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Mystery, intrigue and a glimpse of the future: The story of the first NWSL game ever played

FC Kansas City vs. Portland Thorns FC, NWSL Opening Day
File Photo: Copyright Thad Bell | http://www.tpbphoto.com/

Becky Sauerbrunn remembers the crowd.

“A lot of things come to mind, but the first would probably be the almost 7,000 people in attendance and just thinking, wow this is really amazing that we have so many people filling up this high school football field. I remember the atmosphere was just really great.”

Vlatko Andonovski remembers the history.

“For me, it’s the history. It’s the first day for the team, the first game for the league. And the first game for me as a professional women’s soccer coach. So, history altogether for women’s soccer but history for me, too, personally.”

Becky Edwards remembers the field.

“All the football lines at the high school, and the turf.”

Those memories are from the first National Women’s Soccer League match played, on April 13, 2013, at Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kansas. Sauerbrunn was then the captain at FC Kansas City, coached by a then-unknown Andonovski. Edwards played for Portland Thorns FC, the club that looked just a little bit different from the others even before taking the field.

“I guess I always tried to stay optimistic with the league, that it was going to last longer than the three years,” Sauerbrunn said, referencing her time line around which both preceding leagues — WUSA (2001-03) and WPS (2009-11) — survived. “It felt relatively different because of U.S. Soccer’s contribution in it. It seemed like there was a little bit more stability. But then there was also the feeling like, yes a new league, a new chance so let’s make the most of it.”

The decision for Sauerbrunn to play in the new league was simple since U.S. Soccer was footing the bill. She had spent 2012 training with the United States national team and earning an Olympic gold medal. Edwards was a level below and at the time still carried dreams of being on the international stage. She had spent 2012 in Sweden. And while there was some trepidation at getting involved in another unproven league, there was never much of a doubt when it came to making the decision to play.

“After there was no season in 2012, I was still looking to play and looking at different places around the world. When I heard that NWSL was coming back, of course I was skeptical after the WPS failed,” Edwards said. “But after we heard that the NWSL was backed up [by] U.S. Soccer and MLS teams were buying in, we had a little bit more hope that it would be more successful this time around. And then once everything got going, my thought was that I want to play in the U.S.”

The first NWSL match was played with far less fanfare than its predecessors. The match was played in what was, at the time, the least proven of the eight markets. The match was livestreamed on what was a choppy, unreliable YouTube stream. In other words, no television. By contrast, the WUSA opened with a standalone match on TNT and 17 “founding players” who were not on either team were flown in for the event.

Kansas City, though, proved a worthy destination for the NWSL to debut in. The official crowd was 6,784, literally overflowing the stands at Shawnee Mission North High School. Many of them arrived early and set up tailgates in the parking lot, giving the match more of an event feel.

“The crowd was great,” Andonovski said. “That was [something] that we didn’t know what to expect.”

Also in the building that night was U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who had spearheaded the effort to get the three federations — the U.S., Canada and Mexico — on board with paying players and funding the league office. Tom Sermanni, then in the first few months of what would be an ill-fated run as head coach of the U.S. national team, was also there. These are the memories of that historic first game, seven years later — from those who were there.

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