The U.S. women’s soccer team is returning to the Philly area in April
The game at Subaru Park will be the team's first visit here since they set a program attendance record at Lincoln Financial Field in 2019.
The U.S. women’s soccer team is coming to the Philadelphia area in April, its first visit here since local fans helped set the program’s all-time attendance record for a stand-alone friendly in August 2019.
That record of 49,504 fans won’t be matched this time, because the April 12 game (a Tuesday night) will be at Subaru Park instead of Lincoln Financial Field. And while the U.S. women could easily fill the Union’s 18,500-seat home for a big game, some fans might raise an eyebrow at the team that will be the visitor: Uzbekistan.
Why is the U.S. playing an Asian opponent that’s No. 45 in FIFA’s global rankings? First, because the April FIFA window is stacked with World Cup qualifiers in Europe and all but two teams in Concacaf, the U.S. and Canada, and the latter already has at least one game booked.
Second, while the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic isn’t much of a concern for U.S. authorities anymore, it is for other countries when it comes to quarantines for travelers returning home. That made some teams the U.S. might have played unwilling to take a big trip - and a source said one of Asia’s big teams backed out of coming here after initial talks.
So the U.S. program had to choose between playing a low-ranked team it has never faced but could get to come here, or not playing at all.
There will be a two-game set in all: April 9, a Saturday, in Columbus, Ohio (5:30 p.m., Fox29 and a Univision channel TBD); and April 12 at Subaru Park (7 p.m., ESPN2 and a Univision channel TBD). The first game will be part of a soccer doubleheader on Fox’s broadcast network, to be followed by a Los Angeles Galaxy-LAFC MLS rivalry game at 7:30.
A vocal portion of the fan base would choose the latter, since NWSL teams will be in the midst of the Challenge Cup (though there won’t be any games during the FIFA window).
But the national team has a significant reason to plow ahead, and it has nothing to do with ticket revenue from a game in the heart of the team’s rabid northeast corridor fan base.
Why games are needed
For a few months now, the April FIFA window has been seen as the time when U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski might welcome back veteran stars like Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Christen Press, after focusing on young prospects in last November’s trip to Australia and this month’s SheBelieves Cup.
After the April FIFA window, there will only be one more FIFA window, in June, before Concacaf’s women’s national team championship in July. The eight-nation tournament will double as qualifying for next year’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics, making the stakes a bit higher than usual.
Now to raise the stakes a little more. While the top two finishers in each of the two groups will qualify for the World Cup, only the tournament’s champion will qualify for the Olympics. The title game loser and the third-place game winner will play a playoff in September 2023 for the continent’s last ticket to Paris.
Andonovski and general manager Kate Markgraf want as many opportunities as possible to test out lineup combinations with veteran and new players — Heath and Catarina Macario, for example, or Morgan and Trinity Rodman.
And it makes sense fo rthose opportunities to come against other teams instead of in intrasquad scrimmages, even if it’s still true that those scrimmages are fiercer than many U.S. games.
The last plot twist is Uzbekistan’s FIFA ranking. No. 45 might be higher than some fans would think.
Who’s in the neighborhood? Jamaica, a team with many players in the NWSL — and a star at Manchester City, striker Khadija “Bunny” Shaw — is ranked No. 51. Nigeria, with Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala and Gotham FC’s Ifeoma Onumonu, is ranked No. 41.
Perhaps that indicts the FIFA rankings formula. It certainly indicts the Jamaican federation for how few games the Reggae Girlz play.
But U.S. fans might have learned a little about Uzbekistan’s team by now had it played in the Asian Cup a few weeks ago. It didn’t because in qualifying, it was grouped with South Korea, led by Chelsea star Ji-So Yun. South Korea won the group easily, and ended up reaching the tournament’s title game.
Had Uzbekistan been drawn in another qualifying group, it might have gotten through.
The USWNT’s history here
The game in Chester will be the U.S. women’s team’s eighth visit there, and its 16th all-time game in the Philadelphia area. The Americans’ first visit here was on Oct. 4, 1991, when they played China at the United German Hungarian club’s facilities in Oakford. They returned to the UGH venue in 1993, and later played at Hatboro-Horsham High (1996) and Upper Dublin High (1997).
The U.S. women have also played once in Bethlehem (May 10, 1998, vs. Iceland) and twice in Hershey (April 22, 1999, vs. China and June 23, 2000, vs. Trinidad & Tobago).
If it seems surreal to you that a national squad that’s now the most popular soccer team in America used to play at local high school and amateur club facilities, you aren’t alone. At least you know it’s been 25 years since then — long enough that all those new U.S. phenoms weren’t born yet.