WASHINGTON - The new Women's United Soccer Association stepped onto the national sports stage yesterday with the Washington Freedom facing the Bay Area CyberRays in an inaugural game that was more than a game.
It also was Washington's Mia Hamm going up against Bay Area's Brandi Chastain - two of the league's most prominent figures.
Ironically, and fittingly, the afternoon's historical debut in front of 34,148 soccer enthusiasts at RFK Stadium had Hamm and Chastain isolated at the right wing in the game's decisive moment.
In a scoreless tie in the 69th minute, Hamm cut back inside the penalty area as Chastain went in for the tackle. A foul was called.
The referee awarded the penalty kick, and Brazilian star Pretinha made history by scoring the first goal in the first women's professional soccer league in the United States.
The day was far more than a mere result, a 1-0 Freedom victory. It was a celebration of women's soccer, and the WUSA played it up just right with an elaborate ceremony before 90 minutes of soccer that got better with every minute.
"What a historic day," said Hamm, "from the national anthem to the last whistle. I think the people that were in the stands were so supportive, not only of the sport of soccer, but this new league."
Both teams played tentatively in the first half, but things got much livelier in an attacking second half.
Bay Area midfielder Sissi had two scoring chances go for naught, the first after collecting a through ball in the 66th minute only to have Freedom keeper Siri Mullinix aggressively come out to smother the shot. The second - a booming direct kick from 20 yards - hit the right post in the 72nd minute.
In between came the controversy when Hamm was taken down by Chastain for Pretinha's game-winning penalty kick.
"It's funny, when you're the one doing it, you don't know," said Hamm. "I beat Brandi on the inside and I cut it back. I talked to her after the game and the only thing I had to say is it's not my judgment to say it's a foul or if it's not a foul.
"But with a game like this, I was just sad that that's the way it was. But then again, that's part of soccer and Pretinha stepped up and put it away to give us a big lift."
Saying she was trying to be politically correct in the nation's capital, Chastain declared: "I felt very strongly that that wasn't the call I would have made."
Despite being on the losing end, she added there was much more to the day.
"Your ultimate objective is to win the game," she said. "But it doesn't diminish the fact that we were a part of history today and we changed American culture for young girls."
And the young girls certainly dominated the crowd, ranging in ages, coming with parents and also entire youth teams.
You didn't have to ask 9-year-old Erin Larrabee her favorite player. Like many others, Erin wore the familiar No. 9 national jersey of Hamm.
Erin's primary task for the day? "Maybe getting Mia's autograph," she said.
The opening ceremony included an introduction of the 1999 U.S. World Cup championship team, with Michelle Akers having the honor of the ceremonial first kick. Former tennis great Billie Jean King presided over the official coin toss. And as Joy Enriquez was closing out the national anthem, Challenger, the American Bald Eagle, flew into the stadium on command.
"We're just thrilled with the turnout. I think it's a victory first and foremost for these players who have worked for over a decade since they first brought in the World Cup in 1991," said John Hendricks, chairman of WUSA's Board of Governors.
"Many of you may know that our business plan called for about 7,000 to 8,000 people [per game] to make this league successful and with today's crowd of over 34,000, we think this bodes well for the future of the league."
There were two lowlights in an otherwise glowing day. The first came in the 31st minute of the first half when Bay Area's Tisha Venturini, a member of the Cup champion team, fractured her wrist. She was trying to catch herself after being undercut while in the air for a header; she'll miss two to three weeks.
The second misfortune took place at the will-call window, where numerous fans were left waiting for their tickets up until halftime.
The Freedom sold a good number of tickets in the past week, leaving no time to mail them. Despite opening the windows four hours before game time, there were still lengthy lines well past the 2 p.m. start.
CyberRays 0 0 - 0
Freedom 0 1 - 1
Second half: 1. Freedom: Prittinha (PK) 70th minute (1). Total shots: Bay Area 20; Freedom 18. Shots on goal: Bay Area 14; Freedom 8. Saves: Bay Area, Beene 6; Freedom, Mullinix 12. Att: 34,148.