USA Women’s World Cup action is rapidly approaching, and the path for the United States team begins with matches in Winnipeg and Vancouver — two Canadian venues with artificial turf and stiff competition.
The United States team will be trying to win its first World Cup since winning as the host nation in 1999. Third-place winners in 2003 and 2007, and runners up to Japan in 2011, they will attempt to once again hoist the most coveted trophy in women’s sport.
That goal, however, will not be easily achieved. Their group stage opponents, in what many are calling the “group of death,” include three teams that will provide stiff competition. The second-ranked American team (Germany is #1) is joined in the group by fifth-ranked Sweden, coached by their former boss Pia Sundhage, as well as tenth-ranked Australia — three of the group’s teams in the top ten — as well as Nigeria, a newcomer to the World Cup, but the highest ranked team in Africa.
The Americans’ first and second games, Monday, June 8, against Australia, and Friday, June 12, against Sweden, will be played at Winnipeg Stadium. The venue is usually known as Investors Group Field, but the name has been changed for the duration of the tournament due to FIFA sponsorship rules.
In addition to the name change, stadium officials were required to remove or cover all existing advertising, including all branded interior and exterior signage. They even had volunteers scrape advertising stickers from all 33,500 cupholders, and removed all the drink machines and concession stand coolers — FIFA is sponsored by Coke, and the beverage equipment was branded Pepsi.
All of the advertising will have to be quickly replaced after the tournament, as the regular home team, CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, have an exhibition game in the stadium on June 19th. FIFA is extraordinary in its strict sponsorship program and careful control of all branding opportunities. In Winnipeg, even the match day volunteers are being carefully branded — each person has been outfitted by FIFA sponsor Adidas in a $500 package that includes shoes, socks, pants, hat, shorts, shirt, jacket, rain jacket, water bottle and backpack.The site of the third and final American group stage game, against Nigeria on June 16, as well as the site of the July 5 final, will be Vancouver’s 50,000-seat BC Place Stadium. Like all of the of the six stadiums hosting games, BC Place has artificial turf — the first time any World Cup will not be played on natural grass.
The issue has been a major source of controversy. Forty players, including American stars Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, signed on to a lawsuit to the Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario over the issue, but later dropped the suit. Players contend that the turf poses an injury threat, though FIFA released a study claiming that there is no appreciable difference in terms of risk.
BC Place has recently installed new Polytan turf, but it is apparently a new and improved artificial surface, one that uses green infill material rather than the traditional black, making it appear even more green that natural grass. According to B.C. Place officials the “unique dual tone green,” will provide “exceptional HD broadcast presentation.”
Don Hardman, chief stadia officer for the 2015 Women’s World Cup organizing committee, said, “It’s going to look great. It’s going to play great. We’re very pleased.” FIFA plans to use this World Cup as a test to determine if future tournaments, both men’s and women’s, should be played on artificial or natural surfaces.
Once the tournament kicks off, both the turf and FIFA’s sponsorship arrangements will take a back seat to the main event, the world-class soccer. For the American women, the goal will be to capture their third World Cup. Their path to victory, should they be able to negotiate it successfully, will lead through Winnipeg and Vancouver.