The San Diego Spirit played three summer seasons from 2001 to 2003 in the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the first attempt to form a fully professional women’s pro league in North America. The Spirit endured two seasons of mediocrity, despite the presence of prominent U.S. National Team stars Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett. Prior to the 2003 season, the club brought in new Head Coach Omid Namazi and overhauled its roster with top young players, resulting in a winning campaign and the first playoff appearance in franchise history. Before the Spirit could build on this foundation, however, the WUSA closed up shop in September 2003 after burning through $100 million in three seasons of operations.
The WUSA announced its formation in early 2000, aiming for an April 2001 debut. The league was organized in a single-entity structure, with $40 million in start-up capital provided by a consortium of Cable TV operators and executives. Each funder received investor-operator rights to one of eight league markets in return for a commitment of $5 million. Cable operator Cox Communications purchased rights to San Diego.
The marketing cornerstones of the WUSA would be the stars of the United States Women’s National Team. The league launched on the backs of the USWNT and their thrilling victory in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Cup final on July 10th, 1999 drew a sell-out crowd of 90,185 to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, making it the largest women’s sporting event in history. The US women defeated China in nerve-wracking fashion on penalty kicks and the tournament made media darlings of American stars Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the team. In May 2000, the WUSA allocated three USWNT stars to each of its eight franchises. San Diego received Fawcett, Foudy and striker Shannon MacMillan, a graduate of nearby Escondido High School. In the international draft, San Diego also picked up Fan Yunjie and Wen Lirong of the Chinese team which had given the Americans all they could handle in the final.
Cox Communications spent $2.5 million to renovate 40-year old Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego for the Spirit. The improvements included 3,600 new seats to bring total capacity to just over 6,000, a new and re-graded natural Bermuda grass surface, upgraded lighting to meet television broadcast standards, and various aesthetic improvements. The renovations turned Torero into a quality venue for professional soccer. Viewed alongside similar efforts in other WUSA cities – such as the Boston Breakers’ $4 million renovation of Boston University’s Nickerson Stadium – the renovations were also symbolic of the new league’s free-spending ways. By the end of 2001, WUSA had expended the $40 million intended to fund operations for its first five seasons.
The 2001 Spirit started slow out of the blocks under Head Coach Carlos Juarez before rallying late in the season to finish in 5th place with a record of 7-7-7. Fawcett missed most of the season due to pregnancy, but returned in August less than two months after giving birth to her third child. MacMillan was a bright spot. Her 12 goals were second best in the WUSA to league Most Valuable Player Tiffeny Milbrett.
The 2002 Spirit started slowly again, which cost Juarez his job in early June 2002. General Manager Kevin Crow, a long-time star for the San Diego Sockers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, assumed coaching duties for the remainder of the season. The Spirit finished in seventh place with a 5-11-5 record.
Off the field, the Spirit paced the WUSA in season ticket sales despite lackluster play. In 2002, the Spirit sold more than 2,000 season tickets, which was the best figure in the eight-team league. The Spirit also benefitted from substantial television advertising drawn against unsold inventory on the Cox cable system.
On the last day of September 2002, the Spirit orchestrated the largest trade in WUSA’s two-year history in order to move up a single spot in the 2003 WUSA college draft. The Spirit shipped three starters – midfielders Shannon Boxx and Sherrill Kester, defender Margaret Tietjen – plus the #2 overall pick in the 2003 WUSA draft to the New York Power in exchange for the #1 overall pick and midfielders Jan Lalow and Wynne McIntosh. The prize for the Spirit on the back end of this trade was Santa Clara University midfielder Aly Wagner, already a fixture on the U.S. National Team with 36 caps as a collegian. Soccer America called Wagner “the most gifted playmaker the United States has produced”.
“Mark Ziegler from The San Diego Union-Tribune is a first class reporter, but he loved to stir it up,” recalled Spirit GM Dave Presher in 2011. “Well, he really went at us when Shannon Boxx came back to town with the New York Power for the first time after the Aly Wagner trade. Aly hadn’t scored so far that year. In practice the day before the New York game she couldn’t hit the frame, putting her free kicks in outer space. Then on game day she ended up with I believe two goals and an assist and we beat New York 4-2.”
Wagner got the most press attention, but she was just one component of a youth movement that transformed the Spirit in 2003. 22-year old Scottish striker Julie Fleeting returned for her second season and finished tied for third in the WUSA in scoring with 11 goals. New Coach Omid Namazi used his other two international spots to import the 19-year old Brazilian star Daniela and big Canadian forward Christine Latham, fresh off an All-American career at the University of Nebraska. It would be Latham, not Wagner, that walked away with WUSA Rookie-of-the-Year honors after scoring six goals. The young cohort’s contributions were especially significant after offensive leader Shannon MacMillan was lost to a season-ending ACL tear in May.
“My proudest moment was probably the hire of Coach Omid Namazi,” said Presher. “I think the staff and the league were a bit concerned when I hired an Iranian men’s indoor coach, who had previously punched out a mascot at a game. But Omid was the real deal and he turned out to be a fantastic coach, leader and partner.”
The 2003 Spirit improved to 8-6-7, good for third place in the WUSA and the franchise’s first and only playoff appearance. Prior to the season, the WUSA selected San Diego to host the 2003 Founder’s Cup at Torero Stadium. All that now stood between the Spirit and hosting the title match was the regular season champion Atlanta Beat. The Spirit travelled to Georgia for the WUSA semi-final on August 17th, 2003. Aly Wagner scored in the 38th minute to put the Spirit up 1-0. The lead held up through regulation, but Beat forward Conny Pohlers tapped in the equalizer during stoppage time and Charmaine Hooper won it for Atlanta in overtime, ending the Spirit’s season in heart rending fashion.
The playoff semi-final loss proved to be the final Spirit game. Investors pulled the plug on the WUSA on September 15th, 2003. The WUSA folded less than a week before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, providing a sad bookend for a league that was born out of the euphoria of the 1999 tournament.
Just days before the league folded, Spirit GM Dave Presher traded Aly Wagner to the Boston Breakers for midfielder Angela Hucles in a surprising move. He explained why in a 2011 interview with Fun While It Lasted:
“We had signed <18-year old Brazilian> Marta for the 2004 season and knew she was the best player in the world…we needed one fast central midfielder as we were considering some modifications to our formation with Marta coming aboard. The league folding sucked. We may have been overconfident, but we thought with Marta we were going to really be a surprise.”
In June 2004, a reconstituted Spirit – including Fawcett, Foudy and MacMillan – played in a WUSA exhibition doubleheader before an announced crowd of 7,123 at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. The event was part of a pair of WUSA “festivals” (the other was in Minnesota) which showcased the eight former clubs and their stars to potential new sponsors and investors. The events drew little interest and the efforts of the WUSA Reorganization Committee wound down soon afterwards.
In 2007 the new Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) launched as a lower-budget successor league to the WUSA. San Diego Padres owner John Moores was briefly linked to a WPS franchise, but never moved forward. In the late summer of 2008, WPS placed a brief release on its website announcing a San Diego franchise. But the league removed the story days later after and as of late 2011, no further discussions have occurred to bring WPS to San Diego.
The rookie stars of the 2003 Spirit each returned to play in the first season of WPS six summers later in 2009. Daniela signed with St. Louis Athletica and played four matches before her season – and career – was ended by a brutal tackle from Washington Freedom star Abby Wambach. Christine Latham scored two goals for the Boston Breakers in 2009. She was cut in training camp by the Atlanta Beat in 2010. Aly Wagner, now 28 years old and slowed by assorted injuries, signed with the Los Angeles Sol and played in the first WPS Cup final on August 22nd, 2009. It was her final match. She announced her retirement from soccer in January 2010.
2011 Dave Presher Interview
San Diego Spirit Sources