Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Game draws fans from far and wide

Festival atmosphere for football friendly

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Canadian Women's Soccer Team group photo before the start of their friendly against Team USA at Investors Group Field May 8, 2014.

A crowd of more than 28,000 walked, biked, bused, drove and even rode scooters and skateboards to see Canada's national women's soccer team take on the U.S. Thursday night at Investors Group Field.

Billed as a "friendly," soccer-speak for an exhibition game, it had all the feel of an Olympic showdown between the two rival teams. The game ended in a 1-1 draw.

"If you aren't here, I don't know where else you'd be. This is fantastic for Manitoba Soccer and fantastic for our country also," said Héctor Vergara, the Manitoba Soccer Association's executive director. He is formerly an international soccer official who has worked matches around the world.

Vergara was outside the stadium at 5:30 p.m. handing out Team Canada under-eye "glare strips."

Outside the field, it was a festival atmosphere as, despite high winds, kids could test their kick speed at the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association net and radar fun station, pick up plastic Team Canada fan-shaped noisemakers and decorate them with a marker and enter several draws for Team Canada merchandise.

"I thinks it's going to be aggressive and exciting," Dara Nfon, 12, who was at the game with her sister, Ashley, and parents Charles and Vicky, before the match. Ashley plays soccer for Winnipeg South End United, while Dara plays for Corydon Community Centre.

'I've never seen anything like this here'

Kathy Nelson, a mom and soccer coach from Yorkton, Sask., brought her daughter Sarah, 11, and her Yorkton United teammates Hannah Adam, Maddi Stevenson and Sara Becker.

"My husband stayed home to look after our other four children so we could do this," Nelson said. "Desiree Scott spoke at our soccer banquet last month, and she was so inspiring."

Scott, a Winnipeg native and former University of Manitoba striker, started at midfield for Team Canada on Thursday night.

"I never thought I'd get to see Desiree Scott play in person. This is the best," Sara, 11, said.

Jayden, nine, and his sister, Madison, 11, and their mom, Irene, were ready to see some great action.

"I think it's going to be a tough battle," he said.

Also here from Saskatchewan were Kaila Gelsinger, 20, and Alix Donnelly, 21, who play for a coed team in Regina called Not Our Fault.

"Nothing like this was coming to Regina, so we had to be here," said Gelsinger, wearing a Sinclair replica jersey. "I wanted to see my idol, Christine Sinclair, play. She's just so aggressive and she can shoot. Pure talent."

Friends Gerard Peters and Werner Roller said they didn't want to miss the spectacle.

"I've been in Canada for 20 years and I've never seen anything like this here. I think it's the new stadium. It's attracting more big events," said Peters, who plays locally for a men's over-40 team.

The crowd was a generational and cultural mosaic, and the game attracted hard-core and casual soccer fans.

"After seeing the women play in the Olympics, you have to come out and support your team and hometown girl," said Wendy Pinchbeck, who came to the game with Wade Gibson, a longtime player in the local men's league and former member of the Winnipeg Fury, the long-defunct Canadian Soccer League team.

Diane and Jim Mayer brought their teenage granddaughter, Kennedy, also a soccer player, and a friend to the game.

"I just thought it would be a great experience for us and for her to see these girls (Team Canada) because it's world-class soccer," Diane Mayer said.

Vergara served for 19 years as an official on FIFA's list, being called upon to work 11 FIFA competitions, including three FIFA World Cups. He worked 14 FIFA World Cup games, six Gold Cups, Olympic games and nearly 150 international matches involving clubs and national teams.

"You can't get any better than this, watching two of the best women's soccer teams in the world and hopefully what will be the final of the 2015 Women's World Cup (being hosted by Canada)," Vergara said.

"We just want people to play the game, so I hope this helps motivate all the young kids to play the game, seeing someone local like Desiree Scott.

"When I was participating in (international) games for many, many years, for those players walking out into a stadium with over 25,000 people in the stands, hearing that anthem, is one of the proudest days an athlete can have."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 A3

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