Mary Ellen Brennan stood outside Soldier Field, a brush in her hand, tiny soccer balls dangling from her ears, little boys and girls lined up before her to get their faces painted red, white and blue.
She and 74 others had loaded into cars, vans and practically anything else with wheels for the 12-hour drive from Tulsa, Okla., to see the United States beat Nigeria 7-1 on Thursday in the Women's World Cup. Not even an overheated van and a four-hour delay in Missouri could cool this group's enthusiasm.
Â"If this was a football game, I'd just come,Â" Brennan said. Â"But this is soccer. I'm a fanatic.Â"
She and the 65,080 others who crammed into Soldier Field. With two hours still to go before the Brazil-Italy game, the first match of the doubleheader, the lines to get in the gates were already snaking around the stadium. Parking lots were full and scalpers wandered around offering tickets at twice face value.
The Americans made sure it was money well spent. After the Nigerians scored first, the United States answered with three goals in a four-minute span early in the first half, and the rout was on.
When the final horn sounded, the Americans on the bench ran onto the field, hugging their teammates. Assistant coach Lauren Gregg turned toward the crowd as she walked to the field, clapping her hands above her head.
After shaking hands with the Nigerians, the Americans ran around the field in a victory lap, waving to the crowd, clapping their hands and giving the thumbs-up sign. It was a scene straight from a rock concert, as fans screamed and yelled and flashbulbs went off all over the stadium.
Â"It wasn't to promote ourselves, it was to thank the crowd,Â" fan favorite Mia Hamm said. Â"Two minutes in, they really supported us. To hear the chants of `U-S-A,' that's what you mean when you talk about home-field advantage. They just made us feel very special.Â"
From the time the Americans took the field, the fans were wild and rowdy. A huge cheer went up when the American flag was brought out, and the team got a standing ovation as it walked onto the field.
As the starters stood at midfield, waiting for the national anthem, Michelle Akers raised both her hands and pumped her fists at the crowd, which was chanting, Â"U-S-A All the way!Â" During the pre-game huddle, forward Cindy Parlow stepped back and waved at the crowd, urging them to keep cheering.
With a pro-American crowd, that wasn't going to be a problem. While a few people wore Brazil shirts, anything red, white and blue
hats, T-shirts, faces, fingernails was the popular choice of the day.
Backup goalie Saskia Webber and forward Danielle Fotopoulos even dyed their hair red, white and blue.
One group of teen-age girls sported red, white and blue down to their underwear. Adreanna Pankow, sisters Jamie and Randi Siedzik, Natalie Black and Kelly Wood were dressed in flag boxer shorts flag bandannas and red sports bras. They spelled out Â"Go USAÂ" across their stomachs in face paint, and had Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy's names and numbers on their arms and backs.
Â"We're soccer nuts,Â" Randi Siedzik said.
Like the crowd at Giants Stadium on Saturday, many of the fans were young girls. And most of them were big Hamm fans. There were Hamm jerseys and T-shirts with her No. 9 all over the place. Hundreds of girls had her number painted on their faces.
Â"All of the players and fans are great role models for young women everywhere, and we wanted to see them,Â" Walz-Keller said. Â"We really can't have personal contact with them, so this is our way of showing support.Â"
It wasn't just young girls who were excited to see the game. Mike and Nancy Lynch of Western Springs, Ill., brought their 11-year-old son, Jimmy, and three of his friends.
Â"It's the same as the men's,Â" Steven Oetking, 11, said.
Â"Except this U.S. team, I'm expecting to get a little further,Â" Jimmy Lynch added.
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