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An Open Letter From Jim Gabarra on the eve of professional women’s soccer history
The dreams ushered in with the WUSA remain as crystal clear as that April day in 2001 at RFK Stadium.
It was the inaugural match for the WUSA and the Founding players were present for the stand-alone league match. It was a spectacle worthy of a World Cup, and of course WUSA budgeted as such. The results were astounding for a first-ever women’s professional soccer match in the United States. 34,148 witnessed the festivities and soaked in the atmosphere generated by the rock stars the U.S. Women’s National Team players had become.
It was Mia versus Brandi! Freedom versus CyberRays. The dreams were big!
With all the marketing advertising and buildup, I was nervous about the product. We had players from all different backgrounds and playing styles. Even though the game was not one to remember from a soccer perspective, the result was good for the hometown team, a soft PK called against Brandi saw Pretinha score the winner from the spot in the 70th minute.
We all had dreams that the record breaking 1999 World Cup Win meant WUSA would instantly be a viable top tier league, complete with Women’s World Cup attendances and sponsorships. We had dreams of mass awareness, fanatical support, financial sustainability and consistent mainstream media attention.
Dreams are far from reality.
It has taken 15 years of hard work, investment (losses) ups and downs, heartbreak and elation for those dreams to become realistically achievable in NWSL. In those 15 years, owners have come and gone, while players and coaches have toiled and developed in three very different leagues. Fans have loyally supported teams and dreamed as well.
When U.S. Soccer made the critical decision to fund a portion of NWSL player salaries and operating the league’s front office, everything changed. It was a level of support no other ownership group in a women’s league has ever had, and the proof is on the field this weekend as all of the original eight teams are returning for a 4th season, along with 2014 expansion side in Houston and the new Orlando Pride team, the latter looking set to break all of the big attendance records already set out in Portland. The growth is real and the optimism much more realistic.
I have had the good fortune to work in women’s pro soccer since 2000. The first 10 years with the Washington Freedom, and now back in Washington once again with the Spirit. I have had the incredible opportunity to work with the best players in the world and grow and learn as a coach and manager. To come home and again have the unique opportunity to lead a team in the league opener into this new era is gratifying.
NWSL year 4!
We have achieved a wide range of awareness. NWSL is mentioned more and more in mainstream sports media and fan-focused shows like Mike and Mike. Support is finally here in ways we could only dream of before. Sustainability, mainstream media attention and social media relevance have all been realized. There’s significant interest in new franchises nationally from both MLS and independent ownership groups.
This is indeed a new era for women’s pro soccer and all the dreams we all had 16 years ago are certainly within reach. We should remember all those that invested and dreamed with us as our game gets stronger and growth becomes. And none of this should be taken for granted. We have to continue the passionate work and always look to improve as a league and in whatever our individual and group roles may be. Fans need to buy tickets and promote the league to others so they become fans too. Most importantly we have to continue to dream while not forgetting from where we came.
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