On August 25, 2001 the Atlanta Beat and Bay Area CyberRays squared off in the first ever final played in a women’s professional soccer league in the United States. The match was played outside Boston, far from either team’s home, yet 21,078 made their way to Foxboro Stadium and were rewarded with a treat. The teams combined for three goals in the first 14 minutes, and six in all, before finally deciding the WUSA’s first champion via penalty kicks.
The Lowdown recently caught up with six figures from that bright summer day 15 years ago. Here are their memories of Founders Cup I.
Here’s who we spoke to:
LaKeysha Beene – Bay Area CyberRays goalkeeper
Marlene Bjornsrud – Bay Area CyberRays general manager
Tom Sermanni – Bay Area CyberRays assistant coach
Sissi – Bay Area CyberRays midfielder
Tom Stone – Atlanta Beat head coach
Tisha Venturini – Bay Area CyberRays forward
Before reading on make sure you’re caught up on Part I of the oral history of Founders Cup I. We’ll pick up the action late in the second half with the score tied 2-2.
The fun was only just beginning though. In the 83rd minute Sun Wen put Atlanta in front after beating Gina Oceguera on a nutmeg. In the 86th Venturini equalized. In the 4th minute of stoppage time Nikki Serlenga rocked a free kick off the post.
Venturini: (Sun Wen) was coming off some injuries so she didn’t even start the game. So she came in late and she’s just magical. She was still able to show some of her magic and put that goal in. Pretty much everyone thought that was it. We got lucky there at the end.
Stone: When Sun Wen scored, I thought it was over. I thought we won 3-2. I just remember that feeling that there was only a couple of minutes left.
Sermanni: And then out of the blue Tish comes up in the box as she did throughout her playing career and scored the vital goal that took us into penalties.
Venturini: I’ve had a few games where you’d think that would be the end and we came back to tie it or whatnot. Nothing is impossible man. It didn’t look good, but I try to keep a positive attitude. You can score a goal in a second. You see that all the time in the big games on TV. We were in that game so we were fighting for every second there at the end.
Sissi: To be honest, I thought something was going to happen. We knew that game was not going to be easy. Mentally we were a very strong group. There was no moment to say it was over. We knew we were going to keep fighting. I got that from playing here. When you play against American players, they don’t give up. I got that from them.
Venturini: I think Sun Wen scored a goal pretty late in the 80-somethingth minute. Then I got a lucky goal, a toe-poke goal with just a couple of minutes left in the game to tie it.
Sissi: I remember when we tied it was a free kick.
Venturini: We had a free kick. It was just kind of frantic because we knew there only about three minutes left or whatever it was. So we were desperate and just pumping balls into the box
Stone: On the last goal, we had Parlow defending short. They loved to run the short free kick where they would put Brandi on the ball and Sissi would come in late. So Brandi would clip over to Sissi and now she’s running at this packed 18-yard box. Of course she can score from anywhere and plays an incredible dangerous ball on the run. We took Parlow out there all season to deny that. In that case, Parlow probably should have been in the 18 because by doing that they served it.
Sissi: I said let me take it let me take it. I practiced a lot of set plays so I was telling the girls to trust me.
Stone: We didn’t get a clean clearance on it and they finished it. With Cindy back there she might have cleared it. That was a potential tactical error on our part. But it was also a great adjustment on their part.
Venturini: Katia got a flick with her head and it kind of bounced and I got a toe poke on it.
Beene (on Serlenga’s free kick): I do remember that actually. I remember my heart stopping. That’s one of the awesome things about championship games. That could have been the let down. My heart went ‘holy crap.’
Stone: We were inches from winning it.
Venturini: I’ve blocked that out. It didn’t go in. That’s all that matters.
Extra time in those days was golden goal, and the CyberRays had a problem. Sissi had to come off. She was replaced by Ann Cook. Each of the two periods was seven-and-a-half minutes for 15 total.
Sissi: I was having a problem on my left groin. I wanted to play the whole game but I had to be smart about it. I don’t want to be on the field injured. That can complicate things. It was a discussion with the staff. I said I don’t want to stop playing but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to give my best. It was a decision we made together.
Sermanni: I just remember how she played that season. She is arguably the best female player I have ever worked with. It was her that turned our season around. She dominated games. Once she got used to the game in America, the pace of the game and how it was played, she was outstanding.
Venturini: She played well all the time. I was amazed. And she was not young. So creative on the ball and could serve a ball anywhere she wanted any time.
Stone: I definitely felt that on set pieces—and overtime, fatigue, fouls are going to happen—we got a big boost when she left the field. But we all knew that she couldn’t defend like she used to. I don’t remember who they brought in for her but she was fresh. That was a good move by Ian. At least if he couldn’t have her, he was going to bring in someone that was going to defend more.
Sissi: I knew we had Ann Cook coming in and she was going to do her best.
Stone: It was great for us that she was off the field but obviously not good enough to turn it in the other direction.
Sissi: It was not easy for me to not be able to finish the game because all I wanted to do is finish. It was not easy to sit over there and watch.
With no goals through 15 minutes of sudden death extra time, penalties ensued. By that time, Marlene Bjornsrud had gone on the field to stand behind the goal.
Beene: I remember everything about the PKs
Bjornsrud: When I went down on the field, I went and got our director of public relations (Jody Meacham) to stand beside me and let me know what was happening and what would happen next. I was not a soccer expert so I just wanted to know exactly what was happening.
Venturini: Sun Wen went first. I can remember because she missed and she was crushed.
Beene: the highlight probably of my career for me is saving a Sun Wen penalty kick. She was one of my idols especially leading up the 1999 World Cup, just her stature of a player. I know she didn’t hit the ball well, but still I saved it, and it was Sun Wen who kicked it, and it was definitely an awesome and momentous occasion for me.
Stone: It was tough with Sun Wen and I give LaKeysha Beene (credit.) Lakeysha Beene said afterwards that when Sun Wen scored the penalty against Philly in the semis that in an interview after that she shared that she approaches the ball not sure where she’s going to go and she kind of reads the keeper. And when the keeper leans one way or another she goes the other way and puts it in the corner and rarely misses. Evidently LaKeysha read that. After the game she said she just waited. When Sun Wen was on top of the ball LaKeysha still hadn’t given away where she was going and it threw Sun Wen off. And Keysha made a great save. She did her homework.
Beene: I haven’t heard that comment before. And I’m not a guesser at PKs. I don’t think in women’s soccer and for that matter in men’s soccer that goalkeepers should guess. So I wouldn’t have guessed anyways.
The strategy is to try and read the player and where they’re going. Sometimes they get tricky with their hips or with their plant foot, but my strategy has always been to try to read the player’s body and try to go off of that rather than just guessing to one side or the side they always go to.
Venturini: She was crawling back with her head down. I remember I gave her a quick hug. She was a good friend of ours; we played against her for years. She was a really classy player and a nice lady. She doesn’t miss ever. That was heartbreak for her. I recall that. It was like slow motion. I tried to give her a quick hug and went on. We made all of ours and they missed a couple.
Venturini: I was talking to our coach Ian a bit. He was like pick your spot and hit it. Bri was our goalkeeper on the national team. I wasn’t a big PK taker so it’s not like she had probably seen me take a lot of PKS, but she’s just a phenomenal goalkeeper with the ability to stop anything. I remember Ian was like just pick a corner and put it there. Don’t stare her down, don’t look at her, just get up there and put it in the corner. I was nervous man, because I’m not a huge PK taker. It went in. I was pretty excited about it.
I was all good. That’s always great when you’ve made yours you can come back and everyone’s knees are still shaking.
Serlenga and Carey Dorn scored in the second round. In the third round, Charmaine Hooper fired wide
Stone: I’d never seen Charmaine miss.
Beene: I was actually going the wrong way. I remember listening to the commentary and they were saying, ‘Beene must have known that was going wide,’ and I was like yeah I was going the wrong way. I was thanking my lucky stars that she actually went wide. That feeling of leaning one way and the ball’s going that way.
Stone: That was a tough one.
Beene: When you get to that level, PKs, I think they’re fun. I’ve talked to Briana Scurry about this. You save one you’re the hero. I think it’s a fun experience, there’s not much pressure on you. It is a weird experience because there is actual pressure. You’re the one standing there in goal for the entire give kicks. It is kind of a weird dichotomy of thoughts going through your head all at the same time.
Katia scored for the CyberRays and then Bryn Blalack kept the Beat alive. That put Julie Murray at the spot with a chance to win the championship.
Bjornsrud: When Julie stepped up to stepped up to take that kick, first of all a police officer who had been standing on the field came up to be about halfway through the penalty kicks just to ask me if I was okay. But I was standing next to Jody Meachem and I remember him saying, ‘okay, if she makes it, we win and she should be named the MVP.
Sermanni: From memory the final Julie Murray penalty was a run-up and to the goalie’s left, top corner.
Venturini: I remember Julie Murray making the fourth one everyone went nuts. Brandi didn’t even take one.
Bjornsrud: (Meacham) was right on both cases. We won the game and then Julie was named MVP minutes later.
Sissi: When Julie took the PK I don’t even remember exactly what happened. I know I was screaming like crazy. It was probably one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Because we worked so hard to get to that point.
Stone: Bri said it well after the game. I still remember her saying it’s a brutal way to lose and an exhilarating way to win.
Bjornsrud: I remember crying. I remember screaming. I remember hugging anyone who was near me. I wanted to find Ian and congratulate him on the job he had done. I remember Ian, the first thing he said was, ‘We did it, and we did it the right way.’
Beene: I remember going to try to tackle her, I was so pumped. The entire team went over to the sideline and I remember her celebrating and she was doing her infamous gun shooting with her fingers and pumping her fists.
Stone: Losing on penalties was difficult but when we got back we were so proud of what our front office had done, what Cox Enterprises had invested. Our owner was on the trip, loved sports. When you lose in penalties initially it’s just gut wrenching. When you take a step back you say we won the league, we lost the Cup final in penalties which is technically a draw. You are gutted but you get over it a little faster than when some team comes out and just wipes the floor with you which obviously did not happen.
Venturini: I took it as serious as I took the Olympics or World Cup. They all have different feelings or special elements that are different. Obviously it wasn’t 90,000 people in there but it was a great crowd, a great event.
Bjornsrud: Ian was right. It wasn’t just that we won, but it was how we won that was very, very important to both of us.
WUSA lasted two more seasons. The Beat lost in the 2002 semifinal and 2003 Founders Cup, both on golden goals. The CyberRays did not return to the playoffs.
Venturini: It’s obviously hard to win things back to back. I don’t know. We still had a great team. The team changed. I get confused as to when players came and left. I guess we couldn’t put it together. Maybe we put too much pressure on (ourselves.)
Sermanni: I think we could have used a Julie Murray again in our second season especially. Our play was actually quite good but we struggled finding the back of the net. Someone like Julie Murray, while she was older, always find a way to score a goal. We just didn’t have that player, especially in the second year.
Stone: We played okay soccer that first year, but the third year we were playing phenomenal soccer
Sissi: The group was very different. The first year definitely was very special. The next two years, I don’t know if I have an answer for you as to what went wrong. The group was not exactly the same. The chemistry was not there anymore. It was very frustrating because we wanted to go back and win again. Especially the last year was very disappointing because right after we found out the league was folding.
Bjornsrud: I don’t think I’ve had any experience like it. It’s something that I would do all over again. Even though it had a very sad and depressing ending, I would do it all over again. Having the relationships with those players, with that coaching staff, with a front office that continues to be in contact with each other, it was definitely the highlight of my career in sports. I’ve been privileged to do a lot of things and have a lot of success—nothing like that.