So maybe Prince William County soccer standouts Ali Krieger, Katie Watson, Janna Pearson and Victoria Damren are not actually members of the Washington Freedom, reigning champions of the now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association. They're "reserve team" members who are carrying on the team's name, sort of like a band that tours without most of its original members.
But because the jerseys they wear are emblazoned with "Freedom," the reserve players have attracted the attention of women's soccer enthusiasts around the Beltway, including about 400 who came to Forest Park High School on Wednesday night for an exhibition match against the Northern Virginia Majestics.
Watson, a recent Potomac graduate bound for Marshall University, twice walked into Maryland fast-food restaurants wearing her Freedom gear recently. Each time, she was approached by autograph seekers thrusting scraps of paper and napkins in her direction.
For Watson, who toiled for a struggling Panthers high school team in the spring, the attention came as quite a surprise. They wanted her autograph? She's not exactly Freedom great Mia Hamm.
"I'm like, I'm not really famous, but . . . [I sign anyway] just to be nice," Watson said with a laugh after the 1-1 match with the Majestics, after which there was an autograph session. "I feel bad turning [fans] down. It's an incredible feeling. This is the first time I've played at this kind of level. It's not even comparable [to high school]. This is just amazing."
The eight-team WUSA folded in September after three years, citing a $20 million shortfall blamed on a lack of corporate sponsorship and other financial failings. The reserve team's mission is to provide a forum for full-fledged Freedom players as well as to develop younger talent for what all involved hope is a resurrection of the league.
Joining the reserve players on Wednesday's Freedom roster were regular Freedom players Meredith Beard -- a forward who scored the team's only goal -- defender Carrie Moore and goalie Nicci Wright.
All involved say they want to keep the Freedom name in the public consciousness, even if they are an exhibition team with sometimes makeshift lineups.
"That's the main thing in it all -- everybody would like to wear the Freedom jersey, and we're giving them the opportunity to do that," Freedom Coach Jim Gabarra said. "Hopefully, whether it's playing for our U-16 team or for our reserve team, it's something that we want to build on in the future when the Freedom comes back."
"We're keeping it alive," said Forest Park graduate Krieger, a rising sophomore at Penn State who scored three goals for the Freedom in a game against Nottingham Forest of England on July 14 at RFK Stadium. "I feel this is another step toward maybe people helping out to bring in more money for the league to come back. When [the league folded], it was just kind of like, what now?"
When Krieger works camps, younger players ask her the same thing: Do you think the league will return? Where are you going to play after college if there is no WUSA?
As a rising senior at Stonewall Jackson, Pearson knows that a lot can happen between now and her post-college years. So to experience a semblance of pro soccer now is a reward in itself, as was the chance Wednesday to go up against a team of mostly college-aged minor league players. The Majestics (2-10-1) include Bridgit Cooley (Seton), Dara Elk (Forest Park), Shannon Mosier (Woodbridge), Jordan Parsels (Woodbridge) and Jill Porto (Potomac).
"When you're 16 years old and you have people asking for your autograph, it's just a good feeling," said Pearson, a member of the U-16 Freedom team that leaves this week for a series of games in Germany. "It's really sad that the [league] folded. . . . But to come out here and realize that it might come back and that people still do care shows [well] for women's professional sports."
Based on recent business meetings, Gabarra is "pretty confident" the league will return in some form, assuming the costs to run it do not scare off corporate sponsors, which was the case last time when WUSA founders perhaps overestimated corporate interest in funding a women's soccer league following the excitement of the 1999 World Cup.
An overly ambitious plan was further derailed by a sluggish economy, scant TV ratings and attendance that dropped from an average of 8,116 in 2001 to 6,667 in 2003. In short, the fledgling league did not exist within its modest means. But a retooled version might.
"It's an important part of the sports landscape in this country and there's certainly a place for it and an important place for it," Gabarra said. "That's part of where my confidence lies that it will come back."