This week's installment of U.S. Soccer's ongoing 90-Year Anniversary Articles Series is a look at the founding of the Women's United Soccer Association, or WUSA. Spawned from the spectacular success of the 1999 Women's World Cup in 1999, the WUSA kicked off on April 14, 2001, forever changing the world of women's professional soccer.
WUSA: DAY ONE
The players were all there in Washington, D.C. that day. All the players who played for nothing in front of no one, playing just for the love of the game. It was from the sweat, the laughter at the pure enjoyment of the game and the dedication of these women – the national team players from the early years, the soccer moms who actually played soccer, the amateur players who never dreamed of playing for a living – that the WUSA was built.
Of course, the pioneers of women’s soccer were there, the Founding Players of the WUSA, an amazing group who played the major, and the most visible, role in the formation of the first women’s professional soccer league in the world. These Founding Players pushed and pulled women’s soccer toward the mainstream, winning Women’s World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal, and as they stood at midfield for the playing of the national anthem, they represented all who had come before them.
It was April 14, 2001, and the Washington Freedom and Bay Area CyberRays came together to play the inaugural game of the Women’s United Soccer Association in front of 34,148 fans at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
“I’ll never forget the national anthem,” said U.S. National Team captain Julie Foudy, a Founding Player and member of the WUSA Board of Directors. “They had an eagle soar through the stadium and land on the arm of his handler right when the singer belted out ‘the Land of the Free’…. The stadium was packed and everyone was going crazy. It was one of those moments. I looked down the row of Founding Players standing at midfield and tears were coming down people’s faces. We all looked at each other and started cracking up.”
So before the match even started, there were winners, but, of course, one needed to be decided on the field as well. After 70 minutes of intense play and near misses, the ball found its way to the feet of Freedom striker Mia Hamm just inside the CyberRays penalty area. Hamm, one of the most dangerous strikers ever to lace up a pair of soccer cleats, looked up and saw her long time national team teammate Brandi Chastain standing between her and the first goal in WUSA history. Hamm made a move to get around Chastain, and both got tangled, hitting the RFK Stadium turf in a pile of flailing arms and legs.
The referee blew the whistle.
Chastain was called for taking down Hamm and the Freedom were awarded a somewhat controversial penalty kick. Brazilian Pretinha blasted the spot kick beyond goalkeeper LaKeysia Beene’s outstretched hands and into the net for the first ever WUSA goal.
Twenty minutes later, the final whistle came and the first game in the history of WUSA was in the books.
It may not have been the way a Hollywood scriptwriter would have ended the game – Hamm apologized to Chastain after the game for having it end on the controversial call – but a penalty shot was probably the most fitting way for it to end as it was a penalty that launched women’s soccer into America’s spotlight and eventually helped pave the path for the WUSA to become a reality.
Just two years earlier, Chastain scored the winning penalty kick in a shootout against China at the 1999 Women’s World Cup Championship Game in front of 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl and 40 million more watching on TV in the United States.
The U.S. Women’s National Team’s success at the World Cup – solidified by Chastain’s left-footed strike – got the ball rolling on plans for a premier women’s professional soccer league in the United States. Led by John Hendricks, Chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications, a number of initial investors joined forces with the nation’s leading female soccer stars and formed the WUSA on February 15, 2000.
A little more than a year later, all 20 players on the U.S. Women’s National Team were allocated to the league’s eight charter teams: the Atlanta Beat, Boston Breakers, Carolina Courage, New York Power, Philadelphia Charge, San Diego Spirit, CyberRays and Freedom.
Not only were the American players excited about playing in their own league, they had a unique arrangement in the league and had a stake in its success. The 20 Founding Players were: Michelle Akers, Chastain, Tracy Ducar, Lorrie Fair, Joy Fawcett, Danielle Fotopoulos, Julie Foudy, Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Shannon MacMillan, Tiffeny Milbrett, Carla Overbeck, Cindy Parlow, Christie Pearce, Tiffany Roberts, Briana Scurry, Kate Sobrero, Tisha Venturini, Saskia Webber, and Sara Whalen.
In addition, superstars from Brazil, France, Germany, Norway, China, England, Scotland, Mexico and Nigeria have all signed on with WUSA and provided the league with an international flavor from every continent in he world, with many of the international players dazzling the WUSA fans all season long.
With everything in place, these women athletes, who grew up loving sports and wishing they could be professional athletes, saw their dreams come true in that historic game on April 14.
“I grew up watching the Lakers and the Dodgers, so I wanted to be a baseball player or a basketball player or a wide receiver,” said Foudy after watching the game. “It wasn’t realistic. It wasn’t something that could actually happen. You dreamt about it, but then when you grew up and you realized, that was a stupid dream – there’s nothing like that for women. Except the difference is that now there is.”
Even Chastain, who came up on the losing end of the game billed as “Mia versus Brandi,” was all smiles.
“It was a great day for soccer, and losing today doesn’t take away the pride in my heart,” Chastain said.
Earlier in the week, Hamm also described how the inaugural game was the first of many stepping-stones for young girls everywhere.
“These young players are talking about the fact that they have another option,” said Hamm as she watched a practice between WUSA squads and the U.S. Under-19 Women’s National Team a day before the inaugural game. “Now we have this professional league and hopefully these players are looking at it as an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Looking back, the first WUSA season was a rousing success as more than 726,677 fans saw games in person – an average of more than 8,100 a game – and another 5 million viewers watched the action from their living rooms. Action that didn’t previously exist.
“We all looked at each other before that game, and said, ‘We did it,’” added Foudy, who admitted she enjoyed eating hot dogs and ice cream during a soccer game as she watched from the stands. “This is something we built, along with the investors. It felt like everyone in soccer was there, all the Founding Players and everyone who had been involved with the national team over the years. A lot of the parents of the players were there and it wasn’t just a game, it was a moment in history and everyone wanted to be a part it.”