Women’s soccer: Collegians top draw, role models after pro league fails

Nina Mandell

She was made captain as a sophomore, made the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team and has started all but one match during her career at Northwestern. But Shannon Schneeman’s professional life most likely will not include soccer.

Most women’s college soccer players don’t have a shot at making the U.S. National Team and aren’t playing for powerhouses such as North Carolina and Santa Clara. For those players, chances of a professional soccer career are bleak.

“I’m guessing after college, I’ll have to get a job,” Schneeman said. “I’m not looking for soccer to be my income.”

But during a brief stint in 2001-2003, soccer at a competitive level for women didn’t end with a diploma. The Women’s United Soccer Association brought hope to millions of girls playing the fastest-growing sport in the United States. But what it didn’t bring was ticket sales or sponsorships.

The idea for a professional league took off after the U.S. women’s team dominated the 1999 World Cup on its home turf, filling stadiums to capacity and garnering enthusiasm the sport had never seen.

Led by famous players such as Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy, the national team became “founding members” of the the eight-team WUSA, which had its inaugural season in 2001.

The 2003 World Cup also helped drum up excitement for the sport, but a third-place U.S. finish wasn’t enough to maintain support and financial backing for the league.

The WUSA suspended operations in September 2003 with hopes of revival. More than a year later, a statement on its Web site announced plans to reopen in 2005 and noted that ticket sales for the U.S. women’s national team “Fan Celebration Tour” had sold out in a few venues across the country.

NU goalkeeper Whitney Jones, who said she would jump at the opportunity to try out for a professional team, pointed to bad management as a reason for the league’s demise.

“I would put teams in different cities,” she said. “From what I’ve read, they had the funds to do it, they just didn’t allocate them well.”

But until women have a league comparable to Major League Soccer, the U.S. men’s professional league, NU players said the women’s game isn’t equal to the men’s game, even at the collegiate level.

“It takes a different attitude for girls and guys,” Jones said. “Unless you’re going to be a national player, which isn’t very likely, college soccer to women is the highest level that almost everyone is going to get to, and the most competitive level. I think it just puts that much of a greater emphasis on the game and I guess just how we view our careers.

“For most girls here, its four years here and you’re done.”

With no professional league, Jones said she’s holding onto her time at NU even more.

“People realize — or should realize — that you can’t take it for granted, that you only have these four years,” she said. “It just puts more of a spotlight on these four years.”

The glass ceiling even affects young girls, who don’t have professional role models. While Chicago-area boys can go watch the Fire, an MLS team, the closest girls can come to that is semi-professional or college games.

That means a generation of girls is growing up with NU women as its highest role models, players said.

“When I was younger, I used to go to college games all the time,” defender Katie Wright said. “You would just look at the players out there and want to be them. I definitely think we’re role models for a lot of younger kids.”

And though she is eager to see a professional league start again, Wright said she thought the game overall would be OK without one.

“I think it’s disappointing, but most of us didn’t have that growing up either,” she said. “I don’t think it affects the younger generation, but it was definitely good to have it around for them to go and see what they could strive to be.”

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