Women's professional soccer returns to Boston in the form of the Breakers

Ryan Wood

All boys who play sports growing up find their role models through professional sports. They admire professional athletes, hoping to one day join the ranks of Major League Baseball or become a pro football, basketball, hockey or soccer player.

Girls never really had that chance. The Women’s United Soccer Association suspended play in 2003 after the league collapsed when expenses far outweighed revenue.

Before the WUSA, which ran from 2001 through 2003, and from then until now, the only chance that girls had to play at a high level after college was to try out for Team USA. Dreams of becoming a professional soccer player dwindled. But now there’s a resurgence with Women’s Professional Soccer, a league that will feature the world’s top soccer players.

“It’s great for any profession, whether it’s a sports profession, business profession, for young girls to see women doing things that they want to,” said Kristine Lilly, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and member of two U.S. women’s teams that won the World Cup. “Because if you don’t see that, you tend to not think it’s possible. So now that we have women’s professional soccer back, these young girls can say, ‘You know what, maybe I’ll do that one day.’ So they have that goal. They have that vision to do something. I think that’s so important. Guys have that dream. They want to be in the NBA, they want to play professional baseball. Even though the majority of them won’t make it, they can see that and want that.”

Lilly is a member of the Boston Breakers, who will play their home games at Harvard Stadium. The Breakers look to add to the lore of Boston sports, Lilly said. A midfielder/forward has the a ton of experience, Lilly is the most capped U.S. soccer player (male and female) with 340 appearances.

“It’s great to have women’s soccer back because we need a women’s sports team in Boston,” Lilly said. “We’re hoping to continue the tradition that the Boston teams have had so far and bring a championship here to Boston.”

Breakers head coach Tony DiCicco has coached at the highest level and is the most successful U.S. national team coach. The former U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach, who led the U.S. to the 1996 Olympic gold medal and the 1999 World Cup victory, brings an unheralded 103-8-8 record to Boston.

“Boston’s a great sports city, and we want to be part of the success every year Boston enjoys with their sports,” DiCicco said. “There’s a lot of talent in the league. I think we have players that can light it up. Have we shown that? Yes, but we’re a little inconsistent, and we need to get our attack to the next stage. But we have a lot of players who have been in big arenas and big matches before.”

Locally, high school and college players and coaches are buzzing. The girls know they have something to aim for after college. They have the opportunity to fill one of more than 100 roster spots throughout the league rather than fighting for one of roughly two dozen spots on the U.S. national team.

“I think it’s awesome,” said two-time Atlantic Coast League all-star midfielder and Plymouth North High School senior Tiffany Aguiar. “I used to go to the games all the time. I’m really glad it’s coming back. Soccer being my main sport, I’ve always wanted to play. I think it’s awesome that it gives an opportunity to play after college. You can look forward to playing in college. The more opportunities for females is even better.”

That sentiment echoed throughout Monday’s Boston Breakers press conference at Harvard’s Murr Center. After DiCicco presented the team, each player talked one-on-one to the media about the Breakers, the WPS, and the opportunities that the league gives to younger female athletes.

“Kids coming out of college, they have something to look forward to,” said two-time Olympic gold medalist Heather Mitts. “I’m able to do something that I love for a living. For me, I only had male role models growing up. I think that it would’ve been a lot better and productive for me growing up if I had a female, and I think that’s why we take advantage of the role that we’re in now because we know how rare it is and how special it is.”

Peabody’s Ashley Phillips, a keeper who finished her career at Clemson University as the team’s all-time career saves leader (326), agreed with Mitts and Lilly.

“The WUSA came out when I was in middle school, so that was cool, but then when it collapsed, I was going to college, (thinking), ‘Well, what am I going to do after college?’ Our only hopes were the national team, which is only 24 people,” Phillips said. “Your chances are pretty slim there. Hopefully (the WPS) gives younger kids something to look forward to, especially girls in high school who are going off to college.”

And that’s exactly what Carver High School head girls soccer coach Jason Tassinari hopes. Tassinari, who coached Emerson College’s women’s soccer team from 2004-07, looks forward to the start of the Breakers season.

“I’m very, very excited,” said Tassinari. “It’s giving girls female role models within their sport, which I think is important. “We’re a sports town. Soccer is big here. Having a professional team in your own backyard is so important. And the women’s game is tremendously exciting to watch."

The Breakers open their season this Saturday (April 5) in California against FC Gold Pride, a team featuring 1999 World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brandi Chastain, as well as 2008 Olympic gold medalists Nicole Barnhart and Rachel Buehler. Boston plays its home opener Saturday, April 11, at 7 p.m. at Harvard Stadium against St. Louis Athletica, a team that features Team USA keeper Hope Solo and defender Kia McNeill, who played from 2004 through 2007 at Boston College, and earned Big East Rookie of the Year honors in 2004.

Speaking of Boston College, the Breakers recently scrimmaged the Eagles. Current Eagle and former Braintree High School star and two-time All-America selection Amy Caldwell said the game against the Breakers was “an eye-opening experience.”

“It’s probably the highest level I’ve played in awhile. I was impressed,” Caldwell said. “I was definitely nervous, especially with Kristine Lilly out on the field, but once the game got going, you forget about who you’re going against.”

Caldwell, who registered 112 goals and 58 assists and helped Braintree win two state titles during her four-year high school career, said she likes that soccer doesn’t have to end in college.

“It’s definitely exciting and just something else to be playing for,” said Caldwell, who earned New England Women’s Intercollegiate Soccer Association first-team honors. She scored three goals to go along with 12 assists. “I would say the speed of play was the biggest difference (comparing college soccer to the professional level). Everything is played so fast. After playing them we worked on switching our point of attack.”

Duxbury High School Head Coach Emerson Coleman, who led the Lady Dragons to the Division 2 state title in the fall, said the WPS provides an opportunity for high school and college players to learn what it takes to play at such a high level.

“Now they have a chance to watch the game at an elite level and support them,” Coleman said. “I think it’s great for women’s athletics and to have it locally. There’s a chance that it’s not the end of their dream. It’s like the WNBA. Before that, there was no place (for female basketball players) to chase their dream. I think it’s wonderful, and I hope they do a good job managing it.”

Mitts has confidence that the league will survive this time around. According to women on the Breakers, the former league was owned by one entity, whereas now, each team has an individual owner. Add the level of talent that each team has - the Breakers’ roster also includes Angela Hucles (midfielder) and Amy Rodriguez (forward), who played for the U.S. team that won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Hucles, along with Lilly played for Breakers during WUSA campaign.

“We know how great we can be, and I think it’s a matter of gelling, it’s a matter of accepting a new philosophy and going with it,” Mitts said. “It’s just a matter of the players that have been asked to come over here, the international players, the national team players, so we can be the best team in the league.”

Each WPS team is allowed to have five international players. The largest contingent in the league comes from Brazil, including Brazilian superstar Marta. The Breakers have the female version of David Beckham in Kelly Smith, who played for the Arsenal Ladies in the English Women’s Premier League and has served as a member of England’s national team for the past 14 years.

“There are some of the best female players from all around the world to teach us their style of play so that we can continue to evolve our game. Obviously when I’m practicing against Kelly Smith, and when I’m practicing against these players they’re going to make me a better player. It just helps to make us better overall,” Mitts said. “You look at the success the U.S. team has had, and I think that all countries try to emulate that. Our style of play is a little bit different than (it is) internationally. So we can bring the best international players over here so that they can teach us something, and we can teach them something as well. I love it. I think that it’s so important for us to have them over here.”

Will the international players gel with the U.S. national team players and some of the best college soccer players this country has to offer? Will the Breakers become part of Boston’s storied sports history and bring a championship to the city?

“There’s going to be a lot of talent on every team, and I know that we really look good on paper, said Rodriguez, the league’s No. 1 draft pick, who’s nicknamed A-Rod. “But it’s how it all comes together on the field.”