The big impact players on the Charge were the team’s foreign stars – striker Marinette Pichon of France and midfielder/forward Kelly Smith of England. Pichon won the WUSA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2002. Smith, though limited by injuries during her Charge days, is widely considered one of the greatest offensive forces in the history of the women’s game.
But the big drawing cards of the WUSA were the American stars. The league was formed by a consortium of cable companies and executives who were intoxicated by the attendance and TV ratings of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, won by the USA women. Comcast backed the Charge franchise. Each of the eight WUSA franchises was “allocated” three of the U.S. National Team members in late 2000. The allocations were conducted via a matching process that took into account both team and player desires. The big name American stars (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, et al.) expressed no willingness to play in Philly. As a result, the Charge received the least impressive allocation of U.S. National Team players among the WUSA’s eight clubs: Mandy Clemens, Lorrie Fair and Saskia Webber.
Heather Mitts Bobblehead Night. June 8, 2002
The breakout American star turned out to be a college draft pick: defender Heather Mitts from the University of Florida. Mitts was a stalwart for the Charge during the three-year run of the WUSA, appearing in 51 of the team’s 63 matches and earning all-league honors as a defender in 2003. Off the field, Mitts appeared on the cover of Philadelphia Magazine as one of the city’s sexiest singles and dated Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell and later Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley (whom she married in 2010). Mitts went on to play 137 games with the U.S. National Team, earning an Olympic gold medal with the team in 2008.
During the WUSA’s final season, the Charge drafted goalkeeper Hope Solo out of the University of Washington. Solo would eventually become the greatest American goalkeeper of all-time and a World Cup and Olympic champion. But as a rookie with the Charge in 2003, she spent most of the season on the bench backing up Melissa Moore.
Solo would never get a chance to establish herself as one of the rising young stars of the league. Late in the 2003 season, rumors emerged that Comcast was through backing the Charge, throwing the team’s future in Philly into question. In fact, Comcast’s desire to get out was a symptom of a broader loss of investor confidence in the WUSA. On September 15th, 2003 the league folded after three seasons of play, taking the Charge down along with it.
Philadelphia Charge Programs 2001-2003
2001 Philadelphia Charge Media Guide
Washington Freedom Program. May 31 and June 21, 2001
New York Power Program. June 10th and June 17th, 2001
Philadelphia Charge vs. Washington Freedom. June 8, 2002
Washington Freedom vs. Philadelphia Charge. July 14, 2002
2003 Philadelphia Charge Media Guide
Washington Freedom vs. Philadelphia Charge. May 10, 2003
Atlanta Beat vs. Philadelphia Charge. June 22, 2003
Washington Freedom vs. Philadelphia Charge. July 9, 2003
Philadelphia Charge vs. Washington Freedom. August 6, 2003
The original Boston Breakers soccer club was a founding member of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) from 2001 to 2003. The WUSA was the first professional soccer league for women in North America, backed by a consortium of cable television companies and executives who were intrigued by the groundbreaking success of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by the United States. The Breakers franchise was backed by Amos Hostetter, the billionaire co-founder of Continental Cablevision.
The provenance of the team’s name was somewhat odd. Like many fledgling sports teams, the soon-to-be-Boston Breakers instituted a Name-The-Team contest. The winning entry was attributed to a 15-year old teenage girl from suburban Easton, Massachusetts. What was strange about the choice was that Boston already had a high profile pro sports flop that had used the same identity in the recent past. The Boston Breakers of the United States Football League had even used a similar blue/white color scheme and played in the very same stadium (Boston University’s Nickerson Field) as the new women’s soccer team. The football Breakers came and went in a single season in 1983 – very much in the living memory of countless local sports fans and Boston’s sporting press.
But “Breakers” it was to be. In May of 2000, each of the eight WUSA franchises received three players from the United States Women’s National Team tha captivated the nation during the World Cup ten months earlier. The U.S. National Teamers – known as “Founders” since they also had a small equity stake in the league – were meant to form both the talent nucleus and the marketing tent poles for each franchise. The Breakers received All-Universe midfielder Kristine Lilly and stalwart defender Kate Sobrero. The team’s third allocation, however, was a bust. Tracy Ducar, the USWNT’s reserve goalkeeper, suffered an eye-injury late in the WUSA’s 2001 debut season and was thereafter unseated by less-heralded Canadian National Team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc for the Breakers starting job.
The burden of scoring goals fell to the Breakers’ international signings. Boston received German National Team stars Maren Meinert and Bettina Wiegmann along with the Norwegian duo of Ragnhild Gulbrandsen (who would join in 2002) and Dagny Mellgren. Though Gulbrandsen would disappoint and Wiegmann retired after two seasons, Meinert and Mellgren quickly emerged as premier scoring threats, with Lilly often setting the table with deft assists.
Despite fine individual performances from the likes of Lilly, Meinert, Mellgren and a previously unheralded University of Virginia midfielder named Angela Hucles, the Breakers disappointed as a team during the first two seasons of the WUSA. Under Head Coach Jay Hoffman, the team finished 6th place and out of the playoffs in both campaigns. The Breakers were also something of a Jekyll & Hyde club – virtually unbeatable at home, where they had established one of the most loyal followings in the WUSA, but unable to perform consistently on the road.
The club’s fortunes turned in 2003 with the hiring of Swedish manager Pia Sundhage to take over for Hoffman. The Breakers finally became a tough road team, equaling their success at home. Meinert was phenomenal at the top of the attack, winning league Most Valuable Player honors. At 10-4-7, the Breakers finished top of the table in the WUSA’s regular season. However, Boston was bounced on penalty kicks in the playoff semi-final by the eventual league champion Washington Freedom.
One month later, the WUSA abruptly closed its doors on September 15, 2003. There were inklings that the league was in trouble. The league cut roster sizes from 18 to 16 following the 2002 season and dropped the salary cap from $834,500 to $595,750. The “Founders” (mostly) accepted large pay cuts. But it wasn’t enough. While attendance was not far off from expectations, corporate sponsorship for the league never hit critical mass. Still, the timing of the shutdown shocked many outside observers, coming just five days before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup – which would be held in the United States once again, thanks to the SARS outbreak creating havoc in China, the original host of the tournament.
A lackluster effort to revive corporate support for the WUSA through a series of neutral-site “festivals” in the summer of 2004 flopped. From 2008 through 2008, there was no top-flight women’s pro soccer league in North America. When a new league – Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) – began play in 2009, a franchise was quickly awarded to Boston, based upon the warm reception to the WUSA-era Breakers club. The WPS franchise revived the Breakers name and logo. The “New” Breakers of 2009 included three veterans of the original 2001-2003 Breakers club – Angela Hucles, Kristine Lilly and seldom-used Mary-Frances Monroe. The team also featured several front office holdovers who returned to work for the new club, including Team President Joe Cummings, who launched both editions of the team.
The new/2009 edition of the Breakers remains active today as a member of the National Women’s Soccer League.
==Boston Breakers Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
In the relatively short history and small sample size of women’s professional team sports in North America, I’d hand the Weirdest Name prize to the Bay Area CyberRays of the Women’s United Soccer Association. After their debut season, in the summer of 2001, the league seemed to realize it was an appallingly stupid name and they changed it … to the San Jose CyberRays.
But anyway, back to that first season. The team was actually pretty damn good under the direction of former Stanford coach Ian Sawyers. The big star was the 1999 U.S. World Cup hero Brandi Chastain, but the offense was powered by a pair of standout Brazilians: midfielder Sissi (10 assists) and forward Katia (7 goals). Australian Julie Murray was the team’s leading scorer with 9 tallies.
CyberRays advanced to the 2001 Founders Cup final and won the first WUSA championship by defeating the Atlanta Beat on penalty kicks before 21,078 fans at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts on August 25, 2001. Murray scored in regulation and converted the final PK to earn Player of the Match honors in her final pro match before retirement.
The CyberRays were unable to recapture their first season form and missed the WUSA playoffs in 2002 and 2003. (Maybe it’s bad mojo to change your name, however slightly, immediately after winning the championship.)
The CyberRays were somewhat of an orphan club from inception. The team was jointly operated in the centrally-owned WUSA by cable TV barons Amos Hostetter and John Hendricks. Both men lived on the Eastern seaboard and were more actively engaged with the WUSA franchises they operated in their local communities – Hostetter with his Boston Breakers and Hendricks with the league’s flagship Washington Freedom franchise. According to Sports Business Journal the pair were actively seeking to unload the CyberRays to local investors in 2003, but couldn’t find any takers. One rumored scenario had the club moving to Los Angeles for the 2004 season under the management of Anschutz Entertainment Group, owners of the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. But instead the entire WUSA went out of business on September 15th, 2003, rendering the matter moot.
Women’s pro soccer returned to the Bay Area with the formation of FC Gold Pride of Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009. Like the CyberRays, F.C. Gold Pride also won a league championship. But they too were short-lived and folded after just two seasons.
==San Jose CyberRays Matches on Fun While It Lasted==
Boston Breakers vs. Washington Freedom Michelle Akers Testimonial Match
September 14, 2002 Nickerson Field
We’re preparing to put our house on the market, so I’ve been rifling some old boxes from my women’s pro soccer adventures in the course of clearing out the attic. I came across this gem on a beat-up old VHS tape…
Akers was arguably the first transcendent star of the U.S. Women’s National Team program. A Hermann Trophy winner, Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Cup champion and FIFA’s Female Player of the Century. The WUSA attracted investors and got off the ground thanks in part to Akers’ heroics during the 1990’s, and the tens of thousands of young girls and women inspired by both her relentless, physical playing style and by her battle with chronic fatigue syndrome throughout her career.
But by the time WUSA launched in April 2001, Akers was 35 years old and retired from international play. She had had 13 knee surgeries, several concussions, and faced her fourth and fifth shoulder operations in 2001. She was the only player among 20 so-called “Founders” of the WUSA – top players from the U.S. National Team pool who were given an equity stake in the league – who didn’t play during the 2001 inaugural season. In October 2001, Akers announced her final retirement from soccer and that she had abandoned her hopes of playing in the WUSA.
Photo Courtesy of Tony Biscaia
11 months later, on September 14, 2002, the Boston Breakers hosted a postseason Testimonial Match to honor Akers’ legendary career. For one night only, Akers would don her old number 10 for the Boston Breakers. The opponents were the WUSA’s Washington Freedom who brought with them the biggest drawing card in the women’s game – Akers’ former U.S. teammate Mia Hamm. At the time, Hamm and Akers were the top two scorers in the history of the U.S. National Team.
The exhibition had huge appeal in Boston. Akers, Hamm and Breakers’ star Kristine Lilly threw out ceremonial first pitches at the Boston Red Sox game the night before. The Testimonial Match sold out Nickerson Field in advance. In fact, the crowd of 10,279 was the second largest in the 9-year history of the various incarnations of the Breakers, trailing only the club’s inaugural WUSA game in May 2001.
The Breakers won the match 1-0. An interesting footnote – the Breakers finished a disappointing 2002 campaign a month earlier and fired Head Coach Jay Hoffman. The club’s new Head Coach would be Pia Sundhage, the Swedish-born manager who would later lead a restoration of the U.S. National Team program from 2008 to 2012. It would have been a compelling cross roads – the dominant star of the 1990’s in her final match and the woman who would become one of the key figures for U.S. Soccer in the early 21st century managing her first game (albeit an exhibition) in the States. But as it was, Sundhage hadn’t arrived in Boston yet and the Breakers were guest-managed on this evening by former Harvard coach Jape Shattuck.
Michelle Akers Tribute Video, played in-stadium during halftime of her Testimonial Match at Nickerson Field.
The WUSA’s defending champion Carolina Courage hosted the match at SAS Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. SAS (known today as WakeMed Soccer Park) was one of the finest soccer specific venues in the league and fans of the WUSA’s successor leagues, WPS and the NWSL, have long hoped that a new women’s professional club might take up residence there someday. The wait continues…
2003 was a World Cup year and the format of the match was intended to mirror the upcoming tournament, hosted by the United States in September. A squad of the WUSA’s American Stars, coached by Jim Gabarra of the Washington Freedom, faced a team of WUSA World Stars, coached by Tom Stone of the Atlanta Beat.
This was also the first time that the WUSA staged an All-Star Game in season. The match was shoehorned awkwardly into the league schedule on a Thursday night. Regular season play resumed around the country just two nights later. Accordingly the rules were relaxed to allow unlimited substitution and re-entry and the halves were shortened to 40 minutes each. A standing room-only crowd of 7,068 packed SAS Soccer Park for the exhibition.
Maren Meinert of the Boston Breakers scored two goals and assisted on a third by her Breakers teammate Dagny Mellgren to lead the World All-Stars to a 3-2 victory and earn All-Star Game MVP honors. Two months later, Meinert, 30, would also win 2003 league MVP honors in her final professional season before retirement.
The WUSA folded on September 15, 2003, on the eve of the Women’s World Cup tournament that this game was intended to preview.
In 2009, a re-booted version of the Boston Breakers held a tribute night for the now-retired Maren Meinert and presented this video montage of her WUSA highlights: