Author Topic: Freedom await women's soccer league rebirth  (Read 741 times)

Offline David

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Freedom await women's soccer league rebirth
« on: July 12, 2007, 08:48:30 AM »
BOYDS, Md. — Jim Gabarra totes a bag of soccer balls across a field at the Maryland SoccerPlex and reminds his team to grab some food. He looks like any other suburban soccer coach.

But look over at his team, and the scene changes. While Gabarra tidies up, his players tend to a long line of autograph-seekers. They wear blue jerseys with a recognizable logo — Washington Freedom.

Mia Hamm wore that jersey. Abby Wambach wore it when she scored the winning goal in the 2003 WUSA championship.

The WUSA never played another meaningful game. And yet the Freedom never stopped, playing exhibitions and amateur W-League games while waiting for women's pro soccer to be reborn.

That rebirth is supposed to happen next year. The league hasn't yet named all its cities or all its owners. It hasn't even named itself. But the Freedom will be there, as will a deep, diverse talent pool of players that have stuck with the game any way they could.

"All along, we felt the league would be back," Gabarra says. "We felt it was an important part of our sports fabric in this country. It was a little frustrating for us that it took so long for it to come back. We were always under the assumption that it would be '05. All right, well, '06 … '07 …"

NEW LEAGUE: Eight teams in various states of readiness

While the Freedom built a club system emphasizing grass-roots memberships and helped players land coaching jobs, World Cup veterans such as Wambach stayed in the game by going to residency camp established for the U.S. women's team. They're playing Norway in East Hartford, Conn., on Saturday (ESPN, 6 ET), the third game of a six-game Sendoff Series leading to the Sept. 10-30 World Cup in China.

"It would've been very difficult to stay in the game at this level (without residency)," Wambach says. "All of us would have somehow found a way. Some of us probably would've gone overseas."

U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx also thinks she would've gone overseas if not for residency, which is "great, but it's very grueling. You're training, training, training and not really having a lot of games."

Although Wambach thinks residency is the best training environment in the world, it only accounts for roughly 30 players. That leaves little opportunity for players to work their way to the national team through the pro ranks, as Wambach and Boxx did. "If you look at people that we're finding coming into the national team, it's college players or players that have had little stints with the national team," Boxx says.

The W-League, the women's branch of the sprawling United Soccer Leagues tree, helps fill the gap with a collection of 35 teams all over the map in terms of geography and ambition. Most players aren't in the national team pool, though some, such as the Freedom's Christie Welsh, have split time between the W-League and the U.S. camp.

The Freedom joined the league as a full member this year and will step up to the pros next season along with their division rivals, Jersey Sky Blue.

NATURAL RIVALRY: Freedom, Sky Blue impress in W-League

Sky Blue has a shorter history than the Freedom, starting play only this season. The club hired Charlie Naimo, who had coached international stars such as England's Kelly Smith on the perennial W-League power New Jersey Wildcats.

"Working with the Wildcats was an awesome experience," Naimo says. "Their vision wasn't to join the pro league. That was Sky Blue's ambition. As coaches, we're always looking to climb the ladder a little bit."

Like the Freedom, Sky Blue has some players with professional experience staying in the game.

"They've done everything they possibly could to make it as close to a professional environment as they could," says Bonnie Young, a one-time New York Power player who joined Sky Blue. "Constant training, getting players from around the world — they make it so that you can come and train at a high level every day."

In turn, the experienced players lure top college talent. "I wanted to find other veterans I could learn from," says Rebecca Moros, a recent Duke alumna and former Wildcats player now learning from the Freedom's former WUSA players — Casey Zimny, Kele Golebiowski, Emily Janss and Lori Lindsey.

"The players from the WUSA have the professional stamp on them," says Ali Andrzejewski, a Loyola (Md.) alum with the Freedom. "We all look to them for guidance. They really set the tone. In practice and games, they always come ready."

Andrzejewski wasn't far along in her college career when the WUSA folded. Lindsay Tarpley, a national teamer today, remembers the disappointment spreading among her North Carolina teammates.

"At the time I had some really close friends who were seniors in college, and that's what they wanted to do. When they found out it folded, their whole mind-set changed, because they couldn't play soccer when they were done," Tarpley says.

Wambach, for one, is determined not to let that happen again. She'll use that as extra motivation when the U.S. national team rolls into the World Cup this fall.

"Right now, we all know we have an opportunity to do what we couldn't do in 2003. We had an opportunity to save a league," the U.S. forward says. "Now, we have an opportunity to start, run and watch a league expand and grow as it should. Nothing could help more than a world championship."