As red-white-and-blue-clad soccer fans made their way out of Penn State’s Panzer Stadium after watching the U.S. Women’s National Team defeat the Netherlands 2-0 in the FIFA World Cup Final on Sunday, women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach shook hands and greeted people as they exited.
While the confetti has been cleaned up on France’s Lyon Field, and the 400-500 local fans who came out to the community watch party have gone home, Dambach says she’s hoping to keep the excitement going and to continue to promote soccer locally.
“I think we have a responsibility to make sure we are getting out into the community, doing these types of events,” she said, wearing a red Team USA T-shirt. “We offer some free clinics every year and some of the young girls and boys in the area come out. I think that’s it — they relate to our players once they get around our players, and that’s what gives you the energy to play.”
The watch party, which was put together in collaboration between Penn State men’s and women’s soccer, was announced by Dambach on social media Tuesday after former Nittany Lion Alyssa Naeher’s clutch save on a late penalty kick against England helped the U.S. return to its third consecutive World Cup final.
Dambach, men’s coach Jeff Cook and members of both teams came out to the event, signing autographs and interacting with fans.
“We just wanted to give back to the community that gives us so much,” Dambach said. “We go over to Jeffery Field and there’s always a great showing on a Friday night and we thought, ‘Wow this is an opportunity for the coaches and players to share this moment — the biggest moment in the world for our sport — with the community.’ ”
Despite temperatures approaching the 90s, fans of all ages came out to cheer on former Nittany Lions Naeher and Ali Krieger, and the rest of the USWNT as they defended their title as World Cup champs.
Wearing matching red, white and blue bows and with American flag stickers on their faces, Hughesville High School graduates Sam Savage and Olivia Braunbeck drove about 45 minutes from Lock Haven to watch the game, after seeing Dambach’s post on social media. Both played soccer together in high school, and ever since they were young.
For the pair, the best part of watching the game on the scoreboard at Penn State’s lacrosse stadium was the environment and how the crowd fed off each other’s energy in the big moments — such as captain Megan Rapinoe’s goal on a penalty kick, and midfielder Rose Lavelle’s 18-yard left-footer into the net. And, of course, anytime Naeher made a save.
“I think it’s really cool because a lot of these people have maybe never played soccer but they can still get into it,” Braunbeck said. “And I think it’s just cool that everyone can come together. We don’t know anyone here, but we can all sit together and cheer for the same team.”
That energy from the crowd was also felt by the members of the Penn State soccer teams who came out to watch. For freshmen Payton Linnehan and Cori Dyke, who are just new to campus and starting summer session, Sunday’s event gave them a taste of what the environment might be like for their games, and got them even more excited for their season to start on Aug. 17.
“It’s really great to see all the people who came out to support women’s soccer,” Linnehan said.
Added Dyke: “I think it’s awesome too, because it kind of shows us what the soccer community is like here in State College. It bodes well for our season coming up and all the fans we’ll see out there.”
Now as World Cup champions for a record fourth time, the U.S. Women’s National Team members will return home, where they will be honored with a ticker tape parade on Wednesday in New York City. Having events like parades to help celebrate the team’s feat is part of what Dambach said helps keep people excited and inspires young girls to want to get involved in the sport.
Young fans were aplenty at Sunday’s watch party, many sitting on their parents’ laps as their parents patiently explained what was happening. There were also players from local youth soccer clubs, including about a half-dozen from State College-based Mountain District Union.
While 14-year-old Ella Garner, who attends Central High School in Martinsburg, got to watch the first few games of the World Cup and the quarterfinal in France along with other members of her MDU team, she said with a smile that watching with more than 400 others at Panzer Stadium was the next best thing.
“I think it’s really fun how a bunch of people can come together for one sport, especially a women’s sport,” MDU member Kate Rowland, 15, who also plays for State High, said.
Rowland, who was wearing the jersey of her favorite player — forward Tobin Heath — said that the 2019 World Cup being over is no excuse to stop paying attention to the USWNT.
In fact, the Tokyo Olympics are just a year away, after all.
“It’s an ongoing journey,” she said. “They’re going to go on to the Olympics, and then the next World Cup, and then they’ll have a bunch of smaller tournaments, so it’s ongoing and forever changing.”