USA | Taking a second chance at building women’s premier league

WPS Atlanta, season-ticket launch, 11 Dec 08

A publicity-hungry whale shark lurks behind Johnson, Gaston, Georgia State Soccer Association executive director Rick Skirvin (back row, left to right) and representative soccer tots. (Photo courtesy Hope-Beckham, Inc.)

I love soccer because of the Atlanta Beat, who played in powder blue uniforms on a downtown rectangle of grass purpose-built for 1996 Olympic field hockey. Since the Beat ceased operations in 2003 along with seven other teams in the Women’s United Soccer Association, the stadium’s water system has been vandalized at least twice. The college that inherited the 15,000-capacity venue, Morris Brown, founded by former slaves, has been crushed by debt and scandal. Water service has been cut off entirely; last week, the school announced that one of its classroom buildings, another Olympic legacy, would be auctioned on the steps of Fulton County Courthouse.

For two WUSA seasons, however, Herndon Stadium was a den of inflatable “thunder sticks” and home of omnipresent mascot Rhythm, a pastiche of dog and posturing hip-hop artist who once belched for broadcast over the loudspeakers. The Beat played the inaugural 2001 season at Bobby Dodd Stadium, drawing the ire of the Georgia Tech gridiron football coach. He grumbled at soccer players for leaving boot marks behind.

But there are even better memories. The Beat won its first two home matches of the last campaign by a combined score of 11–0. I was sure that I had never seen women’s soccer better played. Contingents of Latino fans whom stereotype suggests would never tolerate the women’s game waved Mexican flags in honor of Maribel Domínguez, dubbed “Marigol” by regional sport newspaper Estadio (see 25 Jul 07).

An annual Beat family picnic provided good barbecue and baked beans, which supporters ate on the Herndon pitch. My wife and I selected seats for 10 home matches with the connoisseurship of symphony goers who seek out places on the keyboard side. I tested several locations in the bleachers, settling on a north-facing midfield spot, slightly less exposed on Atlanta summer afternoons, with skyline view, some 25 rows above the grass surface. A concrete riser offered lumbar support.

With players from Canada, Germany, Japan and Mexico, the Beat, notwithstanding the Caribbean and Eastern European imports on the baseball Braves and Thrashers of the National Hockey League, added a hint of the exotic to an otherwise homogenous regional sportscape. (Now the Silverbacks of the United Soccer Leagues, both women’s and men’s teams, offer similar diversity.) Two players from the People’s Republic of China added another linguistic and political overlay. The cultural clash was especially poignant when Sun Wen, the sublime striker-midfielder hybrid with technician’s touch was, in 2001, the team’s only non-English-speaker.

To the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sun described her feelings as xiangjiade, “thinking of home” (Michelle Hiskey, “Home at Last,” 25 May 02, H1, H2). In 2002, China teammate Liping Wang joined the side to take the edge off isolation exacerbated by Sun’s late-career injury problems. To teammates she was “Sunny.” I think supporters saw into her personality at halftime of a 2001 playoff match against Philadelphia. Down 0–2, the Beat brought on a previously scheduled team of Frisbee-catching dogs. Sun was a halftime substitute but spent much of the warmup period mesmerized by the dogs’ routine. In my memory she reached to give one a pat.

At the center circle soon afterward she slapped forward Cindy Parlow‘s hands. The Beat won 3–2 in extra time.

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