Coping With the Loss of Freedom
WUSA Folded, Then Players Had to Enter the 'Real World'
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page E01
It was the first day of D.C. United preseason training, and Jacqui Little couldn't stop crying.
The former Washington Freedom midfielder had lost her job when the Women's United Soccer Association suspended operations in September. Her soon-to-be-fiance, United goalkeeper Nick Rimando, was on his way to RFK Stadium for a Feb. 2 practice. And instead of preparing for her own soccer season, Little sat in front of her computer at Reico Kitchen & Bath in a Springfield industrial park, just a free kick away from the indoor facility she and her teammates once used for offseason workouts.
"Oh my God, this is my existence now," Little remembers thinking. "Before, I felt like I made a difference in someone's life. I inspired little kids, went to inner-city schools." And now? "And now I order cabinets."
The past nine months have brought drastic changes for Little and her ex-teammates, who won the WUSA's Founders Cup in 2003 before financial shortfalls caused a league-wide shutdown after just three seasons.
Next weekend in Blaine, Minn., the WUSA will hold the first of two summer festivals, featuring all eight of its former teams and most of its biggest stars, who will be paid $1,000 per weekend. Thirteen members of the Freedom, including Little, are scheduled to attend.
League officials are also working on a revised business plan to be presented to investors this summer, a spokesman said, with hopes of a formal re-launch by next year.
In the meantime, many former players are adjusting to a new life of standardized hours spent amid cubicles and telephone headsets and office supplies.
"God, it was so cool to get so nervous and fired up for games, to be so competitive and just hate losing," said Jacqui Little's sister, Skylar -- another former Freedom player -- who now works in sales. "You still have that attitude in the corporate world, but it's obviously a little different. I'm not going to slide tackle someone here at work if they make me mad."
While Skylar Little has been divorced from soccer after a fifth knee surgery in December, other players are still immersed in the sport, often through coaching. Freedom defender Carrie Moore became a speed and agility coach with Xtreme Acceleration Sports Performance School in Germantown. Ex-teammate Sarah Kate Noftsinger is an assistant coach at Stanford; Lorrie Fair of the Philadelphia Charge has served as a sideline reporter for ABC and ESPN's MLS coverage.
Some continued their playing careers overseas, through semipro leagues in Norway, Russia or Germany. More than two dozen former WUSA players -- including ex-Freedom players Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Siri Mullinix and Lori Lindsey -- make a temporary living at the U.S. National Team Training Center in Carson, Calif., although the full-time residency program will break up after the Olympics.
At least 18 players from the WUSA's final season are in the 37-team W-League. Some players in the amateur W-League earn money at camps and clinics, but most of the post-collegiate players have full-time outside jobs, according to Tammy Crawford, the league's director. In 2003, WUSA salaries ranged from $27,000 to $60,000.
The Freedom's players, in particular, have had a chance to stick with soccer. Coach Jim Gabarra and several assistants organized a Freedom Reserve Team, which has a 14-game summer schedule. The team has traveled to Pittsburgh and Greensboro, N.C., and will play England's Nottingham Forest Ladies Football Club before a D.C. United game on July 14.
But plenty of players have branched out, swapping shorts and jerseys for business suits, while learning that "you can't go to work with wet hair in a ponytail," as one player said.
Skylar Little did "every odd job you could possibly imagine" while working for a temporary employment agency. One such assignment ultimately landed her a sales position with Wolf Designs, a family-owned company in Southern California that manufactures luxury leather items such as jewelry cases and watch rotators.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company