Red Stars’ ‘Welcome Back Game’ shows movement women’s soccer started isn’t stopping

The 17,388 fans in attendance represented the first sellout in the Red Stars’ history.

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The 12 national and international NWSL players who competed in the 2019 World Cup stood for a celebratory photo at the start of Sunday’s Red Star’s game as they hosted the NC Courage.

Provided Photo/ISI Photos

Addison Hunt traveled with her mother, Andrea, from Texas to SeatGeek Stadium to watch Red Stars midfielder Julie Ertz play Sunday.

The Hunt family wasn’t alone in its travels, with 17,388 fans coming from near and far to watch their favorite U.S. women’s national team players return to National Women’s Soccer League play.

‘‘After hearing an interview of Megan Rapinoe’s where she said, ‘Come out and support,’ I thought, ‘Oh, of course,’ ’’ said Kristin Antonitti of Kalamazoo, Michigan. ‘‘So I was like, ‘Let’s get in the car and drive the 150 miles and do just that.’ ’’

The support for women’s soccer and equal pay for women across all lines of work has swelled in the wake of the U.S. women’s World Cup title. It could be largely because Rapinoe, one of the team’s captains, has taken every opportunity to advocate for change. It also could be because fans finally are becoming more interested in women’s sports.

Either way, it feels different for players and fans than it has in the past. This time, it feels as though it just might stick.

‘‘I think you’re seeing a movement,’’ Red Stars midfielder Morgan Brian said after the team’s 2-1 victory against the Courage. ‘‘Women’s soccer is here to stay. Obviously, the World Cup is a huge bump. . . . I think now it’s about putting a great product on the field and making [fans] see it’s a great product.’’

The sellout crowd, the first in the Red Stars’ history, was a huge boost for NWSL players, coaches and anybody who has supported the league from the beginning. But now the question becomes how the league can sustain the interest.

‘‘Coming out to a game is a huge step,’’ Courage midfielder Sam Mewis said. ‘‘I think you can buy season tickets. You can support on social media. If you’re not near a local team, now that we have a deal with ESPN, you can watch every game.’’

ESPN recently agreed to air 14 of the NWSL’s remaining games this season on its networks. The game between the Red Stars and Courage was broadcast live on ESPN2.

For NWSL players, competing before bigger crowds can mean the difference between working two jobs and making a living wage playing soccer. The minimum salary in the league is $16,538; the maximum is $46,200.

Members of the U.S. women’s team are fighting for equal pay with the U.S. men’s team, but they’re also fighting for NWSL teammates who aren’t making a living wage.

After the game ended, Brian, forward Sam Kerr and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher stayed for nearly an hour to sign autographs.

‘‘I remember being a kid, going out to games and trying to get my favorite player’s autograph,’’ Naeher said. ‘‘If they’re going to take the time to come all the way out here and sit through the 90-minute game and then wait around after, that’s the least that I could do.’’

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