by Jen Cooper
This Sunday the NWSL championship game will be played in North Carolina for the first time in league history, as defending champs North Carolina Courage face first-time finalist Chicago Red Stars. This may be the first time that the Tar Heel State hosts a women’s pro soccer final, but WakeMed Park (formerly SAS Soccer Stadium) has seen a wealth of women’s soccer on its fields since opening in spring 2002.
The soccer-specific venue opened in May 2002 as a 7,000-seater and its first official match was a WUSA regular-season game between the Carolina Courage and the Philadelphia Charge. The home team won 1-0 thanks to a goal from 1999 WWC champ Tiffany Roberts.
Later that season, the stadium hosted its first playoff game as the Courage hosted the Atlanta Beat in the WUSA semifinals. Tied 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes with each team earning one penalty-kick goal, the game went into extra-time. It took barely two minutes for Courage captain Carla Overbeck to find the back of the net for the golden-goal game-winner. The Carolina team went on to win the WUSA Founders Cup (championship game) 3-2 over the Washington Freedom the following weekend in Atlanta.
That fall, a 17-year-old Heather O’Reilly scored her first international goal at the Cary facility, earning the second goal in a 4-0 USA win over Italy.
The 2003 WUSA All-Star Game was held in Cary, featuring a matchup between the World All-Stars and the USA All-Stars, just a few months before the 2003 Women’s World Cup.
And later that year, WakedMed Park hosted it first of several NCAA Division 1 College Cups (aka Final Four), with Lori Chalupny, Heather O’Reilly, Cat Reddick (now Whitehill) and Lindsay Tarpley helping North Carolina to its 17th NCAA title. The stadium also played host when the Tar Heels won in 2006.
UCLA won its first women’s soccer national title at WakeMed in 2013, witha 1-0 extra-time win over Florida State. Several players on the roster for the 2019 NWSL final played in that game, including Abby Dahlkemper (NC/UCLA), Katelyn Rowland (NC/UCLA) and Samantha Mewis (NC/UCLA).
The USWNT have played 10 games at WakeMed Park, including three group games during the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship last fall.
Today’s NWSL championship game will be the second NWSL playoff match hosted by WakeMed Park. The first one was the 2017 semifinal between North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars.