American soccer writing, history & data.
The autumn of 1997 saw the player-driven National Soccer Alliance form as the first true professional women’s soccer league. The eight-team league was scheduled to start play in the spring of 1997. But, the U.S. Soccer Federation pushed back on sanctioning the NSA as a Division I league for a number of factors. The USSF felt the market couldn't yet handle what the NSA planned and wanted the league to wait until after the 1999 World Cup. The USSF might have also feared attendance competition for MLS - the country’s Division I men’s professional league.
The USSF’s lack of desire to sanction the NSA led its potential investors to back out of the organization. Even though the players who were leading the charge to form the NSA didn’t want to wait until after 1999, the league withdrew its application for sanctioning in December after its primary investor, John Hendricks, backed out.
The USISL’s W-League began to move into the void created by the loss of the NSA. In January 1998, the W-League split into an Elite division (W-1) and a “non-elite” division (W-2). the W-1 Division was formed by 15 teams committed to meeting higher standards in 1998. Each of those teams was required to sign at least one U.S. National Team player or a marquis player of that caliber. Join collaboration between the USISL and the USSF placed most of the USWNT players with W-League teams. As part of the deal, the W-League would have to pay for the travel, food and lodging expenses for its USWNT players. The W-2 Division would be made up of the remaining 18 or so W-League teams. The USISL also announced that the W-League would move towards becoming the first women’s professional soccer league in 2000.
The Dallas Lightning and Mississippi’s Coast Chaos dropped out of the W-1 League just before the season started. The Madison Freeze only managed to play one game before they also dropped out of the W-2 Division. A bigger blow to the W-League was when all four of its west coast teams, all from California, broke off in the offseason to start the Women’s Premier Soccer League.
Another big blow came in the W-1 Division when the Buffalo Ffillies folded in June after only playing four games. In order to fill the void left in the W-1 Division by the loss of the Buffalo franchise, the W-League promoted the New Jersey Lady Stallions mid-season from the W-2 Division up to the W-1 Division. Because most W-League teams had some amount of cross division play in their schedules, the Lady Stallions brought their results and schedule with them to the W-1 Division.
Dr. Hugo Uyttenhove, owner of the USISL A-League Raleigh Flyers, purchased a W-League franchise before the 1998 season. His expansion Raleigh Wings would be the class of the W-League. The Wings were captained by former U.S. national team player Wendy Gebauer and included current U.S. national team players Carla Overbeck and Tracy Ducar as well as Nel Fettig, a three-time All-American from UNC. Raleigh won all 14 games of the regular season scoring 58 goals with only 9 against.
On August 8, the Raleigh Wings would win the W-1 South Division Final 2-1 over the Atlanta Classics before 1220 at Raleigh Flyers Stadium. The W-1 Division national semifinals and finals were hosted the following weekend by the Boston Renegades at Bowditch Field in Framingham, Mass.
On Friday, August 14, Raleigh easily beat the Maryland Pepsi Pride 5-0 in one semifinal while the Boston Renegades blanked the upstart New Jersey Lady Stallions, led by USWNT player Christie Pearce who had originally signed with the Buffalo Ffillies, 2-0 in the second semifinal. Two days later Raleigh and Boston played in the W-1 Division final.
The final was a back and forth affair. Raleigh forward and USWNT player, Robin Confer, scored in the 20th minute but Boston tied the score two minutes later off a goal by Laura Collin. Confer got a brace putting Raleigh up 2-1 in the 33rd minute. Midfielder Kim Yankowski would score in the 52nd minute to increase Raleigh’s lead to 3-1. But Boston would mount a shocking comeback with Amy Heseltine notching a goal in the 62nd minute and Kerry Connors evening it up 3-3 just 10 minutes later. But the Raleigh Wings would not be denied their perfect season and Kim Smith knocked in the winning goal in the 82nd minute for a 4-3 victory before the 1280 in attendance at Bowditch Field.
While the W-1 Division played a 14 game schedule, the W-2 Division played a 12 game schedule. The New York Magic had the best season with nine wins and three losses (one of which was a shootout loss). The Magic had an astounding 33 goals for and only 2 against.
The national semifinals and finals where hosted by the Miami Gliders on August 7 and 8 at Flamingo Park in Miami Beach, Fla. The W-2 Division playoffs were full of upsets. In the first semifinal, the Hampton Roads Piranhas pulled off a major upset beating the New York Magic 2-1. The second semifinal saw the Fort Collins Force (who had already upset the Cleveland Eclipse in the Central Division playoff) upset the Miami Gliders 4-0. The W-2 final was a battle of second place regular season teams and saw the Fort Collins Force take home the title 3-1 over the Hampton Roads Piranhas.
©2023 by Daniel Creel. All rights reserved.