More than 30,000 people came to Ford Field Thursday, but it was a crowd more suited to a concert than a sporting event.
They got what they came to see, too. The U.S. women’s national team performed their greatest hits, added in a couple new things and left the crowd of 34,548 roaring for an encore after a 5-0 win over Haiti.
“It’s amazing to see how much soccer has changed in this country during my career,” said American superstar Abby Wambach. “I know that we’ve played here before, and we never had crowds like this. Winning the World Cup obviously helped, but I hope this is a level of excitement that stays around for a long time.”
The U.S. women had played three times previously in Detroit, once at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1993 and twice at Ford Field in 2008 and 2012. Those three games drew a combined 32,876 fans, nearly two thousand fewer than Thursday night’s crowd alone.
On paper, it was a competitive match between the United States and Haiti, but in this case, the Haitians were playing the role of the Washington Generals. They provided 11 players, many still in high school, who weren’t nearly good enough to get in the way of the American show.
Like any good rock concert, there were fans who wanted to see different things, and almost all of them got what they wanted.
The ones who came to see World Cup star Carli Lloyd in person got the best show. Captain America put the U.S. up 1-0 in the sixth minute and made it 3-0 with a penalty kick in the 37th. She could have easily had a first-half hat trick, as she did in July’s final against Japan, but hit the post with a header and sent another inches wide.
She hit the bar early in the second half, but finished off her hat trick in the 69th minute with a header off the crossbar.
“For a while, we thought we might have to play against ourselves tonight, and that was a scary thought,” Lloyd said. “It was really huge of Haiti to make this trip on short notice. It’s not the same as playing Australia, but we took them just as seriously as any other opponent.”
Other fans might have been at Ford Field to see glamour girl Alex Morgan, but she didn’t have quite as much luck as Lloyd. She also hit the post, had a header drift just wide and saw overwhelmed Haitian keeper/captain Edny Limage make a brilliant save.
And, of course, no concert is complete without the late performance of the band’s greatest hit. Wambach replaced Morgan in the 63rd minute, drawing a thunderous ovation, but put her best chance over the bar in injury time.
“People have asked me what it is like coming off the bench at this point in my career, and I tell them that it is awesome because of the response I always get from the fans,” she said. “I know that’s a thank you for what I’ve done in my career, and it never gets old.”
The lesser-known members of the band got their chances, too. Christen Press scored the second American goal in the 33rd minute, and Crystal Dunn, a late cut from the World Cup roster, had a goal and two assists while tearing the Haitian defense apart.
To be fair to Haiti, they took the game on short notice because of an Australian player strike, in the middle of an extreme youth movement. The roster was mostly made up of U-18 players, including 15-year-old defender Emeline Charles.
“When we lost out in World Cup qualifying last October, we decided to completely revamp our national-team program,” said Haitian coach Shek Borkowski, whose team arrived in Detroit Monday night and only had two days of practice. “We’re completely focused on the 2019 World Cup right now, so most of our roster is our 1997 and 1998 (born) players. We were playing 16 and 17-year-olds today that had never been out of Haiti before, much less in front of a crowd like this.”
The highest civilian honor that can be earned by a Haitian is the Medaille Honneur et Merite (Medal of Honor and Merit), and the 30-year-old Limage had certainly earned one by the end of the first half. Only a pair of desperate diving punches had kept the US from running up the score even further, and she paid the price in a pair of bone-rattling collisions.
By the 50th minute, Limage was too banged up to even take goal kicks, but made a diving save to keep out Julie Johnston’s 20-yard shot. Things got worse, as she simply fell to the ground in agony when trying to leap for Lloyd’s third goal, and she was finally replaced by 17-year-old Jonie Gabriel in the 87th minute.
“Obviously, Edny is a huge part of this team, and we really count on her as a goalkeeper and a leader,” Borkowski said. “She did a great job today, considering the U.S. might be the best women’s football team ever, and scored as many goals in the World Cup final as they did today. We finally had to take her out, because she was struggling physically, but 5-0 is a very respectable show for us.”
So everyone left Ford Field in a good mood Thursday night – the Americans got a nice 90-minute workout, the Haitians got some experience against the best team in the world and, most importantly, the fans got to see exactly the show they wanted.