As women’s soccer continued to evolve and struggle for a piece of the relevance pie within the sports and entertainment landscapes, there are moments from time to time when all is right with the world. Saturday was another one of them when the Utah Royals opened up standing room only tickets to their inaugural home opener against the Chicago Red Stars. Other indelible moments include World Cup finals, the intensity of home support in the Netherlands during the EUROs last summer, and most Thorns home matches—never more than the night their goalkeeper scored their stoppage-time equalizer.
Five years and one day before the Royals opener, there was an important soccer match played in Kansas City. In front of an overflow crowd of 6,784, the home side drew the Thorns 1-1. Sunil Gulati and Tom Sermanni—then U.S. Soccer president and women’s national team head coach, respectively—watched the match from a box, and Gulati fumed as the YouTube stream lagged several minutes behind. It was the first match in the history of NWSL.
“We played Portland. Renae Cuellar scored first. And they got a questionable call for them and we drew 1-1,” Becky Sauerbrunn recalled, neatly summing up the match.
Vlatko Andonovski, at that point still an unknown, they-hired-who head coach, had told the press after that match he did not agree with the penalty call. That complaint opened the floodgates for Andonovski and his coaching colleagues to make officiating a major point of attention nearly every week.
(Saturday, Royals coach Laura Harvey carried on the tradition. “Hopefully I won’t get fined but I don’t think the player touched the ball who tackled Gunny, so we can keep talking about that all day.” The reference was a Samantha Johnson slide tackle on Gunnhilder Jonnsdottir that was ruled clean. Harvey was not asked specifically about the play.)
To that point, Sauerbrunn could not remember if the questionable call was a handball or a trip (it was a trip) only that it was questionable and that the call was not on her.
“I vaguely remember being upset that it was called,” goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who backed up Abby Smith in the Royals opener, said.
Sauerbrunn and Barnhart were both three-year WPS veterans. Sauerbrunn played in the inaugural game and Barnhart was in two of the three finals. The launch of NWSL was met with a healthy combination of optimism and cynicism after WPS joined WUSA in the junkyard after the same three-year lifespan.
“I think there’s definitely pressure on this league,” Sauerbrunn said. “Having three defunct professional leagues, I don’t know what would happen if that were to happen. So I think there is pressure on this league, but I also think we entered into this with U.S. Soccer’s backing, which has been huge. We’re affiliating with more MLS teams which has been used. So I think we’re taking the right steps.”
“It’s always exciting starting a new league,” Barnhart said. “It obviously means there has been some progress and there has been a push to the future. That’s what we want. Anytime there is a new start it’s exciting. Obviously it’s sad that the other one had to end prior, but as you see with each progression of it, it seems like it’s getting a little better.”
Barnhart and Sauerbrunn were among the players whose salary was paid by U.S. Soccer at the launch of NWSL. Canadian and Mexican players were also subsidized by their respective federations. Five years later it is easy to forget that the allocation model was a revelation.
“It was what was needed just to take some pressure off the owners because we didn’t count against the salary cap and things like that,” Sauerbrunn, who is still allocated while Barnhart is not, said. “I think that’s what has helped this league stay stable.”
Scott and Tymrak were in different stages of their careers and have slightly different bents on 2013. Scott was and is (with a break along the way) allocated by Canada but had never been a professional before like the U.S. internationals. Tymrak was a rookie.
“No,” Scott said when asked if she envisioned herself talking to a reporter five years later after playing in front of more than 19,000. “It’s pretty nutty that the league has progressed the way it has. The fact that day in and day out we get to do what we love and to play at such a competitive level right here in North America is incredible.”
Tymrak concurred with the same, flat, “No.”
“I just think it shows the progress in the league and just a bright future for women’s soccer,” the No. 11 pick from Florida and eventual 2013 Rookie of the Year continued.
The story of that day is not complete without remembering the dichotomous path that FC Kansas City took. On the field, that was the debut of Vlatko-ball, the short-pass, build out of the back to a target striker style that went on to produce two championships. Off the field, the club never again came within 1,500 of that opening day attendance short of two matches at Sporting Park, and by the end of 2017 were no longer viable and were sold back to the league.
“We surprised a lot of people with how we played and how successful we were,” Barnhart said. “We were playing against a team that came in with probably all the pressure in them to win, and I think we kind of proved ourselves and put a name to ourselves.”
“I remember having to defend (Christine) Sinclair, one of the best in the world,” Scott, the only one of the four who was not on the championship teams, said. “My job was strictly to be the destroyer out there and prevent them scoring.”
An identity formed for a league, and for a team. Five years later some of the teams and many of the faces have changed, but never before has a women’s pro league celebrated a five-year anniversary of anything while at the same time remaining operational.
Onward and upward.
NWSL Attendance Watch
-Sky Blue enjoyed a banner year by their standards in 2017 without a single attendance figure south of 2,000. A driving rain storm on Sunday killed a majority of their walkup and left the opening day crowd at 1,913.
-Another full 90 for Abby Dahlkemper has her record minutes streak at 5,850 in a row.
-Kelley O’Hara played the first half for the Royals on Saturday before coming off in favor of Sidney Miramontez in what was a planned substitution. “I wish I felt a little better than I did,” O’Hara said. She has been bothered by a left hamstring strain.
-Mallory Pugh went off early Saturday with what looked like a quad injury. Stay tuned…
-Samantha Mewis was on the bench for the Courage on Saturday but did not make an appearance. Looks like her return is just a matter of time.
-Chatting around my sense is that nothing will come of Debinha playing for the Courage in Week 2 when it seemed like she should have been in with Brazil. That said if FIFA is or gets involved, anything is possible.
-Also chatting around it seems as if a decision has been made as to the location of the NWSL Championship. This sounds great, but someone should tell the league office that people actually like to know these things. In other words, let’s start promoting.
-Saturday’s Royals opener was played on the 16th anniversary of the inaugural WUSA match. The Washington Freedom prevailed 1-0 over the Bay Area CyberRays on Pretinha’s late penalty. The cause for the penalty? That would be Brandi Chastain taking down Mia Hamm in the box. The CyberRays had the last laugh when they won the league’s first championship.
-Wednesday is the start of midweek NWSL action. The Courage host the Reign in a battle of teams with a combined 5-0-0 mark, and the Red Stars host the Dash in the first return match of 2018.