Playing against boys | Professional league in waiting, competitive instincts still burn for U.S. women

By Feb 06, the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association had staked out its new playing home on 7½ acres of contaminated industrial “brownfields”—the earlier site of an intown truck depot. The Environmental Protection Agency helped with cleanup.

Atlanta | Nel Hayes, who competed during the Women’s United Soccer Association’s three seasons as Nel Fettig, can be said to have grown up in the “early phase” of the American women’s soccer boom. Now with a four-month-old daughter, Lily, of her own, Hayes speaks in our Aug 21 podcast of the prescient tactical awareness of girls in the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association, of which she is executive director.

I grew up next to a family of six boys, and that was basically my soccer training … just kicking around in the backyard with the Kramer boys and their father. Now we have kids as young as five getting exposed to professional coaches, and their technical abilities … it’s just astronomical the difference between when I was growing up and youth soccer nowadays. … We played on boys’ teams when we were growing up. There were very few all-girls’ teams to play on and to play at the highest level. Up until I was a U-14 player, I had to play on a boys’ travel team. In essence, it really did help me. You’re having to compete against players that are physically stronger and faster than you are, so you have to think a lot quicker.

That Hayes, 31, recalls casual backyard kickabouts illustrates the compressed nature of women’s soccer history in the USA. Authors Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman date the “modern era” of women’s sports in the United States to passage of Title IX in 1972, itself an amendment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Acknowledging the place of federally supported schools in the American sports landscape, legislators henceforth tied continued grants of federal assistance to equal opportunities for women within those sports programs.

Brown University in Rhode Island instituted the first varsity women’s soccer program in 1975, a year before Hayes was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The National Collegiate Athletic Association absorbed pre-existing women’s organizations in 1982 and began to stage nationwide competitions. In that year, 103 colleges fielded varsity women’s teams; by 2001, that figure had grown to 824, with a total of 18,548 players.

Hayes enrolled in 1994 at the University of North Carolina, which under Anson Dorrance, who also coached the U.S. women’s national team to its first World Cup trophy (1991), established a dominance rarely seen in American college sports. This past fall the NCAA celebrated the 25th national championship in Division I women’s soccer. With its victory over Notre Dame in the final, North Carolina won its 18th title.

Hayes served as captain under Dorrance, who is sort of an Alex Ferguson for the women’s game: unswerving and controlling by many accounts, but committed to offering women opportunities to compete that they had long been denied. To appreciate the radical nature of the Dorrance approach, consider that most women’s programs had banned intercollegiate matches in all team sports for much of the 20th century. Hayes arrived on campus for a series of grueling fitness tests and one-on-one drills, novel for a player who said she had not done much running outside actual games.


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