Four weeks after their French fete, the champions arrived here Saturday to launch a five-match victory tour. It was a celebration of not only the seven-game sweep at the World Cup but a salute to the elite endurance of the U.S. program, with past heroes such as Mia Hamm in attendance and current stars such as Carli Lloyd on the field.
When the smoke from the pregame pyrotechnics cleared, the Americans resumed their victory march with a 3-0 decision over Ireland in front of 37,040, including FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who has come under pressure to provide greater support for the women’s game.
“This last World Cup in France has really marked the before and after for women’s football,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to build something sustainable and meaningful for the future.”
Infantino watched Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Lloyd score in the first half as the winning streak grew to 14 and the unbeaten run to 17 (15-0-2). The top-ranked United States has beaten No. 33 Ireland in all 13 meetings.
The tour will continue with two matches against No. 30 Portugal (Aug. 29 in Philadelphia and Sept. 3 in St. Paul, Minn.) and conclude with a pair against No. 20 South Korea (Oct. 3 in Charlotte and Oct. 6 in Chicago).
Two dates in early November, which are not part of the victory tour, are in the process of being finalized. Washington’s Audi Field is expected to host a Nov. 7 match.
The tour comes amid change, most notably the departure of Coach Jill Ellis after the October games. Her successor cannot be chosen until a general manager -- a new position -- is in place, though people close to the selection process said former defender Kate Markgraf, an ESPN commentator, is expected to take the job.
During ESPN’s pregame show, she said she is interested.
With the Olympics a year away, the new coach will need to begin considering team composition. The United States was the oldest and most experienced unit in France, and with the need to infuse fresh talent into a smaller roster (18 instead of 23), some current players face the end of the road.
All of this will unfold in front of a legal backdrop: The players and U.S. Soccer Federation will enter mediation over a gender-discrimination lawsuit seeking fairer compensation with the men’s program.
Late in Saturday’s match, many in the crowd chanted, “Equal pay!"
The push for greater support for women’s soccer also has gained momentum. Infantino acknowledged it, saying: "The last couple weeks I have been in Africa and the Middle East, and people not from football were talking to me about the Women’s World Cup. And they would say to me this is the first time they’ve even heard about women’s football. These are small examples of the impact this World Cup has had.
"Of course, the U.S. team, the way they performed, the way they won, they have contributed greatly to the success."
Infantino also said FIFA is prepared to more than double the prize money for the Women’s World Cup, a proposal first raised on the eve of the World Cup final.
“I am very confident we can go higher than double," he said Saturday. “We have to be optimistic.”
Recognition of women’s soccer has taken greater hold in the United States. Comparing the feeling now with four years ago after winning the title in Canada, outspoken forward Megan Rapinoe said: “Everything is different. The tournament [this summer] was so much bigger, and the tournament then transcended sport. It feels like so much more high stakes."
As the championship buzz continues, those involved in the game are seeking ways to expand general interest beyond the national team. On a weekly basis, the vehicle is the National Women’s Soccer League, which features all 23 national team players, as well as several international standouts.
The USSF, which underwrites the NWSL, did not do the league any favors this weekend by scheduling the Ireland friendly during a full slate of regular season matches. Consequently, six U.S. players missed Saturday’s North Carolina Courage-Washington Spirit encounter in Cary, N.C. The Spirit fell to the defending champions, 1-0.
The rest of the victory tour falls during official FIFA windows for international matches, limiting the impact on NWSL matches.
As for Saturday’s game, superstars Rapinoe and Alex Morgan did not play because of minor injuries. Mallory Pugh (Washington Spirit) was a late scratch because of a muscle ailment.
Heath, Pugh’s replacement in the starting lineup, opened the scoring in the 16th minute by heading in Christen Press’s cross to the back side.
In the 31st, Sam Mewis drove a low ball into the penalty area. Press appeared to nick it before it reached Horan for the one-touch finish.
Ten minutes later, Kelley O’Hara swung a cross into the heart of the box to Lloyd for a 12-yard header and her 114th career goal.
In the second half, Ellis used the maximum six subs, including Rose Lavelle, the Spirit midfielder who scored in the World Cup final against the Netherlands.
“It was a lot of fun to just celebrate together," Lavelle said, "and enjoy it and not have the pressure of winning.”