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 spokesperson 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-$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 like jewelry cases and watch rotators.
Lindsay Stoecker, another ex-Freedom player, works on homeland security issues for a downtown Washington consulting firm, G&H International Services. "Critical Infrastructure Protection R&D," she says, and her ex-teammates are "just kind of like, what are you doing?"
Kristy Whelchel (New York Power) is a real estate agent in Manhattan. Nel Fettig (Carolina Courage) is a law clerk in Atlanta. Kim Pickup (San Diego Spirit) is student teaching in Southern California.
And Jacqui Little drives five minutes from her home in Alexandria to the Reico office in Springfield, where she gives quotes to contractors, orders supplies and designs floor plans for kitchens and bathrooms.
She got the job last October through the parent of a player she coaches with Rimando, and soon Little did some recruiting of her own. By January, ex-Freedom teammate Meredith Beard was in training at the Springfield location, while Casey Zimny, another ex-teammate, spent several months as a Reico receptionist.
Co-workers joked that Reico should start its own soccer team, and a Jacqui Little bobblehead appeared atop an office file cabinet, although the doll's head eventually bobbled off its body.
"If you shake it really hard, it just kind of pops off," explained an officemate, Amy Pack.
Rimando's photograph and the D.C. United schedule that hangs from Little's color-coordinated corkboard draw attention from soccer-crazed contractors, but the start of United's season was actually a low point for Little.
"Not that I don't like my job -- I love the people I work with, the company is great," she said. "But the fact that I was sitting at a desk instead of doing what I love to do, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Oh God, he's training and I'm sitting here."
"That was pretty much when she opened her eyes to what she was really doing," Rimando said. "You can see that she wants to have her old lifestyle back, but she knows it's the real world and this is a real job."
Still, Little easily lapses into kitchen-speak, rattling off details about quarter-inch scribe molding and EF196 refrigerator panels, and complaining about a troublesome kitchen sink that is fouling up a floor plan.
Like the other office-bound players, she misses being on her feet and earning a living from her passion. The office workers have also seen their schedules change; weekdays start earlier and nights out are cut short by thoughts of early-morning commutes.
On the other hand, weekends are suddenly free, and "now, it's like, 'Yeah, I can go to a party and drink beer,' " Skylar Little said.
WUSA front-office personnel also have faced a transition, although many remained in professional sports. Eddie Rockwell, the general manager of the Atlanta Beat, took the same job with the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. Freedom employees have found work with the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Miami Dolphins.
Others left the sports world entirely. Former Freedom GM Katy Button -- who worked for six years in the Clinton White House -- became a production coordinator for this summer's Democratic National Convention, helping plan programming and reaching out to media.
Like the players, Button said she enjoys her work but can't help but reminisce about the past few summers.
"You had gotten into a certain rhythm -- preseason is in March, April is our home opener," Button said. "As each of those milestones passed it was like missing a limb almost."
Button's job will end with the convention in late July, and her future plans are no more final than the those of the WUSA. She'd like to go watch the Olympics in Greece, and she'd like to be involved with the league if it comes back. And if not?
"That's a good question," she said.
The uncertainty also follows the players. Silver Spring native Joanna Lohman, an all-American at Penn State last fall, was planning on joining the league this summer. Instead, she's in Los Angeles, planning to finish her course work next fall while waiting to see what league officials decide.
Stoecker would like to play again while still working as a consultant. Jacqui Little, who is 26, said she would definitely play at least one more season and then reassess her prospects. Skylar Little will be married in October and is thinking of buying a house in Southern California; she isn't sure whether she would return to a soccer career.
The players said they are looking forward to the upcoming reunions, but some share Skylar Little's indecision.
"Things change so quickly," said Beard, who now works out of Reico's Elkridge warehouse. "I played for three years, it was great, and I've kind of moved on to another chapter of my life -- the real world."