Flashback: August 2005, W-League semifinals.

I wish I could tell you about my first live soccer game. I wish I could remember it. It was 2004, on the Farewell Tour, and I cannot even remember who they were playing. I remember it was cold and that the drive there and back were both miserable. I vaguely remember that the US lost. This game wasn’t a great experience; no wonder I’ve forgotten most of it.

So let me tell you about taking my brother to his first live soccer game. August 2005, Mercer County Community College, the W-League Championship Weekend. This was the year that the New Jersey Wildcats had players like Reddick, Fletcher, White, LeBlanc, Yankey, Unitt, Hammond, O’Reilly, Welsh–and that’s just who I remember off the top of my head. Naimo was in charge that year, making this an important team to watch. Who else was there? Mitts and Fotopoulos were with the Central Florida Krush. The Ottawa Fury was there with Swiatek, Matheson, and others I can’t remember. The Vancouver Whitecaps had Lang, Thorlakson, Zurrer, Timko, Andrews–and again, that’s just just who I remember off the top of my head. Andrea Neil was not there, despite being part of the squad–I remember this because it was my one disappointment that weekend. Lindsay Tarpley was injured, but there. Christie Rampone was very pregnant, but there. Greg Ryan was there, but who wants to remember him?

The first day was beastly hot and humid. The traffic was bad. We missed most of the first game, which was between the Krush and Fury. But that’s okay. We set up camp on the hill with a pound of Skittles, a camera, and–thankfully–a bit of shade. My brother had been hearing about the Wildcats and USWNT from me all summer. He had probably watched a couple games when they were on TV, because he knew some of the players on sight without my saying anything. I remember he liked Welsh in particular that year. Is that an odd thing to remember?

He must have been twelve that summer. I somehow managed to get a moody twelve year old boy to enjoy going to four women’s soccer games with his older sister in the dead of summer that year. And I still couldn’t be happier that that was his first live soccer experience. The W-League Championship in 2005 was very different from the experience in 2008 or 2009. This was the (incredibly affordable!) casual, laid-back, intimate atmosphere that I became hooked on in women’s soccer–but with the added crowd of fans and the added college, national team, and international stars that you just don’t get anymore.

My brother’s first full live soccer game was the New Jersey Wildcats versus the Vancouver Whitecaps. This was essentially a US vs. Canada game. It should have been the championship game. New Jersey-Vancouver was the best match-up, by far. Given how much time has passed, I couldn’t tell you the score (New Jersey won, obviously) or any particular plays that impressed me, but I do remember that that was the game.

I would love to know what my brother remembers about this day, because I know he does remember it. He remembers the Skittles–was that really all we ate that evening?–but does he remember talking to Welsh? Does he remember that he was almost too shy then to approach O’Reilly? Does he remember the weather, the goals, or the drive home?

I know what I remember, most distinctly. After the game, when much of the remaining fans were mobbing the Wildcats (you know, the USWNT and UNC players?), I went over to a trio of Whitecaps sitting in the middle of the field away from the commotion. I didn’t get why absolutely no one was interested in these players. Katie Thorlakson had just won a national championship with Notre Dame in the fall, and Kara Lang was a top recruit who had signed with UCLA. Both were CWNT players. And the teammate who was with them… well, she was Ashley McGhee, which probably means more to me now than it did then.

Given that my previous experience with “pro” athletes was the USWNT game, and particularly since Vancouver had just lost, I didn’t expect these three to be that interested in signing for an obviously local young fan. So I tried to be as polite and earnest as possible, telling them that I enjoyed the game and appreciated this–it caught me completely off-guard when they started asking me about the Krush-Fury game. Genuine questions, not the stock stuff US players will spout when interacting with fans.

That made my night. That made my year. For certain, that cemented my affection for the CWNT.

Five years later, that is my clearest memory from that particular day. There are other memories from the championship and consolation games, of the games themselves and the events surrounding them, but those are stories I’ll get into later. For now, the Canadians–why does that stick with me, even though I’m old enough to know it shouldn’t mean anything now?

2005 is the reason I prefer the W-League to the WPSL. There was a greater concentration of national team and up-and-coming YNT or NCAA players. For me (and I realize this is debatable, hence the qualifier), this was the precursor to the WPS. I have been to W-League, USWNT, NCAA, and WPS games in the past five years, and none of them have compared to that combination of fan- and game-experience. Although the WPS has come close.

The thing is, I don’t ask the WPS to give me, as a fan, anything close to that experience in 2005. That was a unique situation created by senior and youth national team players choosing the W-League and these teams in particular. It was created by the WUSA’s collapse, Charlie Naimo’s magic, and the craziness that is New Jersey. It was created by college players and Canadians.  It was created by being in the right place at the right time, and probably at the right age, too.

I think what I ask the WPS to give me, as a fan, is the kind of experience I would be able to take my now-17 year old brother to and still see him get as excited as he did that weekend in 2005. I know a USWNT game would not cut it, and I know our local W-League teams don’t anymore. But I would love to know that the WPS, either as a league or through a few conscientious players, could somehow inspire the same spark from that 2005 weekend for people like us, for the other new fans.

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