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The hardcore fans following USA in Canada: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

By Caitlin Murray, @caitlinmurr

Wherever USA have played in Canada, crowds from across the border have followed them. It’s helped the team – and given fans an unforgettable experience

USA fans cheer on their team against Germany. Photograph: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA Today Sports

This fall, 18-year-old Isabella Nazario will be leaving Westchester, New York and her mom, Anita Cortes. She was recruited to play soccer at San Francisco State University, 3,000 miles from home.

But she had an idea. The Women’s World Cup was in Canada, and USA had a big game on the calendar against Sweden in Winnipeg. That game could be a last trip with her mom before she had to move to the west coast.

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Jill Ellis’s team were unimpressive as they made their way through the tournament but the Americans exploded into life against Germany.
“Having the Sweden coach [Pia Sundhage] being the old US coach, that really put a lot of excitement into that game,” Nazario said. “Everyone thought that was a big rivalry to see.”

Cortes bought tickets to the sold-out game and booked flights. All that was left was a hotel room. She checked various travel websites for lodging every day, and every day her searches returned zero results.

Apparently Nazario was right about that game – there were no rooms in the entire city of Winnipeg. One day, her mom found a room that looked promising but didn’t book it immediately. It was gone when she tried again within the hour.

“There was nothing available, but I tried every single day with the anticipation that we might get lucky,” Cortes said. “I kept up a very positive attitude. I was always confident that I was going to find something.”

“But if I had to rent a car and we had to sleep in the car, I thought maybe we’ll do that. That was in the back of mind. I was committed.”

Locals across Winnipeg were opening up their homes to American strangers as ad-hoc bed & breakfasts on websites like Craigslist and Airbnb. It seemed that just as quickly as rooms were posted online, they were booked. Cortes tried that route with little luck, but one of the homeowners mentioned she heard a local college in Winnipeg was offering rooms.
Students make the dormitories of St John’s College their homes during the school year by furnishing them with the comforts of home, like televisions and art for the walls. Without that, they are each just kind of a room waiting to be turned into something more – blank concrete walls, a desk and a chair, a single bed with sheets. The showers and bathrooms are shared facilities.

It wasn’t ideal, but it meant that Cortes and her daughter didn’t need to sleep in a car if they wanted to attend the Women’s World Cup. She booked it with only days to spare. “I felt like I got the last two beds in the entire city,” she said.

These dorm rooms were never designed to function as full-service hotel rooms, but Winnipeg didn’t have any other options for late-planning Americans flocking to see the tournament. Ivan Froese, an administrator at St John’s, reached out to Tourism Winnipeg to let them know the school could help meet the demand for rooms.

“It was pretty amazing how quickly the word got out. Immediately, I was just fielding call after call from people looking for places to stay,” Froese said. “I know that we aren’t a five-star hotel, but we wanted to offer something to people who needed a place to stay. People calling were fairly desperate.”

Over the course of the tournament, about 45 people ended up staying in St John’s dorms. Officially, the city’s occupancy rate was 100% for the dates around the USA-Sweden match, a tight and tense affair that finished 0-0.

Nearly everywhere USA have played in the tournament, crowds from across the border have followed them. The Americans played in front of sold out crowds in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Ottawa, where demand for hotel rooms spiked.

It’s not too surprising. For the men’s World Cup in Brazil last year, Americans bought more tickets than any other country beside the host nation. Finalists in 2011, and now into the final again, USA are always a favorite to win the trophy.

About 900,000 tickets have been sold for the tournament so far, and the US and Canada account for 95% of ticket sales, according to the organizing committee. The 2011 tournament in Germany sold around 845,000 tickets total and the record attendance for a Women’s World Cup is 1.2 million, set in the US in 1999.

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Facebook Twitter Pinterest , Wambach and Rapinoe fans. Photograph: Brad Smith/ISI/Corbis
Winnipeg has been the only city where demand has exceeded supply. It’s largely due to three factors: Winnipeg is one of the smaller host cities; fans are more likely to travel from out of town to see group stage matches, where venues and dates are set months in advance; and Winnipeg was hosting USA games and not matches featuring only nations from different continents.

Some determined fans gave up trying to stay in Winnipeg altogether.

Courtney Nguyen of San Francisco looked for a hotel room in Winnipeg for her and a friend for about three months. Eventually, she gave up and settled on accommodations in North Dakota, a drive of more than three hours from the Winnipeg stadium. It ended up easiest and most cost-effective to drive there from California. Afterward, she drove to Vancouver for the USA v Nigeria match, which finished 1-0.

A tennis reporter for Sports Illustrated, Nguyen has attended her share of big sporting events, but one that has stuck with her through the years was the 1999 final when USA beat China on penalty kicks in Pasadena.

“That was the most defining sports memory that I have in my life. It was a total moment,” she said. “So, the fact that this tournament was in our backyard, it was doable. Sure, it was going to be a pain in the ass, but I felt like I had to.”

“Part of me thought, if this were a men’s World Cup, people would not even think twice about doing it. I don’t want to treat this like it’s anything lesser. I was committed to doing what any soccer fan would do for a World Cup.”

She wasn’t alone. A common sight in hotel parking lots across Canada this summer has been cars with American license plates from as far as Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania, with messages scrawled across the windows, like “Go USA!” or the hashtag “#USWNT.”

There has also been the odd camper here and there from clever fans that opted to skip hotel rooms altogether.

Michael Hemphill became a USA fan during their memorable 1999 run, and once his daughters began playing soccer, he appreciated the team even more. He had always thought it would be a good bonding experience to travel across country with his family. The Women’s World Cup gave him the perfect excuse.

He and his wife Julia bought a pop-up camper and mapped out the trip with their daughters Naomi, Emily and Meg. They planned to depart from their home in Roanoke, Virginia, with the camper attached on a hitch and would stay in campgrounds in Winnipeg, Vancouver and as far as the US women made through the tournament.

“I knew it was going to be long – very long,” said 10-year-old Meg, who looks up to midfielder Megan Rapinoe, for the shared name and the way she uses her left foot. “I knew we were going to be packed and not have a lot of space. But it’s better than what I expected. We’re roughing it a little, but it’s actually fun.”

The Hemphill family has driven nearly 6,000 miles so far. Naomi, 15, said her friends thought her dad was crazy.

Looking back on his plan, Michael agrees a bit. He had never done anything like this, but he felt it was chance to share a special experience with his family. He has blogged throughout his journey to capture the memories.

“On every level, we were not as prepared as we would’ve liked to be – mentally, physically because of the labor to set up camp, emotionally,” he said with a laugh. “But the challenges have been more than overcome by the joy we’ve experienced together on this trip.”

He added: “It’s a World Cup, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We weren’t going to be able to do it another time.”

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