No kicks for free: women take U.S. soccer league pro

1st WUSA game today

Hamm, Chastain clash

April 14, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

The U.S. women's national team, which captured America's attention when it won the 1999 Women's World Cup, has chased down another dream, this time bringing along friends.

It's called the Women's United Soccer Association.

The first women's professional soccer league in the United States, the WUSA will kick off its inaugural season at 2 p.m. today when Mia Hamm and the Washington Freedom get a visit from Brandi Chastain and the Bay Area CyberRays at RFK Stadium.

Unlike most start-up leagues, this one has a fast head start.

"The league has three great things going for it: one is its ownership; two is television; and three is the best players, and that's the core group from the 1999 World Cup team," said Freedom coach Jim Gabarra. "All those players have worked year after year, and it's nice to finally see them get this league off the ground."

The strong financial backing is headed up by John Hendricks, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications. The eight-team league has a four-year television deal in place with Turner Broadcasting, which will air today's game nationally on TNT.

As for the product itself, the 20 members of the U.S. Women's World Cup championship team are the WUSA's founding players, and the league has also brought in the finest international players along with the top young players from home.

After allocating the founding players among the eight teams, the league had a similar foreign player allocation draft that brought in 16 of the best players from around the world, including Norway's Hege Riise and Sissi from Brazil.

A global draft brought, among others, five prominent members of the China national team with the Atlanta Beat using the first pick to select standout Sun Wen. A supplemental draft followed to complete the pool of players that was narrowed down to 20-player rosters.

"If we're going to claim this was going to be the best league in the world, we were going to have to go out and get the best players in the world," said former U.S. national team coach Tony DiCicco, the WUSA's chief operations officer.

"I can now certainly say - and I don't think anyone in the world would argue - that this is the best women's soccer league as soon as we kick off that first ball on Saturday."

Chastain, who closed out the 1999 World Cup victory over China with the game-winning penalty kick that was followed by the unforgettable celebration in front of 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., recalls the obscure times starting with the first World Cup in 1991, the year she spent playing professionally in Japan and then the boost that came in 1999.

And now today is here.

"I'm very lucky to be able to play in this game, and I can't wait until I can step back and look back on the day and say, `Oh my God, that was the first women's professional game in this country and it was a huge success,' because I know it will be," she said.

"I can't wait to get together with Mia and the players after the game and just be like: `Can you believe we actually just did that?' "

An added responsibility comes to the founding players - Hamm, Chastain and Julie Foudy, who along with playing for the San Diego Spirit is also on the league's Board of Governors - as marketing pieces.

In the run through the 1999 World Cup, they brought a sense of wholesomeness and togetherness that brought fans to the stadiums and in front of their televisions. They signed autographs, ran youth clinics and held lectures.

"We understand what has made the National Team so successful is that we've been accessible to fans," Foudy said. "As founding players, that's the message we've sent down to every player on each of our teams, is that we have to get out there and really do a lot with the community to tie in with these young kids."

The league will consist of one division of eight teams - Washington, Bay Area, Atlanta, San Diego, the Boston Breakers, Carolina Courage, New York Power and Philadelphia Charge. Each team will play a 21-game schedule with the top four teams qualifying for the playoffs. The inaugural WUSA Championship Classic will take place Aug. 25.

It all starts this afternoon with the Freedom, behind Hamm, goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and Brazilian forwards Pretinha and Roseli up against Bay Area, which features Chastain, fellow U.S. national team member Tisha Venturini and Brazil star midfielder Sissi. More than 23,000 tickets were sold by mid-week for the match.

"This is huge for all of us," Hamm said. "For a lot of women out there, your career ends after college, and now more and more are given the opportunity to do this for a living and I think that's a wonderful assessment of where this game is in our country."

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