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The Lowdown: Oral history of Founders Cup I (Part 1)

The Bay Area CyberRays overcame a slow start to reach the 2001 WUSA final, aka Founders Cup I

The Bay Area CyberRays overcame a slow start to reach the 2001 WUSA final, aka Founders Cup I

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

The Beat and CyberRays could not have been more different, on the field or off. On the field the Beat set out as the early leaders while the CyberRays lagged behind.

Bjornsrud: Not only were the two teams far apart physically or geographically we were also far apart in terms of philosophy in many, many ways. In any league, leadership sets a certain tone. And I think we were just very different. Our team did not have local investors so we didn’t have the benefit that having local investors had in terms of having local investors. Atlanta had a very powerful local investor so that was the team that had all the bells and whistles. We were very different in that way as well.

Stone: As far as the U.S. players we didn’t have those massive U.S. personalities. Sun Wen couldn’t have been more quiet and humble. And Homare Sawa, off the field, is one of the sweetest and calmest personalities I’ve ever coached I’ve ever coached. We didn’t have these big, boisterous, almost poster board personalities on our team. I think that made our team really special. We certainly carried that badge with us like look, we didn’t get allocated the big games, we’re here because of our hard work and because they really gelled.

Bjornsrud: It was a wonderful matchup of two kind of opposite organizations, opposite philosophies, opposite resources, but both with incredibly talented athletes. That set the stage for what ended up being an absolute gem of a game.

Beene: Ian (Sawyers, CyberRays head coach) wanted us to play more like English Premier League Football and not the 90s go kick ‘em and run, but a team that could actually play the ball. If you look at Atlanta they were more like an old school English team where they had players like Cindy Parlow and Charmaine Hooper.

Stone: I have a lot of respect for what (Sawyers) was able to do with the team that he had, but we were definitely diametrically opposites in terms of player management. I think he saw me as an American who came out of youth soccer and I saw him as an arrogant Brit who looked down his nose at the rest of us. And we played a high octane style and we didn’t build out of the back much our first year because we didn’t have a lot of time to get great at that. And they sat back a little bit.

Bjornsrud: In many ways we had been this underdog and the only team without local investors so we had to o everything with so much less than other teams. But we decided the first day I hired Ian that we would do this as a family where the front office and the team would be one. We shared the same office space. The team would meet with the staff and the front office working around them.

Stone: We were very professional to each other and very cordial in the professional environment. I don’t think there was ever a situation where we were not nice to each other, but we were vastly different. You think about it, Atlanta hired two guys out of the youth game who won the league. And we quite frankly didn’t have a lot of respect for the college coaches in the league.

Sermanni: Tom was a great guy but you could hear him 100 yards outside the stadium shouting at his players. He has a voice I wish I had. I think there was more of a rivalry between us and Atlanta than any other team at that stage because of the personalities of the teams and things involved. It was kind of an ideal final.

On April 30, Brandi Chastain flew to New York to tape with David Letterman. The comedian was not shy to poke some fun at the CyberRays 0-1-1 start. In return, Chastain guaranteed Letterman her team would be in the championship match. But as May turned to June the CyberRays were 1-4-1.

Beene: I remember a slow start and trying to get our feet underneath us. A lot of us had never been professional athletes. We had Brandi Chastain and Tisha Venturini sprinkled in with Brazilians and a couple of World Cup players, but pretty much everyone else was playing out of college just out of their local teams and trying to get games to kick around with. So we really didn’t know much about trying to be professionals. That first year was us trying to understand what it meant to being a professional soccer player. We had Ian trying to implement his passing system and the way he wanted our formation and movement on the field. That was a rough start trying to implement all that. At the same time we were getting hammered by these teams that seemed to gel so quickly on the field. It took us awhile to do that and find the right personnel and put them in the right positions. For some reason we started clicking and gelling and finding our rhythm.

Venturini: We figured something out. I can’t exactly remember. We had a lot of heart on that team and leadership. We had Brandi on our team. Brandi was a great leader.

Sissi: Brandi taught me my first bad word in English.

Venturini: We really enjoyed being together as a team so we had a good, solid relationship together on and off the field. That helps when you’re not winning, if you’re a good solid group and care for each other. It will come through for you if you just keep working. Brandi was one of our leaders that kept us going and focused on the positives.

Sissi: At the beginning we were trying to figure out what was our strength as a group. We had people from every single part of the world who had never played together. We were trying to figure out what was the best formation. Ian was trying to figure it out. When we finally got all those things figured out, the formation, the players strengths, that’s when you can say we started to play better as a group and individually.

Sermanni: Two things really. There was a great team spirit, but there was a great ethic and leadership in the club. It was a great club. What I mean by that, the general manager Marlene Bjornsrud, she’s a really incredible person. And her personality kind of set the tone for the club. It was a really welcoming club. There were at least two or three times a week the players were in the office having lunch. They were just floating in and out of the office. It really was a family environment. Ian created a great environment in the football area and Marlene created a great environment in the club area.

We got on a roll and as soon as we got on a roll things started going from there.

Sissi: As a Brazilian it was hard to figure out how to play the American style. The pace was different. Here everything was fast and very physical. When Ian got that figured out that’s when we started to play better. The chemistry was better.

Stone: we had such a fun ride because we were way out in first and we had a little slump when we lost three in a row. We had to find our way out of that. Then right as we were coming out of at the end of the season we got on another roll.

Venturini: Thank God you mentioned Tommy (Sermanni). He was a huge part. He is just a joy to be around. He just keep things loose. You know what he’s probably one of the biggest reasons why. He always uses humor. He has a great soccer mind but he keeps things light and fun. He’s the funniest guy you’ll know and he’ll do anything for anybody. He was a huge reason why we went so far and why we had so much fun.

Beene: They couldn’t be much more different but they were the best of buddies and they were hilarious, especially because one was English (Sawyers) and one was Scottish (Sermanni). Their love of the game and their love of all things English and Scottish played off really well. Tommy was a good, I don’t want to call him sidekick because he had his own big personality, but he was kind of the fun sidekick to Ian which helped our team with the fun parts of the game and realize it was just a game. As a player it was helpful to have both of them side by side.

Sermanni: We were fairly different characters. I think that worked. He was a more vocal character than me, and a very, very good coach. I was kind of the easygoing sidekick.

Venturini: They were a good fit. Ian was a little more serious and just getting the business done—although he could have a little bit of fun as well. But Tommy was just like Uncle Tommy. You could talk to him about anything and he kept everybody loose.

The Beat finished the season with two straight wins including a 4-0 thrashing of the CyberRays on August 9 to edge them on goal difference for the league championship.

Stone: Ironically, because it happened to us, I was preaching during the formation of the league; I was preaching during the selection of the teams, the players, everything, that we should have made the league trophy the bigger trophy like the entire rest of the planet. My pretention was that there’s never been a women’s pro league before, there’s never been this much attention and fanfare and promotion. Everyone is starting literally from ground zero. There has never been a sports league that I can think of that started with that much money and fanfare that started with no players. So that first year of drafting, training, pre-season preparation, all that stuff, was just going to be an unbelievable accomplishment. I kept telling the league ‘You gotta make the league champion the bigger deal.’ And we won the league championship. We thought it was the biggest deal in the world but then the Founders Cup championship kind of stole the limelight which I found ironic because we lost in the Founders Cup final—which wasn’t nearly as hard to win as the league.

I know it’s the American way and all and I get that. I didn’t know we were going to win the league at the time, I just felt like whoever won the league that first year it would be a pretty spectacular accomplishment. We still feel that way.

On August 18 the Beat trailed the Philadelphia Charge 2-0 at halftime of their semifinal. Aided by a series of mistakes by Charge keeper Melissa Moore, the Beat forced sudden death extra time and prevailed on a Cindy Parlow golden goal.

Stone: If you want to talk exciting, our semifinal was the one. Being down 2-0 against Philly who looked invincible in the first half and then coming back to win 3-2; it was on ESPN, all of my friends were watching, that was probably the most exciting WUSA game that I coached in. It was over at halftime. We walked into the locker room at halftime and I said ‘first of all we’re winning this game.’ They all looked at me like I was crazy. And then we went about trying to give them some ideas about how we could win the game.

Founders Cup I came replete with parties before and after the game plus the 21,078 at Foxboro Stadium, most of whom came to cheer. They got a lot to cheer for.

Bjornsrud: I would say we were guests of the league. I think they picked the Boston venue because the general manager of the Boston team, Joe Cummings, was just incredibly experienced at hosting major events. The league wanted to make sure it was run like a well-oiled machine. It wasn’t just the operations end that they wanted to go absolutely meticulously without any mistakes. They also wanted to make sure there was a good crowd in attendance. Joe had the capability of delivering and exceeding expectations in both those areas.

Beene: The atmosphere was wonderful. We had a packed house. We had fans from San Jose coming in. I think I had friends from college who lived on the East Coast came out. It was just a wonderful, awesome place to be especially since it was the first year of actual women’s professional soccer.

Sermanni: It was a good crowd. It was a good atmosphere. Atlanta were kind of the team that people liked to beat.

Stone: I don’t remember anything before. I do remember the (party) after. I remember walking around and seeing all these events and thinking I was a kid in a candy store.

Beene: I remember the awards show. It was a special time. We were coming off the ’99 world Cup to the culmination of the first year of the league that was built by the 99ers. It was kind of a special time in the league’s history. At that time, a lot of money was being dumped into women’s soccer and the league. Looking back (they) probably shouldn’t have dumped that much money into the league. But looking back everyone was excited. It did make it enjoyable. It made it a great experience, like we were in the big leagues.

Stone: The league, that whole first year was just a roll. It was like that whole first season was an event. We were thrilled with it. I can still remember when the Air Force came over and did their flyover, one of the jets right over the stadium just went vertical and went straight up in the air. Goosebumps is the understatement of the year.

When the match started, the goals came fast and furious. Brandi Chastain opened by deflecting in Kelly Lindsey’s shot but the Beat quickly struck back with goals by Kylie Bivens and Charmaine Hooper to take a 2-1 lead. That was all in the first 14 minutes.

Sissi: We were not expecting that. The first 15 minutes was insane. I think the top two teams played. I think having Brandi as a captain and Tish, those players kind of kept the group together and made sure that we still had the game plan and did not lose the momentum.

Stone: I remember turning to Aaron Gordon my assistant and saying, ‘this is a hell of a game.’ It really was an enjoyable game to coach. Both teams played extraordinary well. I remember thinking it was great for soccer. We all thought that league was going to stay forever and the money was going to keep rolling in. And I remember just thinking this is a great highlight package for, at that time the most significant women’s league for sure, worldwide.

Beene: The best part about being a goalkeeper (is) you don’t remember any of the goals you give up, you’re ready for the next shot. I really remember one goal, I think I came off my line and got chipped it something and thinking what the heck am I doing out here? It’s part of the nerves of being in a championship game and not playing your typical style.

Stone: Whatever the goal music was, by the fourth goal I was kind of getting tired of that song. Both teams had done extremely well defensively. I think we were the number one defensive team in the league and they were number two. And it ended up being a six-goal outburst.

That fourth goal was scored by Julie Murray just before halftime. That tied the score 2-2 heading to the break.

Sermanni: Julie’s first goal was a really good goal, typical of her skill set. I think she got the ball, dragged it on her left foot and buried it. Real quality goal.

Bjornsrud: For the major part of the game I was in a suite with John Hendricks. He and his wife and I were in a suite with Julie Foudy. Her team wasn’t in it but her husband was our coach. We watched the game together until toward the end of the second half when it looked like it was going into overtime.

Julie Foudy—if you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch a game with her that she’s not broadcasting, and just sit near her, she’s hysterical. She kept me in check, just kind of making things funny and keeping me in some kind of place so I wouldn’t have a heart attack over it all. But it was strange for me because it wasn’t just the competition it was the historical importance of what was happening. Having been a pioneer in the world of women’s sports for so long, and though there are many pioneers that came in the decades before me, I still was at a point in time as a pre-Title IX woman that I fully embraced what this meant for women in our country and for young girls. So I could hardly tell you anything that happened. I was just overwhelmed with the significance.

also see: part 2 of our Founders Cup I oral history

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