PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — FIFA President Gianni Infantino took time out of his vacation to drop by the Rose Bowl for a celebration of the newest women’s World Cup champions.
And Infantino is confident the next winners of that trophy will reap even bigger rewards in four years.
Departing coach Jill Ellis and the U.S. women’s national team opened their post-World Cup domestic victory tour with a 3-0 victory over Ireland on Saturday night.
Infantino turned up in the stadium tunnel after the game to congratulate Ellis and her players, even posing for photos with the veteran coach. The Swiss executive repeated his desire to see constant growth in the women’s game, including his recent declarations of his determination to double the prize money to $60 million for an expanded 32-team women’s tournament in 2023.
“We have until 2023 to discuss about the prize money,” Infantino said. “I think we need to market it as well in a certain way, and I’m very confident. I’m sure we can go higher than (doubling the prize money). We need to be optimistic.”
Optimism about the women’s game abounded on a celebratory evening at the famed Rose Bowl, where the U.S. women kicked off a five-city tour bringing the champions to their eager stateside fans. They’ll also stop in Philadelphia, St. Paul and Charlotte before finishing in Chicago on Oct. 3 to conclude Ellis’ 5 1/2 years in charge.
Ellis announced her decision Tuesday to walk away as the first two-time women’s World Cup champion coach , and this win improved her record to 103-7-18 in the U.S.’ top job since 2014. The Americans’ new boss will have a compressed time frame to prepare the team for the Tokyo Olympics, which will be in the semifinals at this time next year.
“To do two World Cups, it’s the start of a cycle and the finish of a cycle, so I feel complete in that sense,” Ellis said. “I love change. I embrace change. I have a family, and sometimes it’s 150-plus days on the road. All of those things combined in this decision.”
Nearly four weeks after their World Cup-clinching victory over the Netherlands, the Americans showed off the ample two-way talent with which their new coach can work.
With an enthusiastic crowd of 37,040 cheering their every move, they had little trouble with Ireland, FIFA’s 33rd-ranked side. Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Carli Lloyd scored first-half goals.
“The U.S. team, the way they performed, the way they won, the way they came over and contributed greatly to the success (of the World Cup), now it’s up to us together with them to build something sustainable and meaningful for the future,” Infantino said.
Late in the scoreless second half, that crowd started a loud chant of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” Players on the women’s team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation in March, alleging gender discrimination in areas including financial compensation.
Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan missed the game while healing from minor injuries, and Mallory Pugh was scratched during warmups with a minor muscle issue. Rapinoe, the Golden Ball winner in France, and Morgan got wild cheers whenever they were shown on the scoreboard sitting on the U.S. bench.
The crowd half-filled the vast stadium despite stiff ticket prices, the Rose Bowl’s usual onerous parking fees and relatively short notice for the game. The fans included Kobe Bryant, actor Cecily Strong and Alessandro Del Piero, the retired Juventus star who lives in Los Angeles and owns a Hollywood restaurant.
A pregame ceremony included the unveiling of banners depicting four huge cloth stars symbolizing the Americans’ record four World Cup wins.
“It was so much fun to just go out and enjoy it and not have the pressure we’ve been playing with,” World Cup hero Rose Lavelle said.
U.S. Soccer picked an appropriate venue for the start of this tour: The Rose Bowl is the site of the team’s landmark 1999 World Cup triumph, and a statue of Brandi Chastain celebrating her championship-winning penalty sits in a park near the venerable arena’s front entrance.
“It’s incredible to hear the fans in here, and to have them celebrate and cheer for us,” Lloyd said. “It’s a really special place to play.”
Heath, a last-minute addition to the starting lineup, opened the scoring with a header in the 16th minute. Horan added a tap-in goal and Lloyd connected on another header shortly before halftime.
The Irish dropped to 0-13-0 against the U.S., but the experience could help their play in UEFA Women’s Euros qualification, which begins against Montenegro next month.
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