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.


“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.

Hayes alludes to the Atlanta association’s outreach in offering clinics, coaches, referees and playing space for Boys and Girls Clubs of Atlanta. These players otherwise would not have resources to join the elite traveling youth clubs that demand heavy investments of time and money as well as a stable family structure.

“Every so often their instinct is to pick the ball up with their hands,” says Hayes of having participated in such events. “Soccer is an awkward sport when you think about it. You’re using your feet. It’s funny to be out there with all your friends, and everybody’s kind of in an awkward situation, because you’re all using your feet, you’re not used to it.”

As far as bringing the game to places where women’s soccer challenges cultural norms, Hayes mentions the efforts of former U.S. international Tiffany Sahaydak (née Roberts) and others in helping to bring American players to South Africa through Goals for Girls (see the online Washington Post coverage at “Worlds United”).

Tracy Ducar, another member of the 1999 World Cup–winning team, participated in a recent camp in North Carolina for Hispanic girls. The camp was the idea of a 15-year-old player at East Chapel Hill High School, Elicia Hyde-DeRuyscher, who said she noticed that women and girls merely watched while Hispanic men played in weekend leagues (Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove, “Camp Helps Boost Latina Girls’ Soccer Skills,” Raleigh News & Observer, Aug 20).

Paul Cuadros, coach of high school girls’ and boys’ teams in Siler City in central North Carolina and author of A Home on the Field (Rayo, 2006), tells the Raleigh paper of the positive effects from having started the girls’ side six years ago: “The girls, they want to play on the big field, under the big lights. It’s a real draw for them. It is for the boys, too. It’s the whole idea of playing in front of their community.”


Katharine W. Jones, “Building the Women’s United Soccer Association: A Successful League of Their Own?” in Football in the Americas: Fútbol, Futebol, Soccer, ed. Rory M. Miller and Liz Crolley (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London, 2007); Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman, “Women’s Soccer in the United States: Yet Another American ‘Exceptionalism,’ ” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, Sport in the Global Society (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004), 14–29.


The Women’s Soccer Initiative on Sept 4 announced definitively that a new professional league—after what would be a hiatus of six years—would launch in the United States in spring 2009. Tonya Antonucci, former Yahoo! Sports director and Women’s Soccer Initiative CEO, will become league commissioner (“Women’s Professional Soccer League to Launch in 2009,” Women’s Soccer Initiative, Sept 4). Antonucci said in the press release:

Soccer’s popularity has exploded in this country and a women’s league is a logical byproduct of the sport’s ever-expanding fan base and following. We also now have a range of digital and online capabilities that allow us to put women’s soccer front-and-center among fans and sponsors. But ultimately, it all comes back to the fact that our league will boast the world’s greatest athletes playing the world’s greatest game. … The new league is taking every step to ensure that this league is a permanent fixture on the nation’s professional sports landscape.

She told BBC’s World Football on Sept 8 that she plans a conservative growth rate, with possible expansion to 10 teams within five years. Owners might still be losing money, sponsors might “still be sitting on the sidelines.” She continues, “Let’s take our time, let’s know who we are, let’s not try to be more than we are, let’s be sensible about how we build a relationship with the fans and grow that relationship with the fans.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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