The Start the NWSL Needed
by Rachael Caldwell
Often times, extraordinary things happen at small high schools across the nation. There are many stories about a last-second football touchdown or a college basketball prospect’s dunk that occasionally makes it in the Top Ten. Saturday night’s event was different than that. The National Women’s Soccer League inaugural game was played at a small high school in Kansas. Compared to the women’s soccer leagues of the past, this was nothing flashy or extravagant. Even so, over 6,000 fans filled the stadium as soon as the gates opened to see the opposing teams, FCKC and Portland, battle to a 1-1 score. The will call ticket line was long, but it was nothing compared to the chaos happening at the merchandise stand. The atmosphere was intensified by the supporter’s section marching through the crowds of people, playing trumpets and drums while chanting songs that one is used to hearing in MLS stadiums across the country. Yes, this was certainly something different.
Mothers ushering their daughter’s soccer teams to their seats, grown men in FCKC shirts finding a patch in the grass to sit, and whole families with toddlers squeezed into a spaces along the chain link fence to take in the action. USSF President Sunil Gulati walked around the stadium virtually unnoticed, shaking the hands of supporters free of media interrogation. The teams marched out for a grand entrance before the first whistle. There was no FIFA anthem, no music at all actually, just the cheers of ecstatic fans filled with the hope that the third times the charm.
Perhaps one of the more understated moments of this historic night was when the NWSL’s Executive Director, Cheryl Bailey, handed out a gift to FCKC for being one of the founding members of NWSL. In the belief that there will be more teams to come, and in the crowd’s chants and printed on t-shirts, it will be remembered that FCKC was among the first, paving the way for the expansion teams of the future.
After the opening kickoff, reality set in. The atmosphere was tense, as if all the doubts and criticism about the league were looming over the stadium. This didn’t last long. Just 3 minutes in, the first goal in NWSL history was scored. The stadium went berserk. The supporter’s section band started playing and everyone in the stands stood and applauded. Little girls were screaming the name of Renee Cuellar in that moment, not Alex Morgan or Hope Solo.
Perhaps that was one of the most heartfelt and amazing things about the night. The name Alex Morgan was called, as is to be expected, but it was nothing compared to the cheers for Lauren Cheney, or even Courtney Jones, who came on as a sub in the second half for FCKC. These fans were not just inactive watchers of SportsCenter who called the names fed to them by the media. These people were soccer fans in every sense of the word. They knew their team, they cheered for every ounce of effort put into the game by all their players. And on the first of many controversial penalty kick calls to be made this season, they passionately disagreed.
The pace was slow at times, and the play a bit disjointed, but that is to be expected in any league at the beginning of the season. In reality, we were shown that these athletes can play soccer and they gave us an intense game.
During this fantastic night of firsts for the NWSL, there were still the lingering doubts of the potential lasts for women’s soccer in America. Certainly the firsts of the NWSL can be easily over hyped, but is there any harm in that? I believe that over 6,000 people would respond with an overwhelming “NO!”. It may not be the 15,000 fans the USWNT is garnering, but it’s a start. And in a league skating on thin ice, where the motto has been less cash and less flash, a start is just what was needed.
Rachael Caldwell will be graduating from the University of Arkansas in 2015 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and minors in Spanish and Business Management. Rachael played soccer from when she was three until her senior year of high school, where she was the captain of her state championship winning team. While she only plays pick up now, she still passionately follows the game and was contacted by Our Game Magazine via Twitter in 2013. Rachael looks forward to writing more for OGM and also writes about women's soccer on her own blog: rachaelfc.wordpress.com.