PHILADELPHIA—They descended upon South Philadelphia in droves, almost 50,000 of them in total, for a soccer game that simultaneously meant everything and nothing at all.
Thursday night's match between the United States Women's National Team (USWNT) and Portugal was a friendly, the second stop on America's World Cup Victory Tour, so by definition it was nothing more than an insignificant exhibition. However, try telling that to the record-setting 49,504 that crashed the Lincoln Financial Field gates to see their heroes dispatch the Portuguese, 4-0. Thousands of them were young women, many of whom were soccer players themselves, much like their idols that they were there to see up close and personal.
For local daughters and their mothers, this was about more than the soccer that was played on the field. It was about being in the same building as the women that have become role models to so many locally, nationally and globally. More than anything, it was a symbolic evening of empowerment and equality, and left many with the same universal feeling: we, too, can accomplish anything we put our minds to.
"I wanted to come because now I know that women can do anything, and one day maybe we'll be able to do it too," said Zoe Jackson, 10, of Philadelphia, nodding toward her 8-year-old sister, Sasha. Both sisters play for Palumbo Soccer Club in South Philly and attended the game with their parents, Marc and Rebecca.
"I've got two young soccer players, and this team gives them role models to look up to," Marc added. "It shows them that there's a future in the sport, and that women can stand on that mantle of the world stage and continue to grow the game."
Of course this sentiment applies to the game of soccer; after all, all of the USWNT players were once in Zoe and Sasha's shoes: young girls with oversized dreams to play on the world's biggest stage.
But it's about much more than this, too. For young women, the USWNT embodies something bigger: a feeling that you can reach that grand apex in whatever field you desire, be it sports, business, politics or otherwise.
"It's symbolic," USWNT coach Jill Ellis said. "It's driven women to achieve, to pursue their goals. For young people to see these women achieve a World Cup victory, it tells them to stay after it, stay true to their dreams."
"My main message to young women has always been to enjoy the journey," added USWNT defender Crystal Dunn. "Love what you do, and realize that everything that we've been able to achieve didn't come overnight. It's about the journey, the individual stories. Strive for greatness."
Tonya Rudy of Lititz, Pa., brought her 10-year-old daughter, Laykin, to Philadelphia so that Laykin could see firsthand the special things that female soccer players — and women in general — can accomplish together. Laykin, who plays for Lititz Youth Soccer Club, sees herself in Tobin Heath, her favorite player on the USWNT.
"They accomplished so much together," Laykin said. "And they were all my age one day. They were like me once. I think they showed everybody that girls can do anything when they have the same goals."
And while members of the USWNT have become international icons for women everywhere on the planet, not a single one has lost sight of the responsibilities they possess. Each of them understands that one day, the game of soccer will end for them, and they will then need to pass the baton on to the next generation, to girls like Zoe and Sasha Jackson, and Laykin Rudy, and 8-year-old Caitlyn McGlynn, who came with her mother, Merritt, across the bridge from Lawrenceville, N.J.
"Our team takes that responsibility very seriously toward the next generation," midfielder Julie Ertz said. "We want to grow women's soccer domestically and globally so that they are able to see and have role models, to dream that possibility and opportunity into fruition. That's huge for these young girls and women. The most fun part of this job is to talk to young girls and hear them want to be in our shoes one day."
For many of the young women on Thursday night, this was about just a soccer game. After all, 8- and 10-year-olds still have their whole lives in front of them, and the future is too big and far away for them to grasp. But one day, they'll understand this team and what it stood for was about so much more than just the sport they all love.
On this night, their young worlds being all about soccer and the next game they will soon play was more than enough.
"I love soccer, and I wanted to come down here to see Alex Morgan," Caitlyn McGlynn said. "I want to be like her. She's a soccer player, just like me."