Preseason for NWSL’s fourth season begins Monday, fifteen years after women’s professional soccer first became a reality in the United States. NWSL is the third attempt at a league since that time. Much has changed from the glitzy WUSA to the dysfunctional WPS and onto the appropriately frugal and seemingly stable NWSL. One man has been there throughout, not only during the seasons when leagues were running, but also doing his part at the highest available levels in the years in between.
“Not that often unless I’m asked about it,” Jim Gabarra said when asked how often he reflects on his tenure as the only coach to be employed at the highest available flight every year since 2001. “It’s always a new season, a new team, new challenges. Going into the season there is a lot to look forward to.”
This season will offer a change for Gabarra after he left Sky Blue FC to take the head coach and general manager roles with the Washington Spirit. It will be a different sort of season for Gabarra, who took over a playoff team with a roster mostly intact. It will also be a homecoming of sorts for the founding coach of the Washington Freedom who still calls Maryland his full-time home.
“I had coached the Toys R Us Victory Tour. The U.S. players were going to have kind of a guest/celebrity/coaching role. It was really entertainment, it had very little to do with soccer. It was going to be done indoors. They pulled together an all-star, international team and they were looking for a coach. Somehow my name came up. Having played professional indoor soccer for years I had a pretty big advantage. Not only having international players that probably played futsal growing up but I also had the tactical knowledge of how to play indoors. We had a very successful tour.”
That tour was an independently organized celebration of the 1999 World Cup championship team that did not even involve U.S. Soccer. It was a far cry from the lavish, coast-to-coast shows that have followed recent global tournaments. But after ’99 they were indoors, and Gabarra parlayed that role into the first of what would be three interviews for the national team job, and another with the Freedom, who were preparing to be one of eight founding WUSA clubs.
“I was here doing some coaching in Washington and met with (owner) John Hendricks and (general manager) Katy Button. I’m sure having worked with Mia (Hamm) there were some recommendations going on behind the scenes. I met with them and was offered the job.”
The Freedom hosted WUSA’s inaugural game, a 1-0 over the Bay Area CyberRays that drew 34,148 to RFK Stadium. “The WUSA was kind of the rock star environment with all those players and the ’99 World Cup.”Gabarra said that WPS, which operated with fewer teams than the other two leagues for all but a few weeks, had overall better teams. But while that league began with optimism and solid investors, dysfunction quickly set in.
“WPS, having fewer teams, had probably the best teams in that league. You look at FC Gold Pride and Los Angeles Sol, those were just tremendous, all-star level teams. It was very difficult for your average American player to find their way into any of those teams.”
By the time WPS folded—after three seasons just like WUSA—the league had sold its soul to a rogue owner (Dan Borislow) who re-branded and moved the Freedom (Gabarra had already left to take over Sky Blue FC), ran afoul of the rules, and put the league in enough litigation that it burned through its last resources.
“It was heartbreaking when WUSA folded,” Gabarra said. “It was more of a relief when WPS went away just because of the number of problems. It was just so dysfunctional. It was put out of its misery. I’m just glad in the evolution of all this it didn’t take as long to get the third league going as it did to get the second one going.”
Interestingly, some of Gabarra’s best work took place during the wilderness years in between WUSA and WPS. Hendricks, also the leading light behind WUSA, kept the Freedom operational and allowed Gabarra to build out a full club. Their top team played in the W-League.
“We were probably 10 or 12 years ahead of ourselves with what we were trying to do with the Freedom,” Gabarra said, noting that the Spirit will be trying to get their own academy team considered for the Developmental Academy being started next year by U.S. Soccer. “It’s what everybody is trying to do today which is build a complete club with the youth club structure underneath it.”
Gabarra said that when he started with the Freedom he had no specific designs on how long he would coach in a women’s pro league or where it would go. But he is drawn to the women’s game by the passion and sacrifice it takes the players to make it as far as NWSL.
“It has a lot to do with where the men’s game was in a developmental stage when I was playing,” he said. “You’re kind of a vagabond, a journeyman. There is not a lot of money in it. There is not a lot of support. To be able to add something to the players that are going through that and to understand it and be where they were, that’s a huge value to me as a manager and as a coach. I really appreciate that there are a lot of players out there willing to do this just because of the passion they have for the game and the chance that they might be able to make a living out of it. It’s not entitled like it is now on the men’s side. We want it to get there.
“Working with men and women is obviously different. The fact that women really want to learn and really want to be coached is a huge draw as well.”
To illustrate the point, I take you back to the 1991 Women’s World Cup. Gabarra was playing for the Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League. His fiancée, Carin Jennings, was in China with the U.S. team. Gabarra flew to China for the semifinal, stayed for the final, and then hightailed it back to the states the next day.
“I think I actually played in a game that night. It was kind of crazy. But I had to be there. There is no way I would have missed that.” A few days later, Jennings—who is now Gabarra’s wife—and the team returned to what Gabarra estimated was a four-person welcoming committee at JFK airport.
Fast forward to last summer and Gabarra was in New York City for what he called one of the highlights of his career in women’s soccer.
“A high point would have been last summer being able to do a little color commentary for the parade in New York City. Seeing a tickertape parade for the women’s national team having watched my wife come home in 1991 was kind of a stark, complete, utter opposite. That was a huge high point to see the notoriety and the fame and obviously they’re making a good living now.”
Gabarra refutes the notion that the current national team players are less invested in NWSL than the founding players were in WUSA short of the ‘99ers owning an equity stake in their league. And he feels that despite the glut of retirements, the current players are generally more committed to the pro lifestyle than they were a decade and a half ago.
As far as areas of development he would like to see improvements in refereeing, and he would like to see the coaching ranks become more American and more female. Gabarra is one of three American born coaches out of 10 in NWSL (Randy Waldrum are the others) and the only female coach, Laura Harvey, is British.
“I think there are a lot of really good women’s coaches in the college game, but they probably want to have personal lives and security. That really hasn’t been there in the women’s (professional) game. That’s kind of the next step and one thing that has kind of lagged a little bit.”
As for Gabarra, he is back in Washington near his family and raring to get at it with a team he is almost entirely unfamiliar with. But it’s another season, another challenge.
“I just keep grinding away, every year, every week. I still really enjoy it. I’ll keep going until they tell me I can’t do it anymore.”
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