A League of Their Own

    Imagine being the best at what you do without having a workplace in which to do it. This was the problem for the top women soccer players in the world.

    It was a problem, that is, until April 14.

    That is the date that the Washington Freedom hosted the San Franciso CyberRays in the first ever Women’s United Soccer Association match.

    History was made. Or perhaps more properly put, herstory was made.

    The league, founded February 15, 2000, is made up of eight teams. San Diego is lucky enough to be home to one of the clubs, the Spirit.

    Founding WUSA was a long time coming and was not an easy task.

    “”Ten years ago, [we had] no thoughts about a league,”” said Spirit star Julie Foudy. “”It wasn’t realistic. Five years ago was probably the first formation of ‘you know, wow, this is something we can maybe get off the ground.’ That was probably because of the Olympics in ’96. That was the first time America got a glimpse of our national team and women’s soccer in general. As players, we had always dreamt of it, of course.””

    The U.S. national women’s team came into its own in the 1996 Olympics, winning the gold.

    Then in 1999, things really took off. Literally. That was the year that Brandi Chastain pulled off her jersey to reveal a now-famous sports bra after kicking the winning penalty shot against China to win the first Women’s World Cup.

    “”It wasn’t until the success of the Word Cup that a lot of investors and sponsors said ‘we want to get behind this,'”” Foudy said.

    This league is not one of scrubs or wash-ups. It is not some sort of World Football League, XFL or CBA. The league features the best, not just in the United States, but from around the world.

    “”Actually, the level is incredible,”” Foudy said. “”You have on the field, at one given time, seven Olympians. We have the best in the world. It’s really the only professional league of this caliber in the world.””

    Take the Spirit, for starters. The team boasts national stars such as Julie Foudy, Shannon McMillian and Joy Fawcett (who is not playing this year due to pregnancy). They also have some international gems in Kristin Bengtsson and Ulrika Kalrsson of Sweden, and Fan Yunjie of China

    “”It’s the best league in the world; the best players in the world,”” said Spirit head coach Carlos Juarez. “”We have the best players from the national team as well as the best international players. I think it’s a great opportunity for people and soccer fans to get the opportunity to come and watch the best players playing. It’s kind of like the NBA or the NFL.””

    A team so full of talent can be a blessing — and difficult — but Juarez is up to the test.

    “”It’s a challenge in that you need to day-in and day-out make sure that you give them quality that you challenge them so that they are getting something new and something energetic,”” Juarez said. “”They’re good players, but the challenge is to make them individually better and for them to become a team.””

    The forming and success of the WUSA is one of the greatest accomplishments in women’s athletics, though it did not come easily.

    “”There are always skeptics out there [saying] that women’s leagues don’t work,”” Foudy said. “”We had people saying ‘don’t do it, you won’t be able to raise the money.’ If we had ever listened to them we would never be where we are. The great thing is that it gives a lot of female athletes courage to say ‘hey we believe we can get our own league off the ground.’ We don’t have an NBA sustaining us, or an MLS. We want to do this on our own.””

    The key to the Spirit and the WUSA’s success is fan support. Without fan support, there are no sold-out games, no television coverage and no league.

    “”I think our fan is about median age 12 years old,”” Foudy said. “”I think there’s a void with young kids in terms of identifying with professional teams and going to games because it’s not affordable anymore and it’s been catered to the corporate community so much. I think we really want to hit grass roots and young kids, which we’ve been so successful with at the national team level.””

    The thousands of screaming fans at Spirit games can attest to its effectiveness. The team plays its home games at Torrero Stadium on the campus of the University of San Diego. So far, three home games have been played, with as many sellouts.

    “”We need to be successful,”” Juarez said. “”We need to make sure we put on a good show, that our games are good, that our fans are entertained. Our chances are good because we have good role models and we have good players.””

    The Spirit has had a shaky start. They have a record of 1-3-2, but have been competitive in all of the games.

    “”Short-term, we need to make the playoffs,”” Juarez said. “”The goal is to win the championship. We are very capable of that. The long-term for the league is obviously for us to draw good attendance and for people to follow us not just for one game or a season, but for many years to come. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge because it’s a new sport and a new league and any time you have something new, you’re going to have some ups and downs.””

    So far, so good for the WUSA. Tickets are affordable, the games are entertaining, attendance is high and television ratings are as good as can be expected. Women soccer players finally have a field to showcase their talents on. And some of the best players in the world get to strut their stuff.

    “”It means that finally our dreams are coming true; we have a place to play,”” Foudy said. “”We’ve always dreamt of playing soccer for a living and inspiring others while we do it, not just on the field but off the field. It’s the perfect platform to do that.””

    The Spirit play two home games in a row on June 2 and June 9. For ticket information head on over to http://www.wusa.com or visit http://ticketmaster.com.

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