WUSA OPENER A FEAST FOR THE EYES -- AND EARS
By Al Mattei
Founder, Top Of The Circle.com
Red fireworks and white bombs exploded above the roof of RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, just as 22 women -- half clad in royal blue, the other half in silver and purple -- climbed out of an old baseball dugout into a new era.
This new era was the inaugural game in the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) between the Washington Freedom and the Bay Area CyberRays. The match was literally a decade in the making, given the United States' domination of women's soccer since the inaugural 1991 Women's World Championship for the M&M's Cup -- retroactively dubbed the first Women's World Cup.
Understanding the importance of the first game goes far beyond the final score (1-0 in favor of Washington), the attendance (a shade over 34,000), or the dignitaries at the game (D.C. mayor Anthony Williams and Billie Jean King were part of the opening ceremonies; President Bush and U.S. coach April Heinrichs were not).
Instead, one must get the perspective from what happened before the game as well as during it.
The Freedom had expectations placed upon them which might be called unfair, especially in a brand-new league. The team's coach, Jim Gabarra, is a former men's national team player, married to all-time women's soccer great Carin Jennings. Too, the team was blessed with all-time leading women's goal-scorer Mia Hamm, as well as U.S. starting goalkeeper Siri Mullinix.
In the weeks leading up to the inaugural game, there was a little bit of an edginess surrounding the role Hamm would play on the team. She had shoulder surgery in the months leading up to the league opener, and did not play in several pre-season contests.
Too, she turned down several media requests and displayed a certain reluctance to being dubbed the star of the team, despite her status as a media and cultural icon.
"If the league is going to work, it has to be about all the players," she pointedly told The Washington Post in a break between practices. "Everyone is important, But I do realize I may have to do more things at the start to get the league off the ground."
That was most evident at the team's final scrimmage against the University of Maryland, a scant eight days before the game with Bay Area. After the game ended, the teams stretched and cooled down, and the cries began.
"Mia! Miiiiiiiaaaaa! Miiiaaaaaaaa!"
There they were, in technicolor glory, the faces of what American media have dubbed "the pigtailed hooligans." The chorus grew, building wave upon wave, until the group next to the Freedom bench began sounding like a cat farm that had run out of food.
The voices came from the hundreds of young girls who came to the game to see their heroines. The league's marketing strategy -- the humourous commercials, the cartoonish opening credits for broadcasts -- is targeted to these kids and their parents.
True to form, whole youth teams came to RFK for the opener eight days later. A solid three hours before the first game, a gaggle of giggling youth soccer players were kicking a ball on a dirt path leading through the tunnel to the stadium. Virtually all of the players were wearing Mia Hamm jerseys, making any defensive assignments ("Get 9! No, I got 9!") virtually impossible.
There were a good number of tailgaters in the parking lot, including several members of supporters' clubs for the men's pro soccer team in town, DC United. The Freedom was also the beneficiary of a supporter's club, called the Crusaders, which had a modest tailgate.
Once the fans were able to navigate half-hour lines to get into the stadium for the contest, what the fans were treated to was some tense soccer on the part of both teams. Neither side wanted to take chances in getting caught back on defense, lest the team yield the all-important first goal.
To the credit of the league, the rules of the WUSA did not involve the reinvention of the Laws of Soccer. The clock counted up, with the referee adding injury time. Games were to end in draws, not with golden goals or shootouts.
Yes, there is an extra substitute allowed for WUSA games, plus a guaranteed goalie sub. However, that number still falls within the parameters of the rules of a "full international" game. There was no music played for out-of-bounds plays to fill "dead air," and there was only one in-game promotion -- a kick to win a new sports-utility vehicle. The fan won.
But, by the time the game had lasted an hour, the fans -- many of them dead quiet, taking in the action -- were hoping that the halftime kick was not the only goal that was going to be scored. Spontaneous chanting began coming from groups of fans, spurred on by a group of Brazilian fans as well as the Crusaders.
Then, in the 69th minute, Hamm saw an opening, cut past Bay Area defender Brandi Chastain, and went hard to goal. Chastain, the heroine of the 1999 World Cup final, sent Hamm sprawling with a tackle. The referee ran to the penalty spot and extended her arm towards goal.
Hamm gathered herself and directed teammate Roseli to take the penalty kick. Chastain, one of Hamm's best friends, disputed the call for several seconds.
When Roseli slotted the ball to the right of Bay Area goalkeeper Lakeisha Beene, the crowd erupted -- not quite to the deafening levels of U.S. national team games of recent vintage, but it was heartfelt. History was made.
When it was all over, fans clapped and cheered members of both teams -- which seemed to almost mask the fact that there had been a hard competition that afternoon. Players dove for 50-50 balls, there were hammering tackles, there were some frayed tempers.
There was even a broken arm suffered in the game when Tisha Venturini got submarined by Freedom defender Lindsay Stoecker. When viewed at full-speed on a television replay, Venturini resembled a rag doll in her fall towards the RFK turf.
It will be hard to know exactly what kind of cultural niche the league will hold in this country, and in the women's sports revolution. It will be also difficult to know if the league's teams will develop the kind of rabid fan following that is present in some WNBA cities, including Washington.
But, given the women's sports revolution of the late 1990s, women's sports is still undergoing a growth boom. All you had to do was listen for it.