SOMERVILLE — This is not your father’s Dilboy Stadium, which was a ramshackle leftover from the ’50s. The Commonwealth spent nearly $8 million rebuilding it with synthetic turf, an eight-lane track, a glassed-in pressbox, an elevator, and sideline plantings.
It may not be Harvard Stadium or Nickerson Field, the Boston Breakers’ domiciles in their previous lives, but it’s sufficient for the scaled-down state where women’s professional soccer finds itself in its third life. After the demise of the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, each of which lasted only three seasons, the National Women’s Soccer League appears to be a sensible successor with a reasonable chance of survival.
“Maybe expectations are a little more realistic and we’ve learned from them in the past,” says Breakers midfielder Heather O’Reilly. “We believe in this product and we believe that this could grow and get better and better every year.”
There are no Brazilian superstars in the NWSL, no 57,000-seat stadiums, and none of the delusions that accompanied the beginning of the WUSA in 2001 in the wake of the 1999 World Cup, where the US team drew nearly as many people to the Meadowlands as did the Pope and sold out the Rose Bowl for the finale. “I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999, and I mistakenly believed that level of support would flow over into the league,” John Hendricks, chairman of the WUSA board of governors, observed when the league folded five days before the 2003 World Cup after burning through $100 million.
This time the support is coming from US Soccer, which has provided the structure for the eight-team league, assigned national team players to the rosters, and is paying their salaries. “You want it to be organized, you want as little drama as possible in the first year,” says Breakers defender Cat Whitehill, who played for Washington and Atlanta in the WPS. “Obviously, they put this together really quickly and we’re all really excited about it. I’m very appreciative of what US Soccer is doing. It’s nice to already have that entity that’s a smooth-running machine that can run everything else.”
The federation was the obvious underwriter since it has the most to gain if the league thrives and the most to lose if it fails. While the Americans have won the gold medal at the last three Olympics, both the rest of the world and the rest of the region are catching up. The US was shocked by Mexico in the qualifying tournament for the 2011 World Cup and had to beat Italy to make the field. And last summer in London the Yanks had to come from behind three times to beat Canada in the semifinals, winning just seconds before the match would have gone to a shootout.
While the US has the benefit of a matchless collegiate pipeline, the up-and-comers need a professional league where they can make the transition to international play. “Maybe it’s less important for players that have established themselves in the national team,” says Breakers coach Lisa Cole, “but it is important for a player like Sydney [Leroux]. She becomes a better player for them and for us by the experience she’s getting in the league.”
Resurrecting the league was especially crucial at the beginning of the lengthy lull between the Games and the next Cup, which will be held in Canada in 2015. “In 2005, we played like five games and it was very difficult to keep yourself in top shape,” recalls Whitehill, who played 134 matches during her decade with the national team. “In 2006, it took us a while to come back into our own. We had to be in residency because we didn’t have anything else.”
The NWSL, whose clubs are populated by Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans, admittedly doesn’t have the planetary starshine of its predecessors. “You can argue about the level and everything,” says Seattle midfielder Megan Rapinoe, a WPS veteran who played for Olympique Lyonnais in the French league earlier this year. “But people are going to be playing 90-minute games on a weekly basis. For me, that was a huge factor in my going to Europe.”
For Rapinoe, O’Reilly, and their star-spangled teammates who played before more than 80,000 last summer in Wembley Stadium, performing before a couple of thousand young girls and their families on a football field on Alewife Brook Parkway is a decidedly low-voltage experience. “If you’ve played in those stadiums, especially Wembley, that’s the Holy Grail,” says Rapinoe. “But really, you can’t get there unless you put the work in at the little fields like this. Between the lines and 90 minutes, it’s all the same.”
For players who went five years without a pro league, being paid to suit up every weekend from April through August is a bonus. “It’s better than not playing,” reckons Cole. “That’s the alternative, isn’t it? You can say, well, my standard is that I’m only going to do this, but those things are only going to happen when there’s a World Cup and an Olympics. If you want that to happen every two years, great. But if you want to be playing every day, then you play in this environment.”
Except for the Portland Thorns, who are averaging nearly 13,000 in the same stadium where the MLS Timbers play, the NWSL clubs average around 2,800 at facilities like Benedictine University’s in suburban Chicago and Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. For those who’ve brought gold back from Olympus, it’s like LeBron James lacing up in a YMCA gym in Oklahoma City.
“I’m doing my best to get up for every game, but it’s hard to get the level of focus up that I have with the national team,” concedes US goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose Seattle club went winless in its first 11 games before beating the Breakers. “With that being said, there’s a camaraderie that I haven’t felt in a long time.”
Solo could have played in Europe, as she did in Sweden and France before her WPS days with several clubs. But she and her Olympic teammates preferred to remain domestic. “We want to stay in the United States and play, so we were pleased to know that the league was coming back,” says O’Reilly. “The goal is for us to be here for years to come.”
Besides providing marquee players, US Soccer’s salary subsidy should help clubs’ solvency. “That’s a big chunk of change off the books right away,” says Breakers general manager Lee Billiard. “It gives us a chance to break even. We won’t break even this year, but we’ll be closer than we have in previous years.”
The Breakers, who charge $18 per ticket for adults, $15 for children, and $10 per head for groups, have been averaging about 2,200 at Dilboy, where capacity is 3,200. With budgets capped at $200,000 beyond the subsidized players, clubs can make it by attracting a few thousand fans to small facilities with cheaper rents. “We’re at a point where we can build from the bottom,” figures Billiard. “And let the league grow.”
Given the league’s preteen demographic, high-priced foreign stars are a needless luxury. “Yeah, you’d like the Martas to be playing to keep the level high, but I don’t think right now we’re missing them desperately,” says Whitehill. “Marta was such a hot commodity and people spent a ton of money on her when somebody like Abby [Wambach] had a better following because she was an American, and she wasn’t getting paid nearly the amount that Marta was.”
Dilboy, named for a local World War I doughboy, has a comfortable county fair vibe with stands selling hot dogs, frozen lemonade, and Italian ice, and a Breakerstown fan zone and Autograph Alley where green-jerseyed girls from the Portuguese-American Soccer Academy can have their arms inscribed by the likes of Heather and Sydney. “This environment’s fun,” says Cole. “You’re making an impact, you’re making a difference and people know you.”
The days of playing in RFK Stadium with stars from Brazil, Germany, Norway, and China are gone, and they lasted just long enough for everyone to go bust. So far, smaller is saner for women’s pro soccer. “This is what it is in 2013,” says O’Reilly. “But we’re proud of where we started and we can’t wait to see it keep growing.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, the wrong national soccer team was listed for Kaylyn Kyle in a photo caption with an earlier version of this story. Kyle plays for Canada.