It was a cold and windy night at the Maryland Sportsplex. The first night I could make it out for one of the DC Spirit’s pre-season games. Free tickets online. No excuse not to go, except for the drive and the family schedule. That landed me there on Saturday night, the last game before the regular season campaign commenced, to see the Spirit take on the UVA Women’s team.
My 16 year old daughter and I found a few open seats behind the team benches just as the announcer asked us to welcome the Spirit “reserves.” I went to applaud and then stopped. Silence. No one else was clapping.
“Now, welcome our guests from the University of Virginia!” he announced. Perhaps a smattering of applause from glove-muffled hands. But no hollering. No shouting. Not much.
Then, the starting elevens filed in at midfield in a double line. Red flanked by white. Red peeled off to form one long line of extremely athletic, extremely dedicated, extremely accomplished soccer players. Blue shirted refs in the center. Players were introduced.
Lori Lindsey received the most enthusiastic welcome. She is the biggest name of the group, with perhaps 14 National Team Caps under her belt, most coming in 2010, her most productive year. A couple of local favorites had pockets of supporters in the crowd. I felt like I was the only one in the crowd who clapped for every player. I appreciated that my teen daughter did not yank my hand down and prevent me from further embarrassing her.
After introductions we stood in unison for the national anthem, players, coaches and fans facing the flag in the dusky northern sky. It was eerily quiet. The notes rang out. No one sang. The tone was set.
UVA controlled the ball from the kick off and dominated much of the play in the first half. They scored two unanswered goals. When Spirit forward Tiffany McCarty finally found the net to stem the shutout, the crowd full mostly of young female soccer players and their parent-coaches erupted in cheers. It was one part thrill and two parts relief. Who’d have thought the “professionals” would be coming from behind?
The half of play continued quite one-sided from there with UVA forwards slipping through the Spirit defense to score 3 more goals. The score stood UVA 5- Spirit 1, at half time. A very unexpected first half. A wake up call for the Spirit?
Now, I understand that Coach Mike Jorden was holding back some players, resting them for the regular season. I know that the glitter of national team players, five I think, was missing from Saturday night’s line up. Certainly, this ramshackle group was not the team that will take the field next against the Boston Breakers on the 14th and the week following vs the Western NY Flash, armed with Abby Wambach.
But for the start of the second half, with score and outcome no longer an issue, I shifted my point of view. Instead of watching the game and anticipating an outcome I watched the individual players and wondered at the bigger story being told down there on the field. The battle being waged. I’m all about fit to the finish, after all, so this is why I came.
I sat a bit more upright in my seat, as well as you can when your hands are shoved in your pockets, your hood is drawn tight over your head and there are no backs to the bleacher seats you’re sitting in. I took in the proceedings. Not the score, not the weather, not the lights or announcer or little chattering voices, but the play. One girl versus the other. The event: two squads of female athletes, fighting for roster spots and bragging rights on a cold night in Germantown.
And the comparison was stark, the contrast indelible. Coach Jorden’s squad came out with a visibly more aggressive style in the second half. Tighter marking. Higher pressure. More physical defending. And in nearly every case, his players ran into brick walls in the UVA players. The collegiate players used their superior physical strength to be commanding nearly everywhere on the field. This is the game women play now. Much more like the men than they used to play.
And how long has Coach Jorden had to work with these women, a month? To strengthen, train and unite them as a team? How long has UVA had together? All season? All year? Some of them 3 ½ years together? I have to wonder what Caroline Miller, former star of the UVA squad and the Spirit’s first draft pick, is thinking. She is used to being fully prepared. This is a whole new ballgame.
My daughter, asks me, “Do these girls get paid to play?”
I tell her yes, that that’s what makes them professional, though I am not at all sure they are all paid. The league anted in for the salaries of the premier players – who are not playing tonight – but the clubs themselves have to raise the funds to pay the ‘other’ players. The ones I am watching get shoved and tripped up and out-muscled on the pitch. The ones who I paid not a cent to see play tonight. The ones who last year were starters for their college teams and now are scraping by, sacrificing day and night to put in the time to “play pro” and probably work another job or two to pay their rent.
I look to the midfield sidelines then to see three UVA players in white t-shirts and shorts readying to come into the match. UVA reserves, or subs saved for the second half, who have tossed off their sturdy collegiate issue cold weather jackets to enter the game. They bounce up and down to stay warm. Strong women, with muscled thighs and broad shoulders, no one would mistake them for anything but athletes. They are products of one of the best soccer training programs in the country. Back at school they probably train six hours per day, in addition to their studies, where they have the finest and newest training equipment, a ready training staff and a smorgasbord of food at the cafeteria training table. All of this paid under the terms of their scholarship. Most of us would say, “That is the life.”
That was last year’s life for Caroline Miller, when she wore the shimmering orange numbers on the back of her navy jersey. Now she wears the Spirit red, with white numbering that is much less bold. Much of her physical training time she does on her own, fueled by sandwiches she makes for herself. She’s what she always dreamed she’d be – a professional.
Funny, I think, how the roles seem reversed on this night. The collegiates look pro. The pro’s look amateur. Not so surprising really. This fledgling women’s league is trying to take flight. And they’re doing it on a shoestring budget. These young people getting paid peanuts for what they’re doing, and doing it gladly. Because it’s their dream.
But I’d love to see them a bit stronger and more prepared. A bit more like the college players, trained up and supported by fans and by alumni and by the parents of the players. By the university of us, the community that believes in them. We’re not that community yet. We don’t applaud for the reserves. We don’t pay for tickets. We don’t even sing the National Anthem, yet.
I’m hoping we’ll come together to bring the Washington Spirit out of the red, even while they’re wearing it. Because every young woman should have a step higher to climb. But someone has to build the foundation. The one that each who comes after her steps upon first as they ascend. Lori Lindsey, Tiffany McCarty, Caroline Miller and Co., you’re doing this work.
Just as the final whistle blows, one little girl behind me clambers over the seats to the railing to get some players to sign her roster sheet. She calls back to her Dad, “I wanna get their autographs now, before they’re famous.”
That’s the spirit!