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September 14, 2002 – Michelle Akers Testimonial Match

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Michelle Akers Boston Breakers

Photo courtesy of Tony Biscaia

Boston Breakers vs. Washington Freedom
Michelle Akers Testimonial Match
September 14, 2002
Nickerson Field
Attendance: 10,279


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…

This is the in-stadium tribute video created by the original Boston Breakers of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) for Michelle Akers farewell/testimonial match in September 2002.  (Scroll to the bottom of this post for the video embed).

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.

Michelle Akers 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.



Boston Breakers Home Page



June 19, 2003 – WUSA All-Star Game

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WUSA American Stars vs. WUSA World Stars
June 19, 2003
SAS Soccer Park
Attendance: 7,068

Women’s United Soccer Association Programs
22 pages


Thanks to Atlanta Beat fan and women’s soccer collector Steven Bruno for sending in this match program from the second and final Women’s United Soccer Association All-Star Game from June 2003.

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:



2003 WUSA American Stars Roster

2003 WUSA World Stars Roster



Soccer America match report.

Women’s United Soccer Association Media Guides

Women’s United Soccer Association Programs





April 5, 2003 – Carolina Courage vs. Washington Freedom

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Hege Riise Carolina CourageCarolina Courage vs. Washington Freedom
April 5, 2003
SAS Soccer Park
Attendance: 6,061

Women’s United Soccer Association Programs


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 ChastainKristine 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.



Written by AC

September 22nd, 2012 at 8:31 pm

April 11, 2009 – Washington Freedom vs. Chicago Red Stars

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Washington Freedom vs. Chicago Red Stars
April 11, 2009
Maryland SoccerPlex

Women’s Professional Soccer Programs



I remember this April weekend in 2009 very well.  It was the third weekend of play during the inaugural season of Women’s Professional Soccer.  Four of the league’s seven franchises had already played their home openers and two more would open on Saturday evening, April 11th.  My Boston Breakers club debuted against St. Louis Athletica at Harvard Stadium and the Washington Freedom faced the Chicago Red Stars at the SoccerPlex in Germantown, Maryland.

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.

Abby Wambach Washington FreedomOn 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.


2009 Washington Freedom media guide

2009 WPS Final Ticket Sales figures



Written by AC

May 21st, 2012 at 4:54 pm


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