As American as Women’s Soccer?

Everything about the new professional women's soccer league is unorthodox—which is why it may succeed

It was a snowy morning on the last Sunday in February, too early to be awake, but inside Mike Boyle's Strength and Conditioning center, in Winchester, Massachusetts, twenty-six women were working out, as devout in their exertions as monks at matins. This was not a casual-jaunt-on-the-StairMaster sort of workout; Mike Boyle's is not the place for casual jaunts. There are no Pilates classes here, no juice bar, no copies of Cosmo or Glamour—just machines, weights, and a swath of artificial turf laid across the concrete floor. These women were working out: sprints and weights and more sprints, while an imposing trainer in black sweats put them through their paces for two solid hours.

They were the Boston Breakers, one of eight teams in the new Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), which made its debut in April. The women are already elite athletes; they also represent the future. In the college seminar I teach on sports and culture, nothing infuriates the female students more than the degradation of women that is associated with male sports: bikini-clad ring girls at boxing matches, inanely grinning cheerleaders at basketball and football games, victory-circle girls at auto races. For my students and many of their contemporaries—who have come of age in the era of Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in institutions (primarily high schools and colleges) supported by public funds—an increasingly compelling image of femininity is represented by the women at Mike Boyle's: it's not about cheering sports but about aggressively playing them.

Although there have been professional and semi-professional women's soccer leagues in Sweden, Germany, Italy, Japan, and a few other countries for some years, the quality of play in those places is equivalent, at best, to American Division I collegiate-level soccer, and most of the players hold down day jobs in order to earn a living. WUSA, in contrast, pays real money, and the caliber of play is far and away the best in the world.

The high quality of talent notwithstanding, two realities would seem to make the existence of this league—let alone that it might succeed—unlikely. There is, first, the obliviousness of the average American to soccer as a major sport. And if general lack of enthusiasm for the sport would appear to dim the prospects of any soccer league, male or female, in this country, the fact that the global soccer culture has historically not tolerated female participation should dim them further. Americans don't like soccer; women are not supposed to play soccer; therefore a women's soccer league in America must fail.

Except it doesn't quite work that way. Rather, our very heedlessness of international soccer values has made us ignorant of women's historical exclusion from the sport. Here women and girls playing soccer is accepted as something routine, even admirable. The fact that soccer remains lodged in the American consciousness less as a professional sport than as a wholesome activity for young people informs the character of WUSA, which in its ethos and economic structure is unlike any league before it.

On a soccer-mad planet—riots occur, work stops, prisoners escape, politicians rise or fall, religious schisms open or close, wars start, all because of soccer matches—the United States has long stood as an oasis of indifference to the world's game. Yes, in recent years the sport has exploded in the United States at the suburban grass roots, and has even spawned a cultural archetype: the soccer mom. But soccer at the elite level of play has generally attracted somewhat less interest than, say, ice hockey (though somewhat more than cricket—a foreign curiosity we can't quite get the hang of), and certainly much less than the major American sports. Indeed, with a few significant exceptions, the history of U.S. men's soccer is a long tale of futility.

Even Major League Soccer, launched in 1996 (two years after the men's World Cup was held in this country), though it restored professional soccer to North America, remains strictly minor-league relative both to international soccer and to other American sports. Not all MLS games are televised, and would-be fans must often scour the nether regions of the sports section to find any league coverage. I know this because I'm an avid soccer fan, and without a satellite dish to pick up foreign television, I have to take what I can get. Until lately that meant following MLS's New England Revolution.

Now I have another team to cheer for: the Breakers, who join the Atlanta Beat, the Bay Area CyberRays, the Carolina Courage, the New York Power, the Philadelphia Charge, the San Diego Spirit, and the Washington Freedom in making up WUSA. WUSA's launch marks a profound development in both soccer and women's athletics in this country.

As noted, women's soccer is anathema in much of the world. In 1921 in England, the birthplace of soccer, women were officially banned from playing on professional fields. As the English player and coach Sue Lopez wrote in Women on the Ball (1997), soccer was "considered to be an unsuitable game for women; it offended middle-class propriety and gave concern to some of the medical profession, who felt it would damage female reproductive organs." When English women finally began playing seriously, in the early 1970s, the characteristic reaction was that of Brian Glanville, the dean of English soccer writers. In a notorious Times of London article about the English national women's team's defeat of Scotland in June of 1973, Glanville—borrowing Samuel Johnson's remark about women who preach—wrote that seeing women play soccer was like seeing "a dog walking on its hind legs." "It is not done well," he said, "but it is surprising to see it done at all."

If England has been chilly toward women's soccer, Brazil—which over the past fifty years has raised the game to its creative height—has been downright hostile. In Brazil, as in other Latin American countries where passion for what is called the "beautiful game" runs high, masculinity is inscribed on the sport, and the word for "ball," bola, is also used to connote the roundness of female breasts. In recent years the Brazilian women's national team has become one of the top four or five in the world, but the team's games are rarely televised at home, and women who play are popularly assumed to be lesbians or considered somehow masculine. Tony DiCicco, the moustachioed former goalkeeper who coached the U.S. women's national team from 1994 through 1999, points out, "If your daughter wanted to go out for peewee football, she'd run into serious resistance. The Brazilian equivalent of that girl wanting to play football is the daughter who tells her parents she wants to play soccer."

Fortunately for women's soccer in the United States, the level of gender equity is higher in this country than it is just about anywhere else in the world. "The reason we lead the world in women's soccer is that we lead the world in feminism," explains Tracy Ducar, the backup goalkeeper for the 1999 World Cup team and now the tough-as-nails starting keeper for the Boston Breakers.

The quest for a professional women's soccer league gained momentum following the spectacular success of the 1999 World Cup—symbolized by the midfielder Brandi Chastain's game-winning penalty kick and her post-kick celebration. The goal was attained in February of last year, when a group of individual investors and cable companies, led by John Hendricks, of the Discovery Channel, and including Amos Hostetter, formerly of Continental Cablevision, announced that they had raised $40 million to start a league that would begin play in 2001.

Several things make WUSA's strategic approach distinctive. First, in addition to being cable-company executives (this ensures that most games will be televised; this season you can see twenty-two of them nationally, on TNT or CNN/SI), the league's owner-operators are all also soccer parents. The enterprise would thus seem to be not just a business instrument but also a social one. Second, in marked contrast to the leagues of the big-three men's sports, where skyrocketing player salaries have helped to drive admission prices above affordability, WUSA is keeping tickets at an average of $15. "We didn't want a family to have to get a second job in order to buy tickets," says Joe Cummings, the Breakers' general manager. Third, WUSA follows MLS and the WNBA (the women's professional basketball league, which is backed by the NBA) in being a "single-entity structure." Unlike the NBA, the NFL, and other traditional pro leagues that have competing economic franchises with individual owners, WUSA "owns" all eight teams. Players sign contracts with the league, not with a team. Some sports economists say this structure will damage the league in the long term, because it artificially holds down salaries (teams can't bid for a player's services) and impairs normal competitive processes. On the other hand, the start-up costs for a professional sports league are exorbitant; pooling revenues and—yes—keeping player salaries artificially low can help to contain these costs. Most important, the single-entity structure has given WUSA substantial control over which players go to which teams.

To start out, WUSA allocated its twenty "founding players" (the 1999 World Cup team) and four top collegians three to a team, for purposes of competitive parity, marketing effectiveness, and—in a distinct departure from the way most leagues work—player satisfaction. (Julie Foudy, allocated to San Diego, might have preferred to play for the Bay Area. Then again, she might not—her husband is the Bay Area CyberRays' head coach.)

MLS, when it began, allocated its foreign players according to ethnic fan bases—Latin Americans to Los Angeles, for instance, and Eastern Europeans to Chicago. WUSA proceeded differently. From May to October the league's vice-president for player personnel, Lauren Gregg, traveled the world, interviewing foreign players, talking to their local club teams and national federations, and negotiating contracts. In the professional-sports world this is unorthodox—getting players to sign a contract with a league before a team drafts them. By the time the foreign-player draft was held, on October 30, Gregg had received commitments from four Brazilians, four Norwegians, three Germans, two Swedes, a Canadian, an Englishwoman, and a Japanese.

More unorthodox still was the way the draft was conducted. Recognizing that linguistic and cultural barriers would create adjustment difficulties for the international players (and knowing that they had to be kept happy if their countrywomen were to follow in the future), WUSA grouped as many players as possible for drafting in pairs (Brazilians with Brazilians, Norwegians with Norwegians) and then paired the remaining players with others who spoke the same language or whom they already knew. After the draft took place, Gregg managed to get commitments from five Chinese players, including the great Sun Wen, perhaps the best female player in the world; they were drafted individually in December.

To fill out the training-camp rosters, WUSA held an invitation-only tryout at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, the first week in December. The indefatigable Gregg, who had long been an assistant coach and scout for the national team, managed to bring together the 200 best amateur players in the country. Coaches and scouts from the eight teams strolled among them and evaluated talent in preparation for the fifteen-round draft, which occurred December 10 and 11. Unlike, say, the NBA draft, which is covered by every major media outlet, this one drew no press—so aspirants had to check WUSA's Web site every few minutes to see if they'd been drafted. "I sat for hours clicking 'reload' on my browser to see whether I'd been picked," a player who ended up on the CyberRays told me recently.

Don't expect to see in WUSA the same kind of athleticism you would see in the men's game. The women's national team sometimes practices against under-sixteen boys' teams—and loses. "They just boot it over our heads and run past us," Kate Sobrero, the national-team and Boston Breaker defender, told me. But in most important technical respects—ball control, shooting, tactical sense, and, above all, passing—the women are just as skillful as the men.

Some basketball connoisseurs argue that women's basketball is "purer" than men's: it's more dependent on teamwork, the "pick-and-roll," and moving without the ball, and less centered on airborne dunking dramatics—it's basketball the way the game used to be played. But for fans accustomed to the high-flying acrobatics of the NBA, the more ground-bound play of the WNBA can appear plodding. Women's basketball is different in kind from the men's version (they even use different-sized balls). Women's soccer, on the other hand, differs from men's only in degree. And in some respects, I would say, it is better.

Soccer's myriad creative possibilities derive in part from its being played on such a large field. The long runs "to space" and the extended passing sequences that build from the back and move in geometric patterns toward the goal are, to my mind, what lend the sport its sometimes transcendent beauty. In the men's game the speed with which these movements unfold can be awe-inspiring; in the women's game the plays still unfold fast, but slowly enough that the spectator can see them developing. Also, many of the great men's strikers are notable for their ability to move deftly in small places; the women sometimes do this too—but they need to less often. "With their speed and size, twenty-two men fill up a field pretty well," says Tony DiCicco. "The same number of women leave more open space on the field," and thus a wider variety of tactical approaches.

Also, women's soccer by its nature addresses one of the primary complaints that football- and basketball-addled Americans make about soccer—its lack of scoring. Because women are on average smaller than men, they fill up much less of the goal (the men's-national-team keeper, Brad Friedel, is six feet four inches; his counterpart on the women's team, Briana Scurry, is eight inches shorter)—hence there's more scoring in the women's game.

The women of WUSA understand that they are pioneers. Some of the players selected in the league draft last December have abandoned graduate school or burgeoning careers to take a chance on WUSA. "When I was invited to the Boca Raton combine," the midfielder Elie Foster recalls, "I went based on fear of regret: 'If I don't do this, will I look back and wish that I had?'" Leaving behind a lucrative position as a marketing manager at a (successful) dot-com start-up in Silicon Valley, Foster moved across the country when she was drafted by Boston, and is sharing an apartment with Allie Kemp, who left her job as a first-grade teacher in Encinitas, California, to join the Breakers' training-camp roster as a forward. The possibility of failure is considerable: players will be cut; the league itself may not survive. But the chance to earn a living playing soccer full-time was too much to pass up.

This is a new attitude—hard-won, American, and not yet global. Tony DiCicco, now WUSA's chief operations officer, tells a story about the European Football Symposium held in London in November of 1998. DiCicco was there to make a presentation about the Women's World Cup, to be held the following year. He showed a video and some slides. People were awestruck that the U.S. Soccer Federation had planned an event of such magnitude around women's soccer. The plenary assembly was about to break into separate sessions when a man stood up. "He was from an enlightened European culture, not a backward country," DiCicco says. "He pointed to a poster showing Brandi Chastain and a Norwegian player fighting for a ball and said, 'I look at that and I see ugliness and muscles ... This is not what this is supposed to be about.'" DiCicco says he replied, "If this poster were of men playing, you would have seen fitness, athleticism, commitment. We need to change people's attitudes so that that's what they see when it's women, too."