TUKWILA, Wash. — At some point over the last calendar year it was brought to my attention that having attended all of the top-flight women’s soccer finals in the United States, it put me in a unique position – at least among journalists. Looking back the first seven have much in common, and much that is different.
The biggest commonality is that with one exception they have been played at high intensity by both sides, offering as many twists, turns, and dramatics as one can expect from a final match. What has been different have been the teams, locations, and many of the players who have risen to the occasion for their clubs. One more difference has been the pizzazz with which the events have been put on. Founders Cup I with its lavish parties at a swanky, downtown Boston hotel was a clear example of WUSA owners spending themselves out of business; yet it should stand as a beacon of what women’s soccer can one day become.
As I prepare for another championship match, here are some memories of the first seven:
2001 (Founders Cup I)
Foxboro Stadium; Foxboro, Massachusetts
Bay Area CyberRays 3, Atlanta Beat 3, asdet (4-2 on penalties)
The Mood: Festive. The fledgling WUSA closed out its inaugural season with a grand show. The week began with the unveiling of the Founders Cup, a magnificent trophy with three sides at the bottom—one each for the founding players and investors, and another for the names of its champions. The night before the match a party big enough to fill a ballroom saw the league’s award winners announced. The Defender of the Year, Doris Fitschen, casually announced her retirement while milling around at the open training session at Nickerson Field. Another party followed the match. The league, born on the success of the World Cup two years earlier, had gone big and thought it would end up being its demise, most left Boston in August 2001 feeling pretty good about WUSA.
The Game: It may be because it was the first, but for my money this match has not been topped by any future final. There were three goals in the first 14 minutes and two in the last seven that vaulted the match to classic status. It looked as if Chinese star Sun Wen had given Atlanta a championship when she nutmegged a defender to score a spectacular goal near the end of regulation. But Tisha Venturini tapped in a rebound a few minutes later to force sudden death extra time. The CyberRays overcame the loss of Sissi, who was nothing short of fabulous for 90 minutes before leaving injured, and a Nikki Serlenga free kick off the post to get to penalties. The world waited for Brandi Chastain to rekindle her 1999 World Cup glory in the anchor leg, but after the Beat misfired twice, Julie Murray converted the 4th spot kick to give the CyberRays the Cup.
2002 (Founders Cup II)
Herndon Stadium; Atlanta, Georgia
Carolina Courage 3, Washington Freedom 2
The Mood: Hot. At least for me being in the southern summer for the first time. The week saw Mia Hamm in the final after her Freedom endured a disappointing inaugural season. Hamm’s strike partner was a rookie who would eventually break her international scoring record, Abby Wambach. On the other side were the Courage, the only team to finish below the Freedom in 2001, and thus the one team that passed up Wambach, allowing her to go to Washington. Instead the Courage had taken Danielle Slaton, who was named Defender of the Year. The league had spent less, and cut way back on the pomp and circumstance. There was a loud postgame party at an Atlanta night club and an awards’ ceremony, but the glitz and glamor of the first game were already a thing of the past.
The Game: The stars were out. Birgit Prinz completed a dominating opening season in the States, setting up Danielle Fotopoulos’ go-ahead goal early in the second half and adding her own a few minutes later. Fotopoulos also scored one for the Freedom—the first own goal in a final, but the highlight goal was Hamm’s that cut the lead to 3-2 and made for a frantic final 25 minutes. Hege Riise was an injury concern coming in but was nothing short of sensational as she put on a game-killing clinic in the final minutes. And they had some help from Bai Jie, the Freedom’s Chinese striker who misfired on two golden opportunities to equalize. The unsung hero though was Nel Fettig, who played brilliantly in midfield, reading and snuffing out many Freedom plays before they happened.
2003 (Founders Cup III)
Torero Stadium; San Diego, California
Washington Freedom 2, Atlanta Beat 1, asdet
The Mood: Dreary. It was an open secret after season three that WUSA was in trouble. An unspoken cloud hung over a match played in a city where cloudy days are few and far between. The awards ceremony did include some videos of the season, but was otherwise staged as if someone reminded WUSA leadership at the last minute that they absolutely had to do it. Only the impending World Cup, set to begin in a few weeks and moved to the U.S. after a SARS outbreak in China, kept hope alive. Unfortunately the league could not even survive to the first kick of the very tournament that helped create it.
The Game: The teams that lost the first two Founders Cups returned and each played with the fervor of a team that burned to be on the right side of this one. This one saw the first penalty during play in a final, converted by Charmaine Hooper in first-half stoppage time to level it after Wambach scored early. There was also Brianna Scurry’s highlight-reel-for-life save on a Sandra Minnert free kick. But the match came down to an encounter between the two best players on the pitch, Wambach and unheralded Beat center back Nancy Augustyniak. The latter, in a rare moment out of position, was forced to take down Wambach and was shown a straight red card. Within minutes Wambach scored the golden goal to give the Freedom the championship, and sadly, close the door on WUSA forever.
The Home Depot Center (now Stubhub Center); Carson, California
Sky Blue FC 1, Los Angeles Sol 0
The Mood: Hopeful. Six years after WUSA sank, WPS rose, and the final match included Marta, the world’s most famous female player of the day. It also landed in Marta’s home park thanks to the format that saw the regular season champions go directly to the final where they would play host. And then there was Sky Blue, the most unlikely of finalists. They were on their third coach, center back Christie Rampone, who was just 1-1 at the helm, including a loss in Washington that opened the door for the Breakers to steal the final playoff spot. Only they lost to the Sol, letting Sky Blue in. After turning the tables on Washington and upsetting Saint Louis Athletica, Sky Blue landed in the final. There were no parties or ceremonies—WPS never even named an official Best XI—but the host hotel in Carson was adorned with acknowledgments that WPS was there. The league had spent less than WUSA, two expansion teams waited in the wings, and there were generally good feelings.
The Game: Not only were Sky Blue underdogs on paper, they had played twice in the prior week while the Sol had been given two weeks to prepare. Both teams were missing players to the European Championship—Camille Abily for the Sol and Anita Asante for Sky Blue. On paper Asante looked the bigger loss, but it turned out the other way. That was mostly due to the play of relative unknown Jen Buczkowski, who everyone within earshot of me thought was MVP of the match. Actual MVP Heather O’Reilly scored the goal and registered a daring but world class tackle on Aya Miyama that could have led to a penalty and red card. Instead the only red went to Allison Falk, a call still debated in women’s soccer circles, and a blow from which the Sol were never able to recover.
Pioneer Stadium; Hayward, California
FC Gold Pride 4, Philadelphia Independence 0
The Mood: Tenuous. For starters, Saint Louis Athletica had folded during the season, a foible the league spun well but never recovered from. Second, Tonya Antonucci, the driving force behind securing the necessary investors to launch the league, was leaving. And finally, the Independence arrived in Northern California a tired team. They extolled what Sky Blue had done a season earlier, but unlike Sky Blue, the Independence won both of their matches in extra time, the first in blistering heat. Waiting for them was the well-oiled machine led by Albertin Montoya, who rounded up some of the best male players in the region, lined them up like the playoff teams did, and filled the empty weekend by having his players simulate as many conditions they would face in the final as possible.
The Game: This is the one dud in the batch. As Scott French, who to that point had also been to every final, said that night, it was a celebration of one of the great club sides in the nascent history of women’s soccer. But the match was never close. The Independence may have said they weren’t tired, but they were. It was never more evident than the runup to the second Gold Pride goal when Kandace Wilson worked her way around Allison Falk—Falk again!—to get the shot off when it looked like the play was dead. Instead the only things dead were the Independence’s title hopes, the cockamamie idea of a visiting team possibly needing to play three times in seven days, and only a few months later, FC Gold Pride.
Sahlen’s Stadium; Rochester, New York
Western New York Flash 1, Philadelphia Independence 1, aet (5-4 on penalties)
The Mood: Confusing. On one hand the recently concluded World Cup had given the league some much-needed exposure. On the other hand the season had been a mockery thanks to the inclusion of the late Dan Borislow, who helped save the league by purchasing the Freedom only to sabotage it by going rogue and refusing to comply with most of its policies and eventually dragging it all through courts. Borislow’s magicJack club had come close to the final before losing in Philadelphia, but its star player, Abby Wambach, still commanded enormous attention as she signed autographs prior to the match played in her hometown.
The Game: Not as exciting a game all around as the score would indicate. Amy Rodriguez equalized late in the match but also missed more than a couple of golden opportunities to find the match-winner in extra time. In the penalty shootout, both teams were on form from the spot, even Laura Del Rio, the final shooter of the match. The Spaniard took a strong kick but Ashlyn Harris stretched wide to knock it away and give the Flash the championship in their first season in the top flight.
Sahlen’s Stadium; Rochester, New York
Portland Thorns FC 2, Western New York Flash 0
The Mood: Understated. The third attempt at a pro soccer league played its first final before a healthy crowd in Rochester and a Fox Sports 2 audience, but little else. It was a no-frills week with very few signs of a championship match being played outside of those directly involved. NWSL had muscular backing from U.S. Soccer plus a commitment to build slower than WPS, which had committed to building slower than WUSA. The result was something of a tense optimism among fans of the sport. There was also a slight glimpse of the future as a sizeable group of Thorns supporters—the Riveters—made the trip from Portland and easily out-cheered the 9,000-plus Flash fans.
The Game: For the first hour it was as intense and hard fought as any women’s soccer final I have seen. It was also one of the worst refereed matches ever played in the women’s game. Amy Barczuk was allowed to stay in the match despite a double-footed takedown of Tobin Heath. And Kathryn Williamson was sent off for the Thorns thanks to some help from Abby Wambach’s generosity in leaving her feet. Heath had a foot issue that prevented her from training all week but she buckled down and hit a majestic free kick with the injured foot to put the Thorns in the lead. The match actually lost steam after Williamson’s red card as the Thorns battened down the hatches and eventually added a second.
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