cities on the planet.
It's packed with great (if sometimes pricy) restaurants, lovely green spaces and pristine waterfronts. If you're a cyclist, you'll find an abundance of bike paths and dedicated lanes right in the city center. If you're a beachgoer, you'll be at home along the Stanley Park seawall and the shores of False Creek.
Suffice to say that the American Outlaws will not lack for places to hold their pregame parties - and they won't have to worry about driving. There's fast and frequent public transportation service to pretty much everywhere you could want to go. BC Place is right in the middle of town, and its soaring spires are visible from vantage points all over the city. You can get there by train, bus, or even boat.
The aforementioned fan zone will take up a full square block. It will have food, beverages and a big screen for watching games. It won't be open every day, but thanks in part to the city's investment, it will be open on more non-matchdays than any other fan zone in the country. It should be a fun place to hang out.
Along with the fan zone will come something that no other Women's World Cup has had before: a dedicated Pride House for LGBTQ fans and athletes. It is something that Reimer - who is heterosexual, married and the mother of a child - is quite happy about. And it continues a civic tradition of liberal activism tied to international sporting events in the city.
Reimer cited the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as an example.
"We had the pride house at the Olympics in 2010, and heard through media reports about Sochi's attitude toward human rights for LGBTQ athletes, spectators and members of the media," she said. "We felt very strongly that we needed to use whatever international sporting event capital we had built up as a host city to go to Sochi. We sent our deputy mayor at the time, an openly gay councillor who went and really asserted the need to make sure that LGBTQ athletes weren't just safe, but actively welcomed to the games and celebrated for who they were."
With all that said, Vancouver will host just one U.S. game (as of now, at least). And even if you haven't been there before, you probably know at least some things about the city from the Whitecaps and the 2010 Winter Olympics.
But what do you know about Winnipeg? I'd guess not much, and I'd guess that might be about to change. After all, it's the city where the U.S. women will play their first two group stage games. Many fans (and media members, including yours truly) will spend a full week on the banks of the Red River.
Chad Falk, venue general manager for Winnipeg's local organizing committee, told me that his city is quite excited to welcome a big crowd.
"This is one of the largest sporting events to hit Winnipeg," he said, adding that it's "definitely" the city's biggest sports spectacle since it hosted the 1999 Pan Am Games.
And since Winnipeg won't be hosting any Canada games during the tournament, the U.S. team will be the biggest stars in town.
"We are welcoming and friendly and are really excited to be hosting these teams - especially the U.S. women's national team," Falk said. "While I'm sure that Winnipeggers would have loved to see Canada play here, the U.S. will definitely be receiving a large, warm welcome as well."
If you're staying in Winnipeg for the whole time between the U.S.' two group stage games there, Falk offered a few ideas for how to spend the off days. Most of them are centered around museums and other attractions near the riverfront, especially where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet.
That part of town is called, perhaps not surprisingly, The Forks. It's got a Reading Terminal-esque market with food stalls and shops, a historic railway museum, boat tours of the waterfront and lots of green space. There's also the newly-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which is as notable for its dramatic architecture as for the exhibits housed inside.
Over the Assiniboine and across town a bit sits a quite large zoo. It has polar bears and muskoxen. I bet that got your attention.
A number of the fans I've heard from who are traveling to Winnipeg will be driving up from various parts of the American Midwest. It's be a long haul, but relatively easy: the city is about seven hours from Minneapolis, with the entire route on highways. There's no lack of parking.
If you have a car you'll be able to easily get to the forests and rural areas outside the city, including the famed Canadian Shield.
If you're flying in, or if you just don't want to drive once you're parked, the city is well-served by public buses. That includes frequent service from the commercial areas downtown to The Forks, as well as to the airport.
On game day, buses will serve the stadium from downtown, and will send fans back to the city center free of charge with a paid fare heading out. There will also be park-and-ride facilities where the cost of entry will include bus fare to the stadium.
The official fan zone will be located at the stadium. It will only be open on days when the stadium is hosting games, with one exception: a viewing party for the tournament-opening doubleheader (Canada vs. China and New Zealand vs. Netherlands) on June 6. If you're in town by then, the viewing party might be worth checking out.
There is one thing that Winnipeg doesn't have that I suspect you'll need to know about: a large airport. Richardson International isn't small, but it's not close to the scale of the facilities in Vancouver, Toronto or Montréal. The facility has 19 gates total.
On the plus side, Richardson has a U.S. customs pre-clearance facility for travelers to the States, and there are non-stop flights to Chicago, Minneapolis and Denver. But you might have guessed where I'm going with this: prepare for the possibility of long lines on your way in and out.
Falk told me that he and his team with the organizing committee have let city and airport officials know what's coming. The border crossing agents where Manitoba hits North Dakota are also expecting big crowds.
Here's something else to keep an eye out for: Winnipeg has a reputation for attracting quite a few mosquitoes during the summer time. I use the word "reputation" intentionally, because Falk told me it's a bit more perception than reality.
"It's a common joke about Winnipeg and Manitoba that we're the 'Mosquito Capital' or it's our provincial bird," Falk said. "It's not any different than any city that would be in the Midwest of the United States, from Chicago up through Minneapolis… Winnipeggers have a unique sense of self-deprecating humor, and I think that's where that gets played up."
After the group stage, the U.S. could end up in any of the four other host cities: Edmonton, Moncton, Montréal and Ottawa. The team's track through the knockout rounds will depend on where it finishes in its group.
Here are some quick notes on each of those four cities. This information might also come in handy if you go to games not involving the U.S. team.
Edmonton: The U.S. will be there for the round of 16 if it wins its group, or for the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds if it finishes second.
The fan zone will be located on the Commonwealth Stadium grounds. It will only be open on days when there are games at the venue, and it will only be accessible to ticket holders.
Commonwealth's parking lots will be shut off to fans, but the city has ample public transportation, and it will be free of charge on game days.
Moncton: The U.S. will be there for the round of 16 if it finishes second in its group.
The fan zone will be located at Riverfront Park, on the southern edge of the city center along the banks of the Petitcodiac River. It will be open to all visitors and no tickets will be required. But it will only run from June 5-7, which means fans traveling to U.S. games won't ever see it.
Moncton Stadium is located on the Université de Moncton campus. There are public bus routes, and there will also be a park-and-ride shuttle service from the Moncton Coliseum. You can also get there relatively easily on foot. The venue is about a 35-minute walk from the city center.
Montréal: The U.S. will be there if it wins its group and reaches the semifinal round.
(And if that happens, I have a hunch that more than a few of you who live on the east coast of the U.S. will be there too.)
The fan zone will be located on the esplanade between Olympic Stadium and the Pie-IX subway station. It will be open to ticket-holders only on days when there are games at the Big O.
In addition, on June 6 and 11, it will be open to all comers free of charge to host viewing parties for Canada's first two group stage games.
Pie-IX is a 10-minute ride (at most) from stations in the city center. Buses and the subway are easy to find, frequent and go just about everywhere you'd want to reach.
You could easily make a full day out of a trip to the Olympic Park grounds, which feature two of my favorite attractions in the city: the Biodôme indoor zoo and the diverse botanical gardens.
Cap it all off with a trip to the observation deck of the landmark tower that rises above Olympic Stadium. It's got spectacular views of the city skyline, and on clear days you can see almost to Vermont.
(The ride up affords a great bird's-eye look at Stade Saputo, the home of Major League Soccer's Montréal Impact, which is right next door.)
Ottawa: The U.S. will be there if it wins its group and reaches the quarterfinal round.
The fan zone will be located on the Lansdowne Stadium grounds, near Gate 1. It will be only open on game days and only accessible to ticket-holders.
Lansdowne is easily accessible by multiple bus routes from downtown Ottawa.
Click here for full details on dates and times when each city's fan zone will be open. Click here for more information for fans traveling to Winnipeg, and click here for more information for fans traveling to Vancouver.
I am thrilled and honored to be headed to Canada to cover the U.S. team at the World Cup for philly.com, the Inquirer and Daily News. I look forward to meeting many of you who are also making the trip. Travel safely, and let's hope we all have a great time along the way.