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

“He taught you it was OK to compete,” she says of Dorrance. “It’s OK to work your tail off and try to bury your opponent or your teammate into the ground when you’re on the field. And then at the end of the day, you walk off the field and you’re buddies.”

In the WUSA, which had its run between 2001 and 2003, Hayes played as defender for the New York Power and Carolina Courage (see David Hirshey, “Power Surge,” New York, 18 Jun 01). Cynics have seized on the league’s financial trouble and collapse to demonstrate the limited appeal of women’s team sports to a mass audience, especially on television. Quickly forgotten, however, are the models that the league established for player accessibility—Hayes says the players kept themselves “at a hand’s reach” to children in the stands, offering tangible examples of excellence—and for diversity. Almost immediately on launch, the WUSA, true to the multicultural essence of the sport, constituted a scaled-down League of Nations, with top players from China (Sun Wen), Japan (Homare Sawa), Australia (Julie Murray), Germany (Birgit Prinz), Norway (Hege Riise), England (Kelly Smith), Scotland (Julie Fleeting), Nigeria (Mercy Akide), Brazil (Daniela), Mexico (Maribel Domínguez) and Canada (Charmaine Hooper).

Citing a lack of expertise in sports promotion, Hayes declines comment on whether the league was positioned appropriately in the marketplace. Academic Katharine Jones in her dissection of the WUSA quotes an unnamed public-relations executive who defended the league’s attempts to “Americanize” the game. But Jones writes that the WUSA environment felt strange to an afficionado of world football:

From a European or South American perspective, the atmosphere at WUSA games was somewhat forced and stilted. Any chance that fans might develop the transgressive, anti-iconoclastic, grass roots, carnivalesque culture common to the game elsewhere in the world (with chanting, singing, in-jokes, fanzines, protests, the spontaneous adaptation of absurd costumes or props, etc.) was effectively stifled by the WUSA’s heavy-handed “top-down” approach in which every possible space or silence was filled with officially sanctioned noise and spectacle.

Then again, the league was following the norm for American sports events and that year by year infiltrates even the shrines of soccer abroad. Such atmospherics were probably not a deciding factor in the cessation of the league. Loss of sponsorship money, declining television ratings and dwindling receipts from stadiums that teams leased in host cities were more often mentioned at the league’s demise before the Women’s World Cup in 2003.

The Women’s Soccer Initiative, Inc., has announced a “relaunch” of the professional league and provided a lineup of teams in Boston, New Jersey, Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas and Los Angeles. Originally aiming to start play in spring 2008, organizers pushed the date back to 2009.

Darian Herrera, 12, a participant in the ¡Que Jueguen Las Niñas! camp for Latinas in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Pailin Wedel | Raleigh News & Observer).

If there is a need in the women’s soccer structure domestically, that would appear to be extending the sport to disadvantaged and “nontraditional” groups. If higher education remains the ultimate destination for most top American players—and, indeed, for large numbers of players from abroad—then girls from a young age need to be outfitted with the playing and life skills to enable them to take advantage of scholarship offers or other avenues to academics beyond high school.

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