U.S. WNT ready to face China at PPL Park in front of sold out crowd

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Tonight’s friendly against China presents the U.S. WNT with another opportunity to fine-tune. And the capacity crowd will make this a memorable first stop on the team’s pre-Olympic send-off tour.

The match will kick-off from PPL Park at 7 PM E.T. This is the team’s penultimate domestic match ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

In what has become a surprising but welcome trend, the match will be streamed live on USSoccer.com. U.S. Soccer also provided webcasts of the USWNT’s previous two friendlies against Sweden in Glendale, Arizona and New Zealand in Frisco, Texas – all by popular demand. Gone are the days of relying exclusively on Match Tracker and Twitter for firsthand accounts.

A few notes:

– This match-up first gave rise to the Alex Morgan phenomenon. China squared off with the U.S. in a friendly at this  same venue back on October 6, 2010. The U.S. faced a one-goal deficit as the match entered the final stretch. Morgan, making just her third international appearance, came on late and ended up scoring her debut goal with the senior team. The 21 year-old broke away from the Chinese defense and netted the equalizer. It was a sign of things to come.

– Pia Sundhage wasn’t expected to make wholesale changes to the pre-Olympics squad. Thus, today’s 18-player roster is virtually bereft of surprises. Veteran defender Heather Mitts is back in the mix and could replace an injured Ali Krieger. 23 year-old Meghan Klingenberg has the fewest caps of any player in the roster and might be an interesting option at outside back. Winger Tobin Heath misses the cut after sustaining an ankle injury last week.

– The U.S. MNT debuted U.S. Soccer’s new kits last night. The U.S. WNT will get their turn tonight. The team’s previous kits (most frequently characterized as the dreaded nurse outfits) were largely pilloried by the team’s fanbase. In this case, change is good. (Video of players donning the new kit here).

– Will Sundhage make further tweaks to the back four? There’s really only one glaring question mark about the squad, and it has everything to do with defense. Rachel Buehler has looked increasingly unsteady at center back. Natural center back Amy LePeilbet appears a bit more comfortable at outside back, but still has her share of shaky moments. Kelley O’Hara is halfway through her transition from outside attacker to fullback. Will Sundhage give KO another run at that position or will Heather Mitts get the start?

– The U.S. will try to protect a 16-game unbeaten run against China. The Steel Roses (easily the coolest nickname in women’s soccer) came close in 2010, but were undone by Alex Morgan’s late heroics. January 2011 marked the last time the two teams met and the USWNT came away with a 2-0 win.

A brand new world:

Tonight’s game is a sellout. That phrase isn’t often used in reference to USWNT matches. Sundhage’s team is living in a ‘pre-World Cup’ and ‘post-World Cup’ world. And boy, are they different. Despite the runners-up finish, the USWNT’s exploits in Germany has ushered in a new era of popularity.

Attendance figures are a solid indicator. The last time the U.S. appeared at PPL Park (you know, the Alex Morgan game), a measly 2,505 attendees were on hand. It was a humiliatingly low number and served as a harsh reminder of the team’s diminished status.

While that number was astoundingly low, it wasn’t exactly an outlier. The USWNT’s three previous friendlies before that match attracted an average crowd of 5,713 people.

How about now? The team’s three previous domestic matches ahead of tonight’s match have attracted an average of 19,243 attendees. That’s a 237% increase between then and now.

In the olden days, MLS soccer-specific stadiums proved to be unsuitable venues for the USWNT. Attendance-wise at least. In 2010 and pre-World Cup 2011, the team’s average percentage of capacity for friendlies in such stadiums was a mere 20.75%. Post-World Cup 2011 and 2012? That number has skyrocketed to 93%. Today’s capacity  crowd will see that figure increase to a mind-boggling 96.5%.

The breakdown:

March 31, 2010 vs. Mexico – Rio Tinto Stadium – 3,732 – 19% of total capacity

October 6, 2010 vs. China – PPL Park – 2,505 – 14%

May 14, 2011 vs. Japan – Columbus Crew Stadium – 5,234 – 26%

June 5, 2011 vs. Mexico – Red Bull Arena – 5,852 – 24%

September 17, 2011 vs. Canada – Livestrong Sporting Park – 16,191 – 88%

September 22, 2011 vs. Canada – Jeld-Wen Field – 18,570 – 91%

February 11, 2012 vs. New Zealand – FC Dallas Stadium – 20,677 – 100%+

May 27, 2012 vs. China – PPL Park – 18,50 – 100%*