- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Cheyna Matthews has every reason to celebrate her year.

Matthews represented Jamaica in the Women’s World Cup earlier this summer. She’s put up three goals and two assists this season as an attacker for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). She’s also a mother, and her son Josiah’s first birthday is Saturday.

They’ll spend it at Audi Field, the home of D.C. United, where Josiah will watch his mother play an NWSL match.

Earlier this season, Matthews scored two goals in a match the day before Mother’s Day. “I wonder if Josiah’s birthday might also be one of those really good soccer days for me,” she said.

During a banner year for women’s soccer, and amid calls to pay more attention to the NWSL, the Spirit will play two matches at Audi Field in the coming weeks: Saturday against the Orlando Pride and Sept. 14 against Reign FC.

The Spirit usually play their home matches at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Maryland, where fans often fill up to a capacity of 5,500. But Audi Field holds about 20,000, and the seven-year-old team is expected to break its franchise attendance record.

Nothing is scheduled beyond 2019. But with the help of D.C. United, which operates the stadium, the Spirit are feeling right at home in the new MLS venue.

“It’s a superb relationship, so I think you’ll continue to see us play games at Audi Field,” said Steve Baldwin, who became the Spirit’s majority owner last winter.

Thanks to the World Cup, Matthews is used to playing in larger stadiums, but she’s nonetheless excited for what the Audi Field games say about the growth of women’s soccer.

“When I was a rookie, I didn’t think this was even in the conversation,” said Matthews, now playing her fourth NWSL season. “One, because Audi Field wasn’t there, but the men’s stadium was clearly bigger. But it was never even talked about or thought of to have a game somewhere else.”

Now it’s becoming more common around the league. It’s actually the norm in Portland, Oregon, where the NWSL’s Thorns already share a 25,000-seat park with MLS’s Timbers. Sky Blue FC, an NWSL team based in New Jersey, played at the New York Red Bulls’ arena for the first time and drew more than 9,000 fans.

The Spirit played their first match at Audi Field last August, a month after the MLS venue opened. The announced attendance was 7,976, but this year’s games will draw much larger crowds. A team official said they had sold nearly 15,000 tickets as of Wednesday afternoon.

Some of that has to do with the increased excitement around women’s soccer, and specifically the surging popularity of Rose Lavelle, a World Cup star who plays for Washington.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that Rose Lavelle has become that breakout star,” Baldwin said. “It couldn’t happen to a better person than Rose. She’s absolutely terrific.”

Baldwin calls himself an advocate for “unequal pay” — in favor of women. He argued that in the U.S., the women’s soccer product is superior to the men’s, from the national teams’ levels of success to the strength of the domestic leagues. He argued the NWSL has the female equivalents of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a list that could include Megan Rapinoe, Australia’s Sam Kerr and Brazil’s Marta.

Therefore, the next step for the sport and its athletes comes down to corporate sponsorships and proper marketing, Baldwin said.

“If we sell the product correctly, and the excellence associated with it and the incredible qualities the women in this league possess from being world-class athletes, world-class people and world-class role models to kids, then the superiority of our product can win in the marketplace,” he said.

Washington rookie defender Sam Staab hopes other cities can model themselves after soccer-loving Portland and thinks expansion would go a long way in drawing people to the NWSL.

“I think there’s markets that they could definitely expand to,” Staab said, “and I think that would help grow the league even more, if we have just more teams and more cities and more people involved in women’s soccer and growing the whole sport in general.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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