BLAIR'S WORK ETHIC, LOYALTY AID LOWLY W-LEAGUE FRANCHISE
By Al Mattei
It is a summer night in Kearny, N.J., a place known to many as Soccertown, USA. On one of the two soccer fields in this small blue-collar hamlet near New York City, a schoolgirl is toughening her resolve and her developing body, diving to stop opposing shots, not caring whether she lands on one of the rocky spots within her penalty area.
Among the opponents in some of the pickup games are those whose names have been on the lips of the growing number of die-hard American soccer fans: Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Andrew Shue, Tony Meola.
Eileen Blair may be the best American women's soccer goalkeeper you have never heard of. You might have heard of her more famous high-school classmate, Meola, who makes a pretty good living as a member of the Kansas City Wizards of MLS.
But for Blair, her life in soccer has been devoted to the New Jersey Wildcats, a team in the W-2 Division of the United Soccer Leagues, the equivalent to Double-A baseball.
The team, started in 1996, has undergone numerous changes in coaching and in the front office. Its fan support has waned over the years, never quite reaching its highs of the first two seasons when its crowds neared 1,000 for some games. But it is expected that W-League may get a lot more attention thanks to the success of Team USA in the 1999 Women's World Cup.
"The level of competition has been high here," Blair says. "That's why I am drawn to this league: right now, it is the highest level you can play in the United States of America."
Blair has been playing behind an ever-changing group of players in the Wildcats franchise. There is the former member of Team USA who once had to yield her spot on the forward line to make way for a 15-year-old Mia Hamm. Blair had played with one pair of twins and two other sets of sisters. She has had mothers as teammates, as well as high-school students. The Wildcats have even had a Brazilian player who does not prefer to go by one name.
"When you talk about players like us, the words you use are 'commitment' and 'love for the game.' That is what drives us," Blair says. "We have lives outside of this: we're not college players, and we're not paid for this."
Blair has been a league stalwart, playing with the New Jersey Imperials in 1995 when the W-League played a round-robin exhibition season. She signed with the Wildcats in 1996 and has been with the team thereafter.
She has seen a lot from her perch inside the 18-yard box. Not all of what she has seen have been wins; the Wildcats have become known for their early-season swoons. The 1997 team swooned from the second game of the season and wound up losing 13 straight games. The following season, the Cats dropped their first give games. In 1999, Blair's Wildcats lost their first nine contests.
In some of these games, Blair has been tested more than most goalkeepers. She has recorded 20 or more saves in a game roughly a dozen times, and has routinely faced more than 40 shot attempts per game.
The 1999 season, however, has been less than routine. For the first time in her W-League career, Blair's body betrayed her. While stopping a blast in an early-season game, Blair suffered a broken finger.
"It hasn't fully healed," she says, indicating the crooked digit on her right hand. She had it taped for several games, and continued to try to play with varying degrees of success.
"It has gotten to the point where I touch the ball, and I have to keep from throwing up, to put it crudely," Blair says.
She could have taken herself out of the lineup for the full six weeks it would take to heal. However, in taking time out from her job as a risk management professional, she came to training sessions and played small games with the field players. She also helped train backup goalkeeper Catherine Gordon.
This work ethic is one of Blair's best traits. In 100-degree heat, she takes the entire alloted pre-game warmup in her long-sleeved goalie jersey while her teammates stretch and do light running. In games, she dives at balls where most players wouldn't even put their feet.
"If we're losing a game 6-0, I will play the full 90 minutes," Blair says. "It's the drive to succeed, and to be successful."
A shower turns into a gullywasher late in a W-League contest against the Long Island Lady Riders. The host Wildcats are far behind in this matchup, and the Riders have been ratcheting up the shot count on Blair -- 20, 30, 40 shots.
Blair cannot get all of them, but she keeps on trying, even as a blinding rainstorm becomes the story of the match in the last five minutes of play. A dark-shirted Long Island player breaks away from the pack with the ball, and Blair dives out to meet her in a swirl of arms, legs, and water.
Moments later, the referee pulls out a red card for a deliberate handball outside of the penalty area. Blair's night is over after giving all she had to the very end, and several members of the opposing team give her soggy pats on the back for her efforts.
Blair has harbored a hope of playing professionally, knowing how good and marketable an American women's league would be. She has, however, seen the proposed National Soccer Alliance collapse in 1998, and is hoping that her thirtysomething body can last a few more years to have one chance to play with the Mia Hamms and Brandi Chastains of the world.
She would like to show how well she can do, like the time the Wildcats played a Delaware Genies team with four members of the national-team pool playing for them.
"We lost by a large margin," says Blair, "but what I'll take from that game is was when, in the first 15 minutes, Kristine Lilly broke in past our last defender. I look up, and there she was -- Kristine Lilly and me, no defender in sight. She comes down on the breakaway, and I saved it."
That one encounter with the world's most-capped soccer player -- male or female -- has spurred Blair in her career and given her hope for a chance at playing in a top-level league.
Blair could have been tempted to leave the Wildcats to play for one of the other two New Jersey-based teams in the W-League, or to play for a contender like Long Island. Why, with all of the present opportunities available to her on W-1 teams which can pay players, has Blair decided to remain with the W-2 Wildcats, a team which has never had a winning season?
Her answer? Loyalty -- another one of her strongest attibutes.
"(Owner) Vince (Baldino) has been there from the very beginning, and he has given so much time and money so that this team can succeed. Every win, we think, is ultimately for him," Blair says. "What he has done, I acknowledge and thank him. This is my team; this is my home."
It is the final game of the 1999 season, played under a blistering sun and code-red ozone conditions. But for once, it is her Wildcats who have begun turning on the pressure. The scoreboard clock at Mercer County (N.J.) Community College is rattling off the number of shots taken on the part of the hosts -- 30, 40, 50. But Blair's team is behind, in part because a "Hail Mary" shot with 0.2 seconds left to play in the first half skipped off her taped hand into the net, giving the opposition a one-goal lead.
In the last 20 minutes of play, however, the Wildcats scored twice to pull off a 3-2 victory. Blair knows just how important the win is for a team which has come a long way since losing its first nine games of the 1999 season.
"It's a tremendous experience for myself, but it is also a tremendous experience for the younger players on our team," Blair says. "I'm very proud of what they have done. It's very rewarding to see, when you've progressed, getting to that point."
The bulk of any planned professional league willl be made of this younger generation, those amateur players getting in shape for their college seasons. And Blair, as head coach of Montclair (N.J.) State University, will have a hand in the development of some players in the U.S. college arena.
The question is, will the best American female soccer goalie you've never heard of ever have a chance to draw a salary of her own as part of a pro team?
"I think I bring the heart, the drive, and the willingness to train hard," Blair says. "I am seeing the opportunities for the younger girls, to actually play soccer and maybe draw a salary from it."