By Amy Tennery
CARY, North Carolina (Reuters) – North Carolina’s drum-beating, flag-waving NWSL fans became the first to watch their team claim a championship on their home turf on Sunday, as the city aimed to build on its reputation as a soccer hotbed.
The 10,000 capacity stadium is far smaller than last year’s National Women’s Soccer League championship venue, Portland’s Providence Park, which had more than 20,000 attendees for the match between its hometown Thorns and the Courage.
But the greater Raleigh area, which boasts the largest youth soccer programme in the country, as well as competitive collegiate programs nearby, welcomed the spotlight on its soccer credentials.
“The game being televised nationally on ESPN the exposure it will bring to the Town of Cary and greater Raleigh area as a whole is tremendous,” said Scott Peacock, director of public relations for Visit Raleigh. “We pride ourselves in being a hotbed for soccer.”
Despite falling on the so-called American “Sports Equinox” – the one day of the year when U.S. men’s pro basketball, baseball, hockey and football all play – enthusiasm was overflowing among the sell-out crowd.
“To actually host it and see the opposition here in great numbers – it’s just wonderful,” said Ben Watts, 31, who was tailgating prior to the game with fellow season ticketholders.
A vocal fan group from Chicago made its presence known in the bleachers, but it was the overwhelming hometown crowd that was rewarded with a second consecutive victory, after the team relocated to North Carolina from Western New York.
“They were starving for a team to rally behind and that’s exactly what they did,” Courage midfielder McCall Zerboni said on media day, describing her team’s fan base. “As soon as they heard we came, before even meeting us before even anything, they were rallying behind us.”
(Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by Christian Radnedge)