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Women Ready to Kick-Start Soccer League of Their Own

April 01, 2001|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It might be the most significant experiment ever in women's sports. Certainly, it is the most far-reaching.

In part, it is the dollar that has lured more than two dozen of the top female soccer players in the world to the United States. But there is more to it than money.

An equal reason why such players as Sun Wen of China, Hege Riise of Norway, Julie Murray of Australia and Sissi of Brazil have come to these shores is the challenge of competing against the best American players on a weekly basis.

The experiment has a name. It's called the Women's United Soccer Assn., or WUSA.

The eight-team league, funded by an infusion of $64 million from its deep-pocket investors, begins play April 14. Its mission is to be the premier women's soccer league in the world.

Chances are, it will.

What other league, for example, can boast of having the entire U.S. world championship team of 1999? What other league can claim among its players Tiffeny Milbrett and Dagny Mellgren, the Olympic gold-medal-winning goal scorers of Atlanta '96 and Sydney 2000, respectively?

Only WUSA.

For now, Los Angeles does not have a team, but that will change in a year or two.

One of the strongest proponents of women's soccer is Galaxy owner/operator Phil Anschutz, who probably will field both an MLS team and a WUSA team once his new stadium is built in Carson.

For the moment, however, local fans will have to be content with driving south to support Shannon MacMillan and the rest of the San Diego Spirit or driving north to cheer for Brandi Chastain and her Bay Area CyberRay teammates.

Those who want to throw in their lot with a more distant team can choose between Briana Scurry's Atlanta Beat, Kristine Lilly's Boston Breakers, Carla Overbeck's Carolina Courage, Christie Pearce's New York Power, Lorrie Fair's Philadelphia Charge or perhaps even the Washington Freedom.

The Freedom, many believe, probably will draw the most attention simply because its marquee player is Mia Hamm, whom John S. Hendricks, WUSA's founder and chairman, has referred to as "our Michael Jordan."

Indeed, so undeniable is Hamm's appeal that when Sports Illustrated for Women recently published a feature on the new league, the headline read: "Mia's Excellent Adventure."

But WUSA is about far more than Hamm and her world championship and Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. teammates. It is WUSA's foreign legion, drawn together by former U.S. assistant coach Lauren Gregg, now WUSA vice president of player personnel, that will make the league a fascinating experiment to watch.

Can Homare Sawa of Japan learn to provide perfect passes for Cindy Parlow in Atlanta? Will playmaker Anne Makinen of Finland find herself seeking out Hamm in Washington rather than Brazilians Pretinha and Roseli? How will Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong communicate with New York defender Gro Espeseth of Norway?

These and myriad other questions will begin to be answered once the 19-week, 84-game season starts.

While there are several recognizable names on each 20-player roster, the potential exists for surprises to emerge.

"Each team is going to develop stars that we don't even know about today," said former U.S. women's national team coach Tony DiCicco, now WUSA's chief operating officer.

Those surprises lie in the future. For now, all that can be said is that WUSA has gathered 160 players from a dozen countries, given each team an $800,000 salary cap and told them to go at it.

"Ever since I've been a part of the national team," Hamm said a month ago, "it's always been, 'You can't sell the game.' 'You won't put people in the stands.' 'You'll never have a league.' And here we are."

Here, indeed. The league might be small but it will be visible. Its ownership guarantees that much.

The principal investors are Hendricks, chairman and chief executive of Discovery Communications; Amos B. Hostetter Jr., former chairman and chief executive of Continental Cablevision; Comcast Corp., Cox Enterprises, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable.

With that much media clout, it's not surprising that TNT and CNN/SI will combine to televise 22 WUSA matches this year.

Among its 11 games, TNT will broadcast the inaugural match April 14 at RFK Stadium between the Freedom and the CyberRays and also the WUSA championship game Aug. 25.

J.P. Dellacamera will do the play-by-play and 1991 women's world champion Wendy Gebauer will provide the analysis for all 22 broadcasts.

Somewhat optimistically, WUSA is projecting an average attendance of 7,000. Some games will draw considerably more because a cooperative agreement exists between WUSA and MLS under which the two leagues will stage several doubleheaders.

More than a dozen companies have signed on as sponsors and the estimate is that the league will reach its goal of about $15 million in sponsorship income.

But it's not about money.

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