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Women’s soccer tries third pro league

Goalie Cecilia Santiago during Boston Breakers practice Thursday.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Goalie Cecilia Santiago during Boston Breakers practice Thursday.

Opening Day for any team represents a new beginning. For the Boston Breakers women’s soccer club, Sunday’s match at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville may also kick off their last chance.

The Breakers are one of eight members of the new National Women’s Soccer League, the third pro circuit established since Brandi Chastain scored the game-winning goal in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, pulled off her jersey, and made many believe that American interest in women pros could be as strong as her abdominals.

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Fourteen years and two failed leagues later, even the most ardent women’s soccer fan would concede the vision was a mirage. Yet the Breakers — the only franchise still standing from the original Women’s United Soccer Association — and other organizers are convinced they finally have a business model that can sustain the pro game. If the latest plan doesn’t work, it’s hard to imagine anything else will.

“I get asked that question a lot: Is this the last chance for professional women’s soccer?” said Breakers general manager Lee Billiard. “I always give the same answer. It’s going to work.”

Billiard’s confidence is based on one major advantage the new league holds over its predecessors. The national soccer federations of the United States, Canada, and Mexico — which assemble their countries’ teams for international tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics — have agreed to pay their players to join the league, lifting an enormous financial burden from the clubs.

Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole talked to her team during practice Thursday at Cumnock Field.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole talked to her team during practice Thursday at Cumnock Field.

“The optimism comes with US Soccer support, not only from an operational standpoint but in other ways,” said Breakers head coach Lisa Cole. “We used to have national team call-ups regularly during the season, but now we’re working together and we have only two this year.”

The league has assigned three US national team players to each franchise. The Breakers got Sydney Leroux, Heather O’Reilly, and Heather Mitts (who retired from soccer last month, however), along with two from Canada and a pair from Mexico.

To pay 13 other players, a team will spend no more than $200,000 under the league salary cap — a third of what the payroll limit was in the second pro league, Women’s Professional Soccer. That means clubs have a better shot at sustainability. It also means many players can’t earn a living wage and must hold down other jobs.

“We had a girl who’s not on the team anymore: I remember she said, ‘I wish I could have quit my day job and been able to give this all my time,’ ” recalled Cat Whitehill, a veteran defender for the Breakers who played in 134 games with the US national team. “It was so disappointing to hear that.”

Such is the unpleasant reality of professional women’s soccer after higher — but still modest — salaries (an average of $40,000 in the WUSA and $32,000 in the WPS) contributed to both leagues’ inability to last more than three seasons.

For the elite, however, there is real money in the sport. Under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement with US Soccer, the stars of last year’s Olympic gold medal-winning squad were due roughly $300,000 in salary and bonuses, to say nothing of what marketable players like Hope Solo and Alex Morgan earned in endorsements.

Last month, the national team players union and US Soccer signed a new agreement that will boost pay for participation in the new league.

That it’s possible for a woman to make a good living by playing soccer is progress, said Billiard.

He noted that Breakers players have opportunities to earn supplemental income by working as instructors at academies the team organizes with programs in Medfield, Andover, Somerville, and Weston.

On Thursday, the Breakers announced that Ocean Spray would be their first jersey sponsor since 2010, paying an undisclosed but “sizable” amount for the advertising, according to club spokesman Ryan Wood.

The team also raised $35,000 to produce an instructional video called “Beautiful: Teaching Girls Soccer the Boston Breakers Way” with the Word Syndicate, a Newton production company run by former WGBH producer and Globe reporter Ralph Ranalli. Sales will help cover team expenses.

“I want to see them succeed,” said Ranalli, a father of three girls and the president of Newton Girls Soccer.

“Our girls will have no access to their heroes if the league folds again.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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