Victory Tour more than a Women’s World Cup celebration for USA

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. —

It’s absurd that the 2015 Women’s World Cup champions are playing Haiti on this Victory Tour, right?

"It’s difficult for us (against the U.S.) because of the quality of their movement, the sophistication of their runs and their fitness level, but we knew said to the kids ‘Hey, if you want to make progress you have to play against the World Champions,”’ Haiti coach Shek Borowski said after the 5-0 drubbing at Ford Field in Detroit on Thursday night.

"For some of these girls, it’s the first time they’ve been outside of Haiti, it’s the first time playing in front of this crowd and against the World Champions so it’s normal for them to be a little hesitant. We could still be at our best and be routed here. We’ll take our beatings and move on."

But the Haiti coach was thrilled to get the call to step in for Australia. There is movement going on, and it is trickling down even to earthquake-ravaged little Caribbean countries where there’s still a prejudice against girls playing soccer.

"You can see countries that eight or 12 years ago would have had trouble competing are now in World Cup qualifiers and hold the U.S. to 1-0. It’s all getting better. Even in our region in the Caribbean, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the standard is increasing as federations are required to invest more in the women’s game. The more money that’s involved, the better it is,” Borkowski said.

AMERICAN ATTITUDE

That’s what the U.S. women’s national soccer team is working on these days. It’s not just a celebration of their Women’s World Cup win. It’s bigger. And now the roadshow’s next stops is in this historic southern city. Another massive crowd awaits to eye-witness what was seen this past June in Canada by millions — and we mean millions, according to historic Women’s World Cup TV ratings.

Amidst the slew of scoring that defines these U.S. women’s Victory Tour games, and in addition to watching the almost outlandish skill and fitness of this vaunted team, what’s really amazing about them is that together and individually know they have a multi-pronged mission — and they take it on gamely and pull it off brilliantly.

They play soccer at the highest level. They win Olympic gold medals and Women’s World Cup trophies. They advocate for their own worth as athletes, role models and agents for social change. And, yes, they champion their opponents like Haiti and Australia, among the other national women’s teams around the world.

The Aussie women did not make it to the U.S. Victory Tour matches as scheduled because the Matildas are striking for better pay. Haiti, the 63rd-ranked team in the world, stepped in to fill the void, though as opponents go, Haiti women’s soccer is about 30 years behind the U.S. women’s national team.

But here is a chance to extend and amplify the attention on women’s soccer. It’s not just about the U.S. women. For all the ways Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and the rest of the team  could act like selfish prima donnas, they just simply can’t. It’s not part of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s mindset, or the unparalleled legacy.

"We know we are role models. We want those 10 years olds and those 15 year olds to think they deserve equal treatment. And the corporate sponsorship that has now stepped to the plate. It’s uncanny,” Abby Wambach said at Ford Field this week.

"I’ve been working my entire career to get to a place where we now can monetize this thing we’ve got. Not very often can women in sport, women in general can say that. Right now, it’s not just the feel-good thing to do, it’s actually the smart business play because we have the potential for huge growth and for real social change,” Wambach said.

Wambach is a legend who will soon decide whether she continues to work on the field for the women’s game, or on the sidelines or at U.S. Soccer headquarters or among corporate barons who are starting to really see, decades after the first time the U.S. women won the World Cup, there’s a market for women’s soccer. Whether this market is only about this particular U.S. women’s national team — with its stellar, smart players and gracious stars — remains to be seen. But the momentum is here, and the U.S. women are in full control of bringing their class act and mission to the world stage.

Anyone in the streets of Detroit after Thursday’s match against Haiti understands. Into the dark of night, hundreds of impassioned fans — girls, boys, men and women — stood and waved wildly at the team bus as it pulled out of Ford Field.

"Do you know if they are going to the airport?" a middle-aged female fan and her daughter asked aloud. "I want to go to their hotel and see them again.”

Forget the final score of these Victory Tour games. The U.S. has so far crushed Costa Rica in two friendlies and beaten Haiti 5-0 in Detroit this week. The result will be no different Sunday afternoon at Legends Field. But everyone knows that the point of trotting these fine ambassadors around the country is to raise the game here, and everywhere.

"Being in Detroit and going to Birmingham, even though Australia pulls out, it’s about the fans, let the fans reach in and see what we do, touch some of the players, touch the World Cup trophy, no matter what, no matter who we play, it’s been really positive to go around the country," Wambach said.

"Part of what we were able to accomplish this summer is empowering women and what the Australian women are doing is empowering themselves and the next generation coming behind them," Wambach said.

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

"They are going to stand up for what they think is right and say ‘We deserve this.’ We did this many, many years ago and us players now are reaping the rewards of the hard work of those who put their foot down and said we’re not going to take this anymore. Of course we support them. It’s a symbolic show of support for themselves. They did so well. When you are able to overcome your own expectations, you’re able to push the needle in a way that can positively affect many people."

Meanwhile, as the No. 9-ranked team in the FIFA World Rankings is home, on strike, in Australia. But the No. 63rd-ranked team knows that these back-to-back games against the best women’s soccer team in the world is what Haiti needs to make progress.

"We’ve come here and played the core of our Under-20 group, because we are developing the next group for international play, so we are not Australia but (coming here) was an experience we could not pass up,” Borkowski said.

He was smiling. This Victory Tour is winning for Haiti, too.