It was a little more than 20 years ago now, but Heather Mitts still remembers stepping onto the field at Villanova Stadium for the first professional women’s soccer game played in the Philadelphia area.
And she still thinks about what could have been, for the Charge from 2001-03 and the Independence from 2010-11.
“It was just an amazing opportunity to be able to play professional sports and bring it here,” said Mitts, who lives in the area with former Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley and their children.
On Wednesday, Subaru Park will host the first club women’s soccer game played at one of this region’s pro sports venue in a decade. So it’s a good time to look back at how things were back when the Women’s United Soccer Association first came to town.
The French connection
The Charge’s rosters in their three-year existence included many famous names. Mitts, Lorrie Fair Allen, Saskia Webber, and a rookie Hope Solo were among the marquee Americans; Liu Ailing was a big-time player from China; and Kelly Smith became one of England’s all-timers.
But the soccer savants who watched those teams remember someone else just as well.
Marinette Pichon was an attacking force for the Charge in her two years here, 2002-03. She scored 14 goals in each season, and in 2002 won the WUSA’s MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards.
Mark Krikorian, the Charge’s coach for all three years, had done his homework to bring Pichon here.
“When I spoke with Élisabeth Loisel, the French national team coach at the time, she had nothing but great things to say about Marinette on the field, off the field, in the community, in every area,” Krikorian said. “What we thought we were going to get, we certainly did get. We got a kid that could score magnificent goals and brought a maturity and a sophistication to the team that was fantastic, but also just a wonderful personality.”
Pichon returned the compliments.
“Mark was someone with humanity,” she said. “He worked to know his players individually, to talk to them and reassured them ... and made sure his players were in good shape, ready to work within his methods. And he made their potential explode.”
Overall, she said, Krikorian was “the coach who made my career.”
Pichon also has great memories of Smith, whom Krikorian took with a high draft pick in 2001 and got criticized for it. Pichon knew Krikorian was right, having played against Smith in France-England games before arriving here, and so it proved.
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“She was one of the leaders on the team,” Pichon said. “She was [at a] very high technical level, she had great vision, she was fast, athletic. The first practice that we had together, I was like, ‘Man, it’s so different between the French and U.S.,’ and I had to work hard to get more muscle.’”
The story of Krikorian’s top assistant coach also bears telling. It was someone in Sweden he’d known for almost a decade, but few people in the U.S. had heard of.
Seeds of the future
“My first call was to Pia,” Krikorian said.
In the women’s soccer world, Pia Sundhage’s last name rarely needs to be said these days. That’s how big a deal she is. But before she coached the U.S. women to the 2008 and ‘12 Olympics gold medals and the 2011 World Cup final, she was a relative unknown on the Charge’s bench.
Sundhage spent two years here before taking the Boston Breakers’ head job. She helped bring Pichon over from France, and helped Mitts become a U.S. national team star.
“It was Mark Krikorian, it was Pia Sundhage, who were the coaches that really saw something special in me,” Mitts said. “They saw something more special in me than I saw in myself.”
The Charge started their first season with a 2-0 loss at the San Diego Spirit and a scoreless tie at the Atlanta Beat. Their home opener was against Brandi Chastain’s Bay Area CyberRays, on the same day the Sixers hosted the Raptors in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
A crowd of 11,092 came to the Main Line, a near-sellout at the 12,500-capacity stadium. As The Inquirer noted at the time, it was “one of the larger crowds to watch a soccer game not involving Mia Hamm in this country.” (Though Chastain certainly didn’t need introducing.)
The Charge averaged 7,153 fans per game in 2001, 6,880 fans in 2002, and 6,764 in 2003. Those figures would be respectable in today’s NWSL.
On the field, there were playoff semifinal runs in 2001 and ‘02, then a last-place finish in ‘03. But before the curtain fell on that final year, the spotlight shone on a young goalkeeper who had turned pro with hype and was starting to live up to it.
Back then, Krikorian said, “I thought she handled herself very well, in a very professional manner.”
Solo would later become one of American soccer’s most controversial figures. But Krikorian has always held her in high regard.
“I very much like Hope, I have no issues with her at all,” Krikorian said. “I’m glad that she had the career that she did, and she certainly led U.S. Soccer to a lot of glory.”
The WUSA folded after the 2003 season due to lack of money. It would be another nine years until Women’s Professional Soccer launched, and a year after that until the Independence brought pro women’s soccer back here in 2010 and ‘11.
“It was just a shame to see the league have to fold, because I feel like we were on the verge of creating something really special here from a women’s sports perspective,” Mitts, who played for both Philadelphia teams, said of the WUSA’s collapse.
“None of us really knew what was next for us that weren’t on the national team at that point,” she continued. “I ended up being lucky enough to be invited into [the national team’s] residency camp, so I was able to extend my playing career. But it was just unfortunate, because there were so many good players that didn’t get that same opportunity.”
Though the U.S. women have played in Philadelphia and Chester many times since WPS folded, there has not been professional club women’s soccer here since then. Wednesday’s Gotham FC-Washington Spirit game at Subaru Park will be the first club game played here since Aug. 20, 2011, the Independence’s home game in that year’s playoffs.
Understandably, much attention will be paid to the scandals engulfing the NWSL right now. But if a big crowd shows up in Chester for Carli Lloyd’s homecoming, attention will be paid to that, too. Philadelphia is often discussed as a potential NWSL expansion market if the right team owner can be found.
“I’m actually a little bit surprised that it hasn’t happened yet,” Krikorian said. “Because I do know the passion of the fans, I do know their level of investment.”