Women stars have league of their own

Like an on-goal blast rocketing from Kristine Lilly's foot, women's pro soccer is suddenly a reality in the United States. The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), no more than speculation less than two years ago, kicks off its season tomorrow at Washington's RFK stadium.

For players like Lilly, captain of the new Boston Breakers, the WUSA is the achievement of a long-held dream. And if World Cup history is any indication, a legion of fans are ready to cheer them on.

Patriotic euphoria followed the American women's team everywhere in 1999 after they grabbed a World Cup victory in an intensely watched final against China. US national team players took to the airwaves, posed in magazines, and otherwise endeared themselves to adoring fans.

An indoor soccer-victory tour against an all-star international team followed, generating $5 million in revenue. The strong ticket sales and corporate sponsorships sent a message to the cable TV industry, which in turn attracted investors for a league. By April 2000 plans for establishing the WUSA were announced.

The eight teams feature players from that national team, along with elite players recently graduated from the college ranks and more than 30 top international stars.

After all the hard work as a team to win the World Cup, isn't splitting up to play against each other going to be hard?

"Not at all," said Lilly in a phone interview as she took a break from hanging pictures in her new home - a Brookline, Mass., condominium she shares with teammate Kate Sobrero. "What people don't realize is that we spend a lot of time playing against each other in practice. Plus we are very competitive. We've all been wanting to play professionally for so long; this is what we have been dreaming of."

She welcomes the opportunity to learn from the international players too.

"It's good to get a variety [on the teams] because they play a different game," Lilly says. "For example, Germany plays a more possession kind of game, and Americans are more attacking ... we just go, go, go."

"Hey, we've got all the best players in the world," said Julie Foudy, co-captain of the US squad and now a player for the San Diego Spirit, in an Associated Press interview. "The level of play will be awesome."

The big fan turnout for the women's World Cup in 1999 has led many observers to believe the WUSA teams can sell enough tickets to have a successful first season.

The tailgate parties at the 1999 women's World Cup matches were a bit unusual for US sports - lots of parents, kids, Tupperware, and SUVs. The WUSA wants to inherit this family-oriented audience.

"We know it's not going to be an NFL-type attendance [in numbers]," says Kit Simeone, a WUSA consultant. "We're trying to be realistic. We have two goals: We want to make this a family-friendly environment ... and we eventually want to have our own stadiums, with 12,000 to 15,000 seats."

How do you make soccer games - notorious around the world for hooligan antics - "family friendly"? The WUSA's answer includes affordable tickets and kid activities such as face painting, temporary tattoos, and balloon hats. Lilly herself serves as a spokesperson for the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to "the healthy development of youths in sports" and a "code of conduct" for parents and spectators.

Skeptics wonder if children, with soccer practice and weekend games of their own, will find time to cheer on a pro team, too.

"We decided not to buy season tickets," says one parent, Janet Gross, a board member of the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association and mother of three soccer-playing daughters. "With three children, it's hard to get season tickets for anything. And we had to ask ourselves if this would conflict with the girls' own soccer schedule."

But Gross's 13-year-old daughter, Emily Glass, says she's looking forward to watching her favorite player, Briana Scurry, play goal for the Atlanta Beat. "[The games] are really fast-paced, and you see a lot of cool moves that you can't do," she says. "It just makes you want to pick up your game."

The TNT cable network has signed a four-year television contract with the WUSA and will broadcast the inaugural match between the Washington Freedom and the San Francisco Bay Area CyberRays tomorrow at 2 p.m. CNN/SI will also provide national broadcasts. And Comcast, Cox, Fox, AT&T, and MSG will air games regionally throughout the 19-week season.

For a complete schedule of WUSA games visit www.wusa.com.

Where they will play

The World Cup champion US national team players have been divided among the eight WUSA teams:

Atlanta Beat

Briana Scurry Cindy Parlow Nikki Serlenga

Bay Area CyberRays

Brandi Chastain Tisha Venturini LaKeysia Beene

Boston Breakers

Kristine Lilly Kate Sobrero Tracy Ducar

Carolina Courage

Carla Overbeck Danielle Fotopoulos Tiffany Roberts

New York Power

Tiffeny Milbrett Sara Whalen Christie Pearce

Philadelphia Charge

Lorrie Fair Saskia Webber Mandy Clemens

San Diego Spirit

Julie Foudy Joy Fawcett Shannon MacMillan

Washington Freedom

Mia Hamm Siri Mullinix Michelle French

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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