After the match, clumps of jersey-clad youth players, posters and balls in hand, thronged the fence at RFK stadium, waiting anxiously to catch a glimpse of and maybe even talk to the pro athletes. As the players sidled over, looking fresh-faced despite having just completed a 90-minute contest on a balmy DC afternoon, squeals went up throughout the group. This unbridled excitement was caused by women’s professional soccer players, and the sight was heart-warming. Dozens of girls in full kits bounced around, calling out the names of Washington Freedom team members. “I got Abby! I got Abby!” a bespeckled teeny bopper yelled to her friend, referring to star striker Abby Wambach; “I got Cat!” she called back, and the two collapsed into giggles.
To understand why the sight of little girls giggling in this circumstance is extremely exciting to me, you may need a little background. Have you seen the movie “Bend it Like Beckham”? You know, the 2002 tale of teenage rebellion and women’s soccer starring then-little-known Keira Knightly? Remember the scene in which “Jess” turns on the TV in her room and talks dreamily about how America even has their very own league for women, the WUSA? The tragic irony is that by the time “Bend it Like Beckham” came out on DVD, the WUSA was pretty much bankrupt. The league was hardly able to ride out post-1999-world cup women’s soccer wave before it crashed, carrying female soccer players’ dreams with it to a degree.
When I was a wee one with dreams of soccer stardom, the farthest I could imagine was playing for the UNC women’s team, the unbeatable Tar Heels under the guidance of Anson Dorrance. There was nothing beyond that, except maybe the Team USA squad, but even my adolescent ambition was too tempered for that. With the 1999 World Cup Championship win (best known in pop culture for this reason) and the consequent formation of the WUSA, things shifted. For a few brief years there was an added dimension to all those scrimmages, those trapping drills, those 120-yard sprints. We may not have really believed we would get all the way there, but was that ever really the point for anyone growing up with a Michael Jordan or Emmitt Smith poster hanging over their bed?
Now women’s professional soccer is back, playing exciting match-ups and drawing crowds for the first time since the collapse of the WUSA in 2003. The Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) launched this year with seven teams and a retooled approach. Part of the strategy that differs from the WUSA days is the willingness to partner with the MLS, as the Washington Freedom did this weekend in their double-header with the DC United at RFK Stadium on Saturday.
Being the opening act for the United might have irked women’s soccer organizers of old, but no one can doubt the benefits of the publicity. The Freedom game drew about 6,000 fans, which fits the high end of the WPS target draw. And DC United can’t complain either — overall attendance hit over 18,000, a high for the season. As for the play: call me biased, but I honestly think the women’s match-up against the Chicago Red Stars was the more entertaining game. That match saw an epic and scoreless struggle between the Red Stars impressive flat-back four defense and the Freedom’s canny strikers, as Allie Long and the Freedom offense infiltrated for the occasional shot but couldn’t capitalize.
The game was also physical, the battle between players as they ran shoulder-to-shoulder to regain possession of the ball was palpable. There were two yellow cards on each side and the Red Stars’ Karen Carney was ejected after clipping a Freedom player from behind. One of the Freedom’s yellow cards came when Abby Wambach bicycle-kicked in traffic by the Chicago goal and hit someone in the face. That’s right, there was a round-house kick to the face. As Freedom snuck shot after shot, out-shooting the Red Stars 24-5, there was a sense that it was only a matter of time before they put one in the back of the net. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time and the scramble ended as the 90 minutes edged to completion.
For $20, two quality soccer games is a pretty good value, although the dissatisfied Englishman we met on the way out might have some qualms about that (“Your men should stick to American football,” I think was his quote). But if you can’t swing it, WPS games are also broadcast Sunday nights on FOX Sports Network. Really, to me, there is no price you can put on watching well-played soccer — the kind that makes you want to slap on your shin guards and wrap the over-long laces around your just-shined cleats. Because for athletic women and girls, the WPS at once nostalgia and hope and watching them play is just great sport.