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Sky Blue FC sees record crowd as Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe visit

Reign FC midfielder Allie Long, left, and forward

Reign FC midfielder Allie Long, left, and forward Megan Rapinoe, right, wrap themselves in an American Flag during a pregame ceremony honoring the Women's World Cup players at Cheney Stadium on July 28 in Tacoma, Wash. Credit: AP/Joshua Bessex

HARRISON, N.J. — Women’s professional soccer in the United States finds itself at a crossroads.

After the national team secured its second successive Women’s World Cup championship last month, National Women’s Soccer League teams have seen an uptick in attendance. The question is whether they can sustain it.

Sky Blue FC, which has lagged in league attendance, joined the party Sunday, drawing a team-record 9,415 in its first — and, for now at least, only — game at Red Bull Arena, a 1-1 tie with Reign FC.

The encounter was hailed as a success by players and management.

“When fans come here and they see us, they see it inspiring, encouraging,” Reign midfielder and Northport native Allie Long said. “It was loud, it was a great environment. Even though it was so hot, I think it was the standard in the NWSL. I hope we can continue and play here more. But I think it was a great start to play here.”

Sky Blue has called 5,000-seat Yurcak Field at Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, home since 2009. Teams and players have abhorred performing at Yurcak, which has a decent field but no showers for players.

“Playing at Red Bull Arena allows us to feel like a professional athlete,” said Long, whose right-wing cross set up the Reign’s 36th-minute equalizing goal by Jodie Taylor. “When you’re at Yurcak, you feel like you’re at college again.”

Sunday’s crowd smashed the team record of 5,003 set in a 1-0 loss to Washington on July 24. Entering the match, Sky Blue was last in the nine-team NWSL in attendance, averaging 2,001. The team had averaged 2,380 the previous 10 years.

Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue knew that Red Bull Arena, home of the MLS Red Bulls, could be its salvation. “We realize we’ve outgrown Rutgers,” she said. “This gives a lot of promise for the future.”

Sky Blue midfielder and women’s soccer icon Carli Lloyd called it a “very special” game but knows it cannot be a one-off match. NWSL got a boost after Team USA won the Women’s World Cup in 2015, but interest leveled off.

“The biggest challenge is how we’re going to sustain that,” she said. “The word has to get out in this country. There’s so many people in this country who don’t know there’s a women’s professional league, and that’s a problem.”

Finding new owners with deep pockets is one piece of the puzzle.

“People with money need to invest, need to come up,” Long said. “Players have done everything we can, won the World Cup back-to-back. If you’re not coming to games now, we can’t physically give more than we have on the field. Off the field, we’re trying to promote, trying to grow this league.”

The game was marketed around World Cup hero and Reign forward Megan Rapinoe. She did not play because of an Achilles injury, but the crowd still was encouraging. Rapinoe attended the game but was not made available to the media, other than a halftime interview on ESPN.

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