Although this was a tuneup for next month's FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany, it was also a clash between two top contenders, the first-ranked Americans and the fourth-ranked Japanese. But if the Japanese had their "A" game tonight, there's considerable distance between them and the top three.
At WakeMed, the Yanks combined a bruising defense that easily thwarted the runs of Japan's talented but diminutive forwards, excellent distribution by central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd and lightning runs down the flank by an unstoppable Heather O'Reilly.
O'Reilly, who was an All-American for UNC from 2003-06, received a warm reception from the crowd at the pre-game introductions. In the 28th minute, her run to the byline past a hapless Aya Sameshima drew a collective gasp from the crowd, whereupon she crossed to Amy Rodriguez, lurking unmarked outside the six-yard-box, who knocked in the first goal.
"Every player has their strengths," O'Reilly said. "For me, it's about about taking players one-v.-one to the end line and making quality crosses in, and that was my objective for tonight."
O'Reilly got the night's second goal in the second half, after another wide ball from midfield, this one from Carli Lloyd.
"My tendency right now is to get end line and provide crosses. That's sort of my role on the team," O'Reilly said.
"But of course, when it opens up for me to attack and cut inside and get a shot off for myself, I have the freedom to do that. In this situation, I read the defender and knew I had some space inside to get a shot for myself."
The Japanese, whose 10 starting outfield players stood an average of 5-foot-3, compared to the U.S. average of 5-foot-7, rarely threatened American keeper Hope Solo, although they had spells in each half in which they were able to find space behind the American midfielders. However, Japanese attacks were repeatedly snuffed out before Solo had to get involved. American central defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Buehler held their lines and either blocked through balls or held up attackers so long that forwards Shinobu Ohno and Mana Iwabuchi were caught offside.
"Japan is one of the most creative teams on the attack that we play," Solo said. "They and England have the most creative attacks."
"But sometimes they pass too much in the six-yard-box and the 18-yard-box. Sometimes they need to just pull the trigger. But they're coming along and I think they're going to do great things."
When invited to praise the atmosphere at WakeMed and the influence of the Tar Heels, Solo obliged, but noted that the U.S. women play in bigger venues elsewhere—and that as a native of the Northwest, Seattle is her soccer Mecca.
"It's a very intimate venue, very soccer specific and we love coming here. In my time, I think this is the third game I've played here. It's always been great, maybe less in numbers but always loud and enthusiastic," Solo said.
"We know [ex-UNC players] come from a school of great pride," she said. 'But I'm from Seattle and I like to say we have a soccer city as well. There are cities all over the States that claim to be soccer cities and I think that just shows enthusiasm for the game."
Late in the game, in the 81st minute, Solo, who cut a glamourous figure in her purple kit and television-ready makeup, managed to demonstrate her world-class skills, deflecting over the bar a long, apparently accurate left-footed shot by second-half substitute Karina Marauyama.
The evening had the air of a family reunion—a family that has become rich, famous and far-flung. Anson Dorrance, who has coached so many top women players at UNC, was there. So was Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, an approachable, amiable figure despite his conservative blue suit. Calling the game for ESPN2 was Julie Foudy, a former soccer great, and Ian Darke, a mainstay soccer commentator.
But the night's biggest star—and a key figure in the rise of women's soccer—was the redoubtable Mia Hamm. Young girls who could not have seen her play (Hamm retired from all competition in 2004) nonetheless clamored for her autograph when she was spotted with her children near a VIP suite. After she disappeared into the press suite, two frantic, near-teary autograph-seeking girls approached Triangle Offense scribes asking if she was still on the premises. We offered what counsel we could, and they darted off.
During the game, we moved through the stands, noting the sizable contingent of Japanese support. We visited with a friend who brought his grown daughter, who grew up playing Triangle soccer during the heyday of the 1999 World Cup triumph and subsequent short but happy life of the Carolina Courage at WakeMed Soccer Park.
We caught glimpses of Carolina RailHawks players (Brad Rusin and Jonny Steele) and personnel, including team president Curt Johnson, who was omnipresent through the evening and got some face time with Gulati. We also saw former president and new team scout Brian Wellman. (RailHawks coach Martin Rennie was not present, according to Johnson. Instead, he was watching the live feed of upcoming opponent Puerto Rico's game against the NSC Minnesota Stars.)
But it wasn't really the RailHawks' night, even as the orange-clad faithful sitting in the east stand looked wistfully around at the full stadium.
"I really like having the many people out. It shows how much support this area has for soccer in general ... It would be great if everyone who is here would come together and support the game more often," said Craig Daniel, a RailHawks season ticket holder and former RH intern.
In the Hooters
305 309 Depot, supporters banged drums and waved RailHawks flags alongside the Stars and Stripes. The fans discussed how to alter the usual chants so they apply to the women's game.
Jarrett Campbell, leader of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, told us he was pleased to see the turnout, even the traffic, but said more work is needed to recruit fans from tonight to become WakeMed Soccer Park regulars.
"The previous owners never would capitalize on the [exhibitions]," Campbell said.
"Whenever the US or Mexican national teams played it never translated into more attendance. We'll see if it does this time. I don't know what this group is doing differently."
Instead of being the RailHawks' night, it was an evening for pre-teenage girls and their families. They lined the concourse, some sat atop bar stools, while others knocking a ball back and forth. Fans along the top row stood and lean against the chain link fence. The concession stands were packed.
Standing in one line was Jack Davis, a Durham resident, who brought 10 players from his daughter's Triangle Football Club squad, the Lightning.
"They watch sports on TV all the time and see guys playing, so it's really cool to see international quality women playing," he said.
Daughter Abby Davis had been counting down the days to tonight's match for two weeks. She's watched her favorite player, Abby Wambach, who shares her name and her position, forward, on TV, but this is her first game in person.
"It's nice for girls to get a chance to play and be a big thing," she said, peering to pick up a few new moves from the players, as we heard a chant of "You'll never beat Hope Solo."