First NWSL game is key, but lasting is the goal
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Between players, coaches, officials, media and even some fans, there were a fair amount of folks here Saturday who've been there, done that in regard to professional women's soccer in the United States.
Yet we're happy to do it again. In this Kansas City suburb of Overland Park -- which happens to have been my hometown for the past 16 years -- the new National Women's Soccer League had its inaugural game.
The FC Kansas City Blues tied Portland Thorns FC 1-1 before a sold-out crowd of 6,784 at Shawnee Mission North District Stadium. The weather, which can be mighty dicey here in the Land of Oz in April, was just about perfect: No rain, a little breeze and temperatures in the high 50s.
It's fair to give opening night a good grade, especially considering the logistical challenges of getting everything organized and personnel in place for the eight-team league that didn't even officially launch until November.
The sport is popular in this region, and the success of MLS's Sporting Kansas City has more firmly built up a knowledgeable fan base that understands and appreciates professional soccer.
The most enthusiastic among Saturday's crowd beat on drums, sang songs and embraced the Blues as if they were long-lost friends the fans were thrilled to see again.
Still, we know all too well that it isn't how this league starts that will tell the story. It's how it lasts.
"We were hoping for a great atmosphere, and it turned out to be a spectacular one, really," said KC defender Becky Sauerbrunn, a U.S. national team member who won gold at the 2012 Olympics. "It's a great night in general for the start of the NWSL."
Sauerbrunn is from St. Louis, four hours east on Interstate 70, so she had lots of family and friends in attendance. Teammate Renae Cuellar is from La Puente, Calif., but that didn't stop her parents and grandparents from making the trip to the Heartland to see her first NWSL game.
And Cuellar, who in K.C.'s training camp established herself as likely the top offensive threat, gave her family and the Blues' fans a thrill by scoring the first goal in league history. That left-footed strike came three minutes into the match.
"It's awesome, exciting -- I said when I scored I was having a little bit of a heart attack," laughed Cuellar, who was nervous from the circumstances of it being the league's inaugural game, but not because she's unaccustomed to scoring.
To the contrary, it's her specialty. Cuellar transferred from Arizona to Oklahoma last season, and was the Big 12 offensive player of the year with 12 goals and 26 points. Cuellar plays for Mexico's national team.
"We got all the jitters out I think the first 10 minutes," Cuellar said. "With Portland being a big-name team, it was a great experience for us."
The biggest names for the Thorns are forwards Alex Morgan of the U.S. national team and Christine Sinclair of the Canadian national team. The latter scored the equalizer on a penalty kick in the 67th minute.
"In a way, this sort of went as we expected," Sinclair said of match. "We haven't been together a lot in the preseason, and I think that first half showed that. We played a lot better in the second half; it was a lot more like I know we can play.
"It's so exciting to be a part of this league and to see the number of fans that were out there. I don't think we expected that. I'm sure all of us were anxious to get this thing going."
League organizers had to put a lot together quickly to be able to have play start in 2013. But being the year after an Olympics, it seemed the right time to get the ball rolling, regardless of the hectic time frame. It gives the league a chance to get itself established before the next Women's World Cup in 2015.
"What's exciting about this for me is we're not overreaching," said NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey, who was at Saturday's game along with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and U.S. women's national team coach Tom Sermanni, who took over his post in January.
"We want to put a great product out on the field. I feel really good that we're on solid footing. It was amazing, honestly, to pull this together as quickly as we did."
Portland coach Cindy Parlow Cone was a player back when the WUSA (Women's United Soccer Association) launched in 2001, so she knows things can begin well but not have staying power. WUSA had a splashy beginning, but drastically overspent and folded after three seasons.
Then Women's Professional Soccer, trying to keep in mind the hard lessons learned from WUSA, began in 2009, but folded in 2012.
The NWSL has a smarter business plan than either of its predecessors, with the backing of the national federations from the United States, Canada and Mexico.
There's no certainty, of course, that this third attempt will gain traction, but the expectations are more realistic. The rest of the NWSL teams -- based in Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Rochester, N.Y., and Morristown, N.J. -- begin play Sunday.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect in the first game," Parlow Cone said. "But all in all, with what the teams have had to deal with, I think it was a very high-quality soccer match. The fans turned out here in Kansas City, and I hope to see that everywhere we go.
"For me, I know what the players are feeling; I know what it's like to play in your first professional game.  was a long time ago, so I don't remember how nervous I was then. But game day is for the players; it's showtime for them."
For Sauerbrunn, who played in the WPS, Saturday was even better than she expected.
"I was fortunate to play in the inaugural game of the WPS," she said. "And although the stadium was bigger than this, this one felt more intimate. And maybe, just being from the [Midwest], it was more special for me."