USWNT fans’ World Cup experience without the U.S.: ‘The more the thought sunk in, the more disappointing it got’

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SYDNEY — After Bill and Heather Drake took their two daughters to see the U.S. women’s national team compete in the group stage games of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the American team went on to win the whole thing after a captivating run through the knockout stage. So when the 2023 tournament rolled around, this time the Drakes wanted to see the U.S. in the later rounds.

They booked flights from Detroit to Auckland, New Zealand — a travel day of around 24 hours — where they planned to see the USWNT compete in the quarterfinals and semifinals in Auckland. Two days before their flight, however, they woke up at 5 a.m. and watched on TV as Sweden knocked the Americans out in the round of 16.

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“It was heartbreaking,” Heather said. “I was happy — I felt like they were playing well. Up until that game, I didn’t think they were playing like the U.S. team that we expected. So I was excited — I was like, ‘OK, maybe this can happen.'”

But then it didn’t happen. The U.S. previously had never failed to reach the semifinals of a Women’s World Cup, but after a 0-0 deadlock, the round-of-16 match turned to penalty kicks, where Sweden gave the Americans a shocking early exit.

And with that, countless travel itineraries went up in smoke for USWNT fans.

The Drakes and their daughters, Claire and Claudia, made the most of their trip, chatting with ESPN on a ferry bringing them back to Auckland’s downtown from picturesque Waiheke Island. But when first confronted with the notion of flying around the world to see a team that was no longer even in the World Cup, it was hard not to feel let down.

“It was a little disappointing,” Bill said. “The more the thought sunk in, the more disappointing it got.”

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Fans based in the United States bought nearly 100,000 tickets for the Women’s World Cup, according to FIFA — the most of any nation outside host countries Australia and New Zealand. That’s a lot of disappointed fans, some of whom might have never had a chance to watch their team play as they banked on the U.S. making it deeper into the tournament.

On Saturday at the Auckland airport, a familiar scene played out at an Air New Zealand gate where passengers waited to fly to Sydney, the host city of a semifinal game and the final. Two sets of strangers, a family of four — a mom, dad, daughter and son — and a couple of women (one wearing a Portland Thorns T-shirt) shared updates on the ongoing Australia-France game and recognized each other as Americans and got to chatting.

“You’re here for the World Cup too?” “Yep. We’re from L.A. Where are you from?” “The Bay Area.” “Ah.” They had rearranged their plans when the U.S. got knocked out, and the talk quickly turned to the team and questioning coach Vlatko Andonovski’s choice of lineups and substitutions.

Upstairs at the Auckland airport that night, Tehya Mondala was playing cards with her dad, Bryan, and her mom, Helen. They were waiting for their flight to head back to San Diego after watching the U.S. in only one of the three games they had planned to see. They attended the group stage game against Portugal, but when the U.S. failed to win its group and took an unexpected path, the family couldn’t see the team in the round of 16 — and then, well, the Americans weren’t even in the quarterfinals.

“We knew that was a risk — although it’s the first time in history it happened,” Bryan Hageman said. “We weren’t going to change our hotel and our airfare and everything else.”

The team’s poor form early in the tournament had braced the family for the possibility beforehand, Bryan added: “Before we came here, we knew in that Portugal game they had to score four goals and they didn’t look like they were going to score one goal, even before the game.”

Some fans did rearrange their plans, however.

Before the tournament started, the consensus prediction was that the U.S. would win Group E, which meant that the team would have played its round-of-16 match in Sydney before returning to New Zealand for a quarterfinal in Wellington. (The organizers of the tournament, FIFA, thought the same and plotted a schedule where the winner of Group E would play locally in the afternoon so the games could air during primetime for an American TV audience.)

But the U.S. finishing second in the group meant a detour to the round of 16 in Melbourne, Australia, and then a return to Auckland for the quarterfinal. (Those games were set to be played at night locally, which meant kickoff times in the middle of the night back in the United States.)

Cassidy Fialkiewicz and Zion Moore of Seattle booked travel from Auckland to Sydney, expecting the Americans to top their group, but made an impromptu 24-hour whirlwind trip to Melbourne to follow the team when the path changed. The pair managed to get last-minute match tickets and flights, so they went for it.

“Our base is in Sydney because we thought they were going to be in Sydney,” Cassidy said on the day of the U.S.-Sweden game. “We flew in this morning and we’re leaving tomorrow at 6 a.m. and no hotel.”

Asked what she’d do if the USWNT unexpectedly got knocked out that night, she said she planned to make the most of the World Cup. “I love soccer,” Cassidy said. “We’re just going to go to Sydney and watch some good football. That’s what it’s all about.”

But the World Cup has largely continued on without the U.S. fans who have been such a presence at past tournaments — including the American Outlaws, the superfans who travel in groups to major tournaments and friendlies for both the men’s and women’s national teams. Monica Bosiljevac of the American Outlaws estimated that about 3,000 fans went to the USA-Netherlands game in Wellington, comparable to the turnout in Paris for the USWNT’s 2019 quarterfinal against France.

“It seems less accessible, or like less people are traveling here than they did for Canada [in 2015] or France because it’s a longer trip, but I’ll say that the turnout for AO has still been blowing us out of the water,” Bosiljevac said early in the tournament when the U.S. was still in it.

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Of fans who made the American Outlaws events part of their itinerary, a popular choice was to plan to see the third game of the group stage and then continue on to the knockout stage. Some fans hedged their bets, booking refundable options for the USWNT winning the group or finishing second.

Some American fans, of course, were left having to find new teams to root for. Many U.S. fans had tickets to watch the quarterfinal in Auckland that became Sweden against Japan. Early on, it became clear many Americans were rooting against Sweden, the team that sent the U.S. home.

The Drakes had tickets to that game, too. When ESPN asked whether they’d be rooting for Sweden or Japan, they didn’t hesitate, responding in unison: “Japan.”

Of course, Sweden knocked Japan out of the tournament that night. American fans just can’t catch a break.

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