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:
The Women’s United Soccer Association opened its third and final season on April 5, 2003 with a rematch of the season two Founder’s Cup championship game between the Carolina Courage and the Washington Freedom. The Courage came out the victors in that title bout, defeating the Freedom 3-2, and they hosted this rematch at SAS Soccer Park, their soccer-specific stadium in Cary, North Carolina.
The Freedom was the WUSA’s glamour franchise led by the game’s brightest star, U.S National Team star Mia Hamm. The club also featured one of the game’s most promising young stars, the American striker Abby Wambach, drafted out of the University of Florida with the #2 overall pick in the 2002 WUSA college draft.
The Courage, by comparison, was a more workmanlike squad. Carolina’s American stars – Carla Overbeck, Danielle Fotopoulos and Tiffany Roberts – were strong players who never quite commanded the public adulation of their USWNT teammates Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly or Michelle Akers. Carolina’s best player was the German striker Birgit Prinz, who fueled the team’s championship run in 2002 with 12 goals. Prinz was entering the peak of her legendary career in 2003, about to reel off a remarkable three-year run (2003-2005) as FIFA’s World Player of the Year.
The match itself reflected the changing of the guard, both in the WUSA and on the U.S. National Team. Prinz got the Courage on the board first with a sixth minute goal, assisted by Fotopoulos and program cover model Hege Riise. But the Freedom ultimately got the best of Carolina, thanks to the past and future symbols of the U.S. National Team. Wambach, emerging as the Americans’ great offensive force of the 2000′s, notched the equalizer in the 44th minute off a feed from Hamm, the brilliant star of the 1990′s. Hamm then put away the game-winner in the 59th minute in Washington’s 2-1 victory.
The result sent both teams on their course for the 2003 season. Carolina never recaptured the momentum of their 2002 title run and finished 7th out of 8 teams. The Freedom finished fourth, but saved their best performances for the postseason, upsetting the top-seeded Boston Breakers in the semis and then defeating the Atlanta Beat for the 2003 Founder’s Cup title in August. Wambach was the MVP of the title match.
The WUSA folded less than a month later on September 15, 2003 after losing $100 million over three seasons.
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. Mitts became the biggest American name on the Charge, partly due to her skills and model good looks, and also due to the fact that the established American stars of the day took a dim view to playing in Philly. WUSA launched each franchise with three “allocated” U.S. National Team players in late 2000. The players had a voice in which markets they wanted to play in and (reportedly) virtually no one listed Philadelphia.
As a result, the Charge were the only club among the WUSA’s eight franchises that did not receive one of the recognizable stars from the 1999 U.S. National Team that won the World Cup. Mia Hamm went to Washington, Brandi Chastain headlined in San Jose, goalkeeper Briana Scurry headed to Atlanta, Julie Foudy led San Diego, Kristine Lilly landed in Boston, Tiffeny Milbrett went to the New York Power, and Michelle Akers was allocated to her home town of Orlando (later shifted to Carolina). The Charge got a largely anonymous allotment of younger players: Mandy Clemens, Lorrie Fair and Saskia Webber.
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).
The WUSA folded in September 2003 after three seasons of play. Mitts tore her ACL in 2007 and missed the World Cup that year, but bounced back in 2008 to win Olympic gold with the USA at Beijing in 2008. She played three seasons in Women’s Professional Soccer, a successor league to the WUSA, from 2009 to 2011, including a return engagement in the City of Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Independence in the summer of 2010. She last played professionally for the Atlanta Beat in WPS in 2011.
In those early days of WPS, the league office convened a conference call every Wednesday afternoon to report on ticket sales for the upcoming weekend. Remarkably, WPS didn’t employ anyone at the national office level who had a background in ticket sales and crowd building. The call was moderated each week by a well-intentioned attorney who freely admitted he knew nothing about the subject at hand. The calls quickly devolved into excuses about weather and boring summations of the street team activities of various clubs scrambling to hand out flyers in the final 72 hours before kickoff.
At that time there was little appreciation of the fact that the box office fate of these events had been sealed months earlier – during the critical off season campaigns for season ticket and group sales. WPS’ stated attendance goal for the inaugural season was 4,000 to 6,000 paid tickets per game. The clubs that neglected or botched the fundamentals of advance ticket sales during the winter now faced anemic pre-sales of 1,500 to 2,000 fans per match. When spring arrived they became slaves of the Weather Gods – entirely dependent on the fickle fortunes of walk-up attendance to meet the league’s targets.
On this particular week in early April 2009, the big cause of indigestion inside WPS was the Washington Freedom home opener. The Freedom featured the brilliant American striker Abby Wambach, who was expected to be one of the league’s two top gate attractions, along with the Brazilian superstar Marta of the Los Angeles Sol. The Freedom played in the 5,000-seat Maryland SoccerPlex, whose limited seating capacity provided the perception of scarcity and urgency to buy that typically fuels healthy advance sale efforts. But 72 hours before kickoff, the Freedom had only around 2,500 tickets sold for their big debut. A bad number would reflect poorly on Wambach’s drawing card status.
But Wambach wasn’t the problem (in fact, she would prove a massive draw for WPS following the 2011 World Cup). The problem lay in the Freedom front office, where the family that owned the Freedom initially appointed their longtime accountant to run the organization. The other WPS clubs were split in their approach towards organizational leadership. Some appointed “soccer guys”, such as New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC, whose Head Coach Ian Sawyers also led the organization as General Manager. Others appointed “business development guys”, such as Chicago Red Stars CEO Peter Wilt, who orchestrated the successful launch of Chicago’s Major League Soccer franchise a decade earlier. The Freedom went in a third direction and fell on their face. The accountant was relieved of his position five days before the start of the 2009 season and replaced by Mark Washo, a long-time Major League Soccer executive who specialized in ticket and sponsorship sales. But by then it was too late to save the home opener.
Worse yet, the Freedom-Chicago Red Stars match was scheduled to be the national game-of-the-week on Fox Soccer Channel. If the tiny stadium was half empty, fans all over the country would notice it every time a goalkeeper punted the ball and the cameras panned up.
The Freedom got lucky. The weather was great and the team drew strong last-minute and walk-up sales of well over 1,000 tickets during the final days and hours before kickoff. It looked fine on TV. WPS officials huddled on the sideline during the second half and made an adjustment to the league policies governing attendance calculations. That’s a polite way to say they just made it up. The official attendance number was jacked by 1,000 or so to get the number up over 5,000 (5,028 officially).
Back in Boston, I grumbled. The bogus Freedom gate number temporarily bumped our club to last place in the league attendance rankings! Our walk-up crowd for the Breakers home opener on the same night was fewer than 100 fans due to a driving sleet-and-rain storm. We drew a legit 4,804 and more than two thirds of the those tickets were purchased over a month in advance. On the other hand, we had to admit that we put ourselves in position to be embarrassed that way by not doing a better job with our own advance sales.
After Mark Washo settled in at the Freedom, the team’s ticket sales fortunes improved considerably. Washo assembled the largest and most experienced sales staff in the league, bringing in young account executives and department heads from the NBA and the NHL. During the league’s second season in 2010, the Freedom posted the highest ticket sales growth in WPS. Washo also spearheaded league-wide collaboration and training of sales staffs in late 2009 and 2010. However, Freedom ownership pulled out of WPS after the 2010 season over frustration with the direction of the league. The loss of the Freedom and the Chicago Red Stars (a well-run ship who shifted to the semi-pro WPSL) in late 2010, was a real “death of hope” moment for the league and was the moment when the tide of professionalism in WPS crested and began to roll back. There was no more serious internal discussion of revenue growth in WPS after 2010 as all attention turned towards cost cutting.
Thank you to former Washington Freedom Supporters Group member Kevin Parker (@StarCityFan on Twitter) for providing the rare game program from this match at the top of this post. That’s Freedom midfielder Allie Long on the cover. Kevin provided a complete set of 2009 and 2010 Freedom match programs to FWiL, which you can find in our WPS program archive here.