Excitement continues to build as USWNT’s Victory Tour sets to launch

PITTSBURGH

It turns out that a ticker tape parade in New York City, ceremonial first-pitches at Major League Baseball games, an ESPY award-show appearance and a Taylor Swift concert were just the warm-up. The summer of love is about the heat up for the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team.

"This has been a whirlwind. Totally wild in that we’ve been given a platform to really elevate our sport, get it into the mainstream audiences and minds. But to tell you the truth, it has been totally exhausting,” defender Meghan Klingenberg said in an interview this week in her hometown of Pittsburgh.

As a contractually guaranteed reward for winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s national soccer team is set to kick off a 10-game Victory Tour starting Sunday at Heinz Field (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go 1:30 p.m. ET). The opponent is Costa Rica, and Las Ticas will also be in service Aug. 19 in Chattanooga, where the U.S. women will make their next stop.

However, after a grinding year of training and international matches that led to the month-long, 7-game Women’s World Cup tournament in Canada, it’s safe to say that for the U.S. women, these Victory Tour games will be more about sharing the love with soccer fans all across the U.S. than it is about international competition.

"When I was growing up, I literally had one female athlete role model to look up to. Now, I think the country has 23 — at least 23. I think that’s so important because not only do I see little girls looking up to us. But I see young boys, I see grown men at the parade we’ve had. Grandmas, grandpas. I’ve seen every race, gender. It’s incredible how much support and how many lives we’ve touched," Klingenberg said.

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In other words, this Victory Tour is about communing with fans and fanning the flames for soccer’s growth across the U.S., as well as a sendoff for veterans Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx, both set to retire from the national team.

All-time leading international goal-scorer Abby Wambach, 35, and 40-year-old Christie Rampone have said they would like to continue on with the national team into the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. However, with the Olympic roster set at 18 players, this could mark the end of the line for captains Wambach and Rampone, too — especially with former University of North Carolina star Crystal Dunn dominating action for the Washington Spirit of the National Professional Soccer League.

The real work of getting the U.S women’s national team back into international fighting shape will kick into high gear in December, when the four additional games will be scheduled in advance of the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship that runs from February 10 through 21 in Dallas and Houston. It’s there that the U.S. will seek to extend their Olympic qualifying and gold-medal streak for the Rio Olympics.

For now, the Victory Tour is a celebration of what the U.S. women accomplished in Canada.

Sydney Leroux won’t play after post-World Cup surgery and Alex Morgan has also been sidelined from her Portland Thorns team in the National Women’s Soccer League after knee surgery. Goalkeeper Hope Solo, however, made her post-World Cup debut for the Seattle Reign of the NWSL on Wednesday after a knee injury kept her out of action. Clearly, the 33-year-old Solo wants to be on the field at the start of this Victory Tour.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis will have the remaining 20 members of the World Cup roster at her disposal, including the vaunted U.S. backline of Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger and Klingenberg. The so-called "Department of Defense" was a key factor in the American’s World Cup run, highlighted by Klingenberg’s header save off the goal line in a scoreless draw against Sweden in group play.

This is the first game the U.S. women will play together since July 5, when Lloyd’s historic hat trick lifted the U.S. to a 5-2 win over Japan and sealed the Americans’ first Women’s World Cup win since 1999. More than 25 million viewers in the U.S. tuned in to see the action at B.C. Place in Vancouver, where the final was played in front of more than 53,000 spectators.

If there’s a bit of a hangover effect for the team, and the legions of U.S. women’s national team fans that flock to the games, no one will be surprised. Additional games are scheduled against Australia in Detroit (Sept. 17) and Birmingham, Alabama (Sept. 20); and against Brazil in Seattle (Oct. 21) and Orlando, Florida (Oct. 25).

Festivities, at this point in the tour, are as much part of the action as the matches. On prominent display will be the 2015 Women’s World Cup trophy, which will make an appearance at Marketplace Square and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh on Friday. In Chattanooga on Monday, the trophy will be shown at the Waterhouse Pavilion before going to the Hamilton Place Mall. The trophy will also be on display on game day at the fields.

The game in Pittsburgh has sold more than 41,000 tickets, prompting U.S. Soccer’s decision to hold an open training session on Saturday at Heinz Field for fans to watch for free. The game at Finley Field was an almost immediate sellout.