Lehigh Valley SoccerFest & Viewing Party (SoccerFest) at SteelStacks has drawn thousands of visitors in the five short years since its creation. Featured as part of Fox Sports’ nightly World Cup wrap-ups, this year’s festival offered screenings of the U.S. women’s matches on giant, outdoor LED screens at SteelStacks. Each viewing party had live music, food, drinks, merchandise from local soccer stores, a youth-pick-up game area, and, for the finale, confetti. In addition to the viewing parties, SoccerFest included other events, such as Youth Soccer Day, which offered a Youth Soccer Clinic, a Father’s Day french toast breakfast, and a screening of the documentary film, American Futbol.
As proud U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team (USWNT) fans and first time visitors to SoccerFest, we didn’t know what to expect nor did we appreciate in advance the excitement that would surround these live streamed games. With a blanket and some bottles of water, we made our way to SteelStacks and watched as the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team defeated France, England, and the Netherlands to take home the gold, for the second time in a row.
Twelve short yards and Alyssa Naeher. In the 84th minute of the Women’s World Cup semi-final game between the U.S. and England, these were the only factors standing in the way of a tie. As England’s Steph Houghton lined up to take the penalty kick, you could hear a pin drop in the crowded SteelStacks lot. With a goal seeming certain, Bethlehem’s large crowd of soccer fans were all holding their breath. With butterflies in our stomachs, we were praying for a miracle. The shot was off, and then, the unthinkable! The SteelStacks venue erupted in pandemonium as U.S. star goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher leapt across the goal, stretching to block the powerful shot.
This unforgettable moment was a highlight of my experience watching the Women’s World Cup at SoccerFest. The quarter-final game against France was the first SoccerFest event I ever attended, and I was immediately impressed by the large turnout. There were so many spectators that it was hard to find a place to sit! In hindsight, my amazement at the attendance for the quarter-final game is somewhat humorous considering that the number of viewers grew exponentially for each of the next two games.
Every match was rife with action and provided a roller-coaster of emotions. Being at the SteelStacks venue with thousands of other fans amplified every feeling, and created a sense of unity. With every goal that was scored and game that was won, the crowded SteelStacks venue exploded in excitement. In all the madness, I couldn’t help but notice the passionate children, wearing jerseys of their favorite team USA players, joyously bounding around in their soccer cleats. I’m sure they were all dreaming that one day they too could represent their country, playing for enthusiastic fans like those at the SteelStacks. One of the best parts of the experience had to be when a little girl came over to my friend, who was rooting for France during the quarter-final match, and handed her a pretend red-card. The whole Pavilion erupted into laughter. Only a few short minutes later, we were proudly chanting “USA!” thrilled that our women had moved onto the next round.
At the viewing parties, there was a healthy mix of Lehigh students and local residents. It was wonderful to see everyone coming together to cheer on our national team.
Additionally, for years, I’ve felt the disappointing pressure that a man watching a women’s sporting event is considered taboo. I’m sure I’m not alone in this unfortunate feeling. All the more significant, then, was the viewership at SoccerFest. Seeing men and women of a variety of different ages and backgrounds coming together in support of the U.S. team instantly quelled any gender-biased athletics stereotypes. Moreover, I’m sure watching the U.S. team win gold in the presence of such a large crowd was truly inspiring to every female athlete in attendance.
Watching the U.S. Women’s National Team compete in the World Cup following the political controversies surrounding star-forward Megan Rapinoe was, if anything, all the more motivation for me to stop what I was doing and go watch the games. Knowing how much rides on the performance by our women’s team–their fight for equal pay, the way people respect women’s sports–I was keenly aware that this World Cup had the audience and the attention to make a difference in women’s sports.
Back when I played soccer, getting people to show up at the women’s games was nearly impossible. Our bleachers would be sparse with parents and siblings while men’s games would be full of cheering friends and school administrators. This had forced me to believe that women’s soccer just didn’t have the same appeal, and I expected a less than stellar showing at the Soccerfest viewing. The thousands of attendees proved me wrong.
I went to the last three U.S. games, but the final game was where the best action really was. My friends and I got to the lot to set up our picnic blanket 30 minutes before kickoff, and there were already hundreds, if not thousands, of people. We luckily nabbed an open square near the front and settled into watching a game we knew would make history.
At the 58 minute mark, VAR intervened after a Dutch player’s high kick stopped Alex Morgan in the goal box. It was the call we had all been hoping for: penalty kick. Megan Rapinoe stepped forward, and the crowded SteelStacks lot fell totally silent. Everyone stood up, crossing their fingers that the U.S. could finally take the lead. Rapinoe shot, the ball went right past Van Veenendaal and into the back of the net, and the crowd exploded into cheers. That 1-0 lead was exactly the confidence boost we needed to win the game. And just a few minutes later, after Rose Lavelle scored one of the most impressive goals I’ve ever seen, we held our 2-0 lead until the final whistle.
To be honest, I surprised myself with how genuinely emotional I became after the USWNT won their fourth World Cup. A lot of things happened at once to make this happen. It was the dads who came with their sons; the young girls and boys running around in Rapinoe and Morgan jerseys; and, the feeling of unbridled patriotism as our national team showed the resilient American spirit.
Yet, it felt strange to rally around a national team when I am conflicted already on my feelings for the nation. Cheering for the United States felt like I was embodying blind patriotism for this country without acknowledging accountability for its faults. Yet, the World Cup this year reminded me that patriotism is cheering for the good and holding to account the bad. The women’s national team, which is full of fierce, diverse, LGBTQ+, proud, loud, and wonderful women who do not hesitate to speak truth to power and fight for equal treatment is the “good” in America that I can celebrate.