Women’s soccer fans in the United States have become conditioned to dealing with bad news. The folding of the Boston Breakers was a tough pill to swallow, but hey, at least the league is still ticking along. For reference I take you back to September 15, 2003 when WUSA announced a conference call that most thought was to announce that the Bay Area CyberRays were moving down the coast to Los Angeles. But nope, the CyberRays were actually shutting down with the rest of the league. The World Cup kickoff was five days away—in the United States. The league was in such dire financial shape that the powers that be had to shut it down immediately rather than ride it out through the World Cup in hopes of finding the sponsorships and partnerships necessary to keep it going.
One of those WUSA teams was the Boston Breakers. They had just won the regular season title under the tutelage of a first-year head coach named Pia Sundhage. That was probably the best of the Breakers teams we saw over a dozen seasons of competition spanning 17 years. They finished first one other time, in the 2012 WPSL Elite season, and were twice a playoff side in WPS. They never played a championship match, and the NWSL version of the club in particular racked up more futility records than need be repeated today.
But the Breakers were always there. As we waded through mess after mess trying to launch and sustain professional women’s soccer, the Breakers were like a security blanket. After WPS went under they were always going to be part of whatever league sprouted up next. That meant a season of WPSL Elite before NWSL. Unfortunately, the finances dried up sometime in 2017, and when local ownership groups failed to pan out, the security blanket was gone. And so six and a half weeks from now, a pro women’s soccer season will begin and for the first time ever, it will not include the Boston Breakers.
Here are some of my personal memories of the Breakers through the years.
WUSA: Meinert/Mellgren and Pia
The Breakers gained instant credibility when they were allocated Kristine Lilly as one of their three founding players—Kate Sobrero (now Markgraf) and Tracy Ducar were the others. Lilly gave the team a face and a work ethic to build around. The Breakers did not reach the playoffs, but Lilly played every minute and was named to the league’s all-star team called the Global XI.
-While the Breakers were missing the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, they were busy developing a midfielder they had drafted No. 92 in the WUSA General Draft. Angela Hucles wound up making it all the way to the USWNT, where she won a pair of Olympic gold medals. Hucles went on to serve a two-year stint as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and remains a major advocate for soccer and women in sports around the globe.
-Toward the end of the 2003 season, I sat down with Maren Meinert before a Breakers game at Nickerson Field. The World Cup was coming and I asked her about the 1999 quarterfinal against the United States. “You guys led in that game, right?” I said. Meinert’s eyes locked in as if she was staring me down and reliving the match all at the same time. “We led twice,” she shot back. At that moment I began to feel Germany would win the World Cup, which they did. And I could not have been more pleased for Meinert.
-Meinert and Dagny Mellgren were from different countries (Mellgren is Norwegian) that played very different styles. But their on-field connection was magical. To this day I would put them up against any pair of attacking players ever to suit up for a WoSoPro side.
-Sundhage got the Breakers job in 2013 after two years as an assistant under Mark Krikorian at the Philadelphia Charge. Sundhage molded what had been a talented Breakers side into a first-place club, and they crashed out of the playoffs only after playing the Washington Freedom to a 0-0 draw and losing on penalties in the semifinals.
-The games at Nickerson were fun. By the end of 2003, a solid fan base was being established. Following the club’s final regular season match there, a win over the Carolina Courage, general manager Joe Cummings addressed the crowd. Upon informing them that the Freedom had lost to the Philadelphia Charge, clinching a home semifinal for the Breakers, the crowd erupted.
-The city’s major outlets covered the Breakers. One day I ran into Eddie Gray of the Boston Herald who was summoned to the press box to help the Herald reporter get her computer online (from the “you caan’t make this stuff up” anals it turned out it had been in Iraq and had yet to be reconfigured for use back in the states.) I knew Eddie from my days at the racetrack, and he was quick to give me a hard time about being in the press box for a WUSA match. But I mention this because a few weeks later he penned this extraordinary column in the Herald. You’ll want to stop reading before the comments and forgive me for not being able to find anything direct from the Herald.
-Nickerson Field is also where I first crossed paths—unknowingly—with then-Breakers volunteer Meg Linehan. Meg has since had two stints at The Equalizer and now the runs social media for NWSL Media. She has also been a good friend over the years.
WPS: The Tony DiCicco years
The WPS Breakers gained instant credibility with the allocation of, you guessed it, Kristine Lilly. And just like she did in WUSA, Lilly played every minute of the Breakers first season. And like in WUSA, it did not result in a playoff berth. The Breakers did reach the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 but failed to win a game either time.
-Tony DiCicco was fun as coach of the Breakers. Always available to discuss his team and women’s soccer in general, DiCicco was a master at both answering every question and steering the conversation toward whatever was on his mind at the time. It was DiCicco who first voiced that teams were spending “off budget,” which ran afoul of the salary cap, and it was DiCicco who called out the lack of traveling medical staff that cost Heather Mitts a chance to return to a game after halftime because the home team had a medical issue that was prioritized ahead of hers. At other times he excoriated then rookie Amy Rodriguez for a lack of work rate that eventually led to her being traded after one season.
-DiCicco was also quick to offer his enthusiasm, such as when members of the Riptide were hurling streamers at opposing players taking corner kicks at Harvard Stadium. Or when the inactive players drove to Florida for the team’s 2011 playoff match against magicJack.
-The Riptide v. Hope Solo was an unfortunate blemish on WPS when the Atlanta Beat goalkeeper accused the club’s supporters groups of using racial epithets during a match. In the end both clubs released a statement together which exonerated the group at large and ultimately proved and solved nothing.
-I saw far too many Breakers-Sky Blue games, which in WPS days were almost always dreadfully boring. Notably though, the Breakers lost their last game in 2009 to the Los Angeles Sol, which allowed Sky Blue to sneak in the back door to the playoff field. They promptly won three games and the championship.
-The 2011 Breakers were one of the strangest clubs ever. Their back four of Alex Scott-Rachel Buehler-Amy LePeilbet-Stephanie Cox comprised three-quarters of the United States back line for the World Cup plus Scott, who started for England. But they never clicked for the Breakers—nor for the USWNT—who were at their best while their internationals were gone. In the end, a team that also carried future world champions Lauren Cheney (now Holiday) and Alyssa Naeher finished fourth and crashed out in a single playoff game.
-The 2011 home opener was the first time I met Jordan Angeli. The circumstances were not great. She had torn her ACL the week before in Atlanta. Despite that she was nice enough to not only grant me an interview on the spot, but was as insightful as any player I have ever spoken with. I did several follow-ups with Jordan through the years and was lucky enough to be at the Maryland SoccerPlex for her return to the field three years later. I’m still in touch with Jordan, who remains one of the most genuine and inspiring people I have met in women’s soccer.
NWSL: Famous hat tricks and futility
Unfortunately for the Breakers, they are the symbol of futility during the first five years of the NWSL. After a middling 2013 season, they did beat only the first-year Dash in 2014, no one in 2015 or 2016, and the Spirit by a tiebreaker in 2017. But there were some fun moments…
-Forgotten by many is that the Breakers had the first hat trick in NWSL history when Sydney Leroux bagged three goals on May 4, 2013 against the Chicago Red Stars.
-Also forgotten is maybe the most obscure hat trick in NWSL so far. On May 28, 2014 coach Tom Durkin rested many of his regulars against the Thorns and was rewarded with a 4-1 win on the wings of a hat trick by Jazmine Reeves. I was at Yurcak Field that night and as word of the score began to spread during halftime, there was a distinct buzz about it in New Jersey. Reeves was a promising rookie but played only that one season before taking a job at Google.
-It was a less enjoyable moment for Breakers fans but they were the opponent for Lisa De VAnna’s epic bicycle kick goal in 2013. Keeper Ashley Phillips was later able to appreciate the goal that put her on a perpetual highlight reel.
-The Breakers not only played in all three leagues plus WPSL Elite, they were true to that history throughout. They retired numbers going back to Meinert and honored players like Katie Schoepfer and Julie King for 100 appearances, even though neither did so in any single league. By contrast, Sky Blue wears a star over their badge denoting their 2009 championship, but it has always baffled me how little attention they play to the players who brought them that title. Bravo to the Breakers for always embracing the totality of their history.
Preseason begins next week, and for the first time it will not involve the Boston Breakers. That is going to be strange. We’ll move on because that’s what we do. But let’s never forget the organization and the players, staff, and fans that were the Boston Breakers.