The U.S. Women's National Team played soccer in Cary for the sixth time last Wednesday. But it had never before played in front of a Triangle crowd so large.
A reported 9,992 spectators filled WakeMed Soccer Park for the team's international friendly against Switzerland—a single-game record for the venue, and its first capacity crowd since the main stadium's seating expansion was completed last year. Tickets sold out days after going on sale.
While such attendance figures pale in comparison to the hordes who flock to area stadia each weekend for college football, they're indicative of the steadily increasing appetite for local and world fütbol in the Triangle. Indeed, this fall in particular carries a wide array of options for local soccer-philes.
The Carolina RailHawks—the Triangle's only professional soccer team—are averaging 4,580 fans per home league game at WakeMed Soccer Park this year. A mere four years ago, the team's average attendance was only 2,241, even during a FIFA World Cup year. The RailHawks continue regular season play in the North American Soccer League through the first week of November. The first of five remaining home matches takes place this Saturday, Aug. 30, against the Atlanta Silverbacks.
The most venerable part of the Triangle soccer community is its highly touted college programs, which all begin play this weekend. The North Carolina Tar Heels women's team, a perennial national-champion contender, starts the season ranked in the top five in the nation, while the UNC men's team is ranked in the top 25. Both teams play their matches at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill.
In Durham, the Duke Blue Devils women's team is also ranked in the top 20 in preseason polls. The Blue Devil men's team sits just outside the top 25, but boasts one of the best freshmen recruiting classes in the nation.
The area's other top-ranked recruiting class belongs to the N.C. State Wolfpack men's team, which continues its rejuvenation under fourth-year head coach Kelly Findley. N.C. State women's coach Tim Santoro's incoming class also ranks in the top 20 nationally, as the Wolfpack women try to rebound from a losing season in 2013.
Meanwhile, the advent of ubiquitous television coverage of worldwide soccer has generated a new outlet for local soccer fandom. The start of the English Premier League two weeks ago brought local supporters clubs back to Triangle watering holes, sometimes as early as 7 a.m. on Saturdays, to cheer their favorite club.
Officially recognized supporters clubs include the Triangle Gooners, which meets at Bull McCabe's Irish Pub in Durham to roar for Arsenal F.C. The Triangle arm of North Carolina Spurs calls Crabtree Tavern in Raleigh home for Tottenham Hotspur games. LFC Raleigh gathers at London Bridge Pub to cheer on Liverpool. And the Triangle Soccer Fanatics, a longtime independent supporters group, meets at Fortnight Brewing Company in Cary every weekend to watch a Premier League Game of the Week.
Plus, many Triangle bars and restaurants have Saturday opening times and menus that cater to the demand for weekend international soccer. A partial list includes Mattie B's Public House in Durham, Tir Na Nog and Tra'li Irish Pubs in Raleigh, Italian Pizzeria III in Chapel Hill and Bass Lake Draft House in Holly Springs.
And let's not forget the thousands of Triangle kids and parents who scatter across the region every weekend for fall youth soccer. It isn't the U.S. national team or the Premiership, but it's the grassroots heartbeat of a growing sport.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beyond the Railhawks"