A Match Made in Heaven: “A Celebration of Women’s Soccer”

Laura Kane and Jess Hnatiuk of the Chesapeake Charge/Maryland Capitols defend against Lianne Sanderson of the DC United Women/All-Stars, who would score twice on the evening. (Ken Harriford)

Somewhere in Heaven in the distant future, the all-time, all-Freedom team is taking the field. Co-captains Jen Grubb and Cat Whitehill check their starting lineup one last time. Beside them on the back line are Carrie Moore and Becky Sauerbrunn; Siri Mullinix is between the pipes. Up top are Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach; while Sonia Bompastor, Steffi Jones, Lori Lindsey, and Bai Jie line up across the midfield.

The other team consists of the best their opposition has offered over the years. So many to choose from, but you have to figure the lineup includes forwards Marta and Birgit Prinz; midfielders Lori Chalupny, Kristine Lilly, and Kelly Smith; defenders Joy Fawcett, Christie Rampone, and perhaps a Danielle Slaton finally without knee problems; and of course Hope Solo in goal.

All right, the lineup for Saturday’s “Celebration of Women’s Soccer”, with the “Maryland Capitols” taking on the “All-Stars”, wasn’t anywhere near that awesome, but given that it was limited to active players who could make the match on fairly short notice, it was plenty awesome enough. Three of the players I named above were there – Sauerbrunn, Lindsey, and Whitehill – though due to US Soccer’s concerns over possible injuries, only Cat was allowed to play. Becky and Lori served as part-time coaches and also participated in a penalty kick face-off at halftime. (Lori won, 4-3, after Becky’s first attempt went off the bottom of the crossbar but out rather than in.)

The entire All-Star team poses during warmups

The rest was like a “Who’s Who” of local women’s soccer players minus the ones who’ve had to head back to school. Representing the DC United Women on the All-Stars were Lianne Sanderson, Joanna Lohman, Diana Weigel, and Caitlin Miskel, while Danielle Malagari became a Maryland Capitol for the evening. With her were Jess Hnatiuk, Laura Kane, and Brittany Hadaway of the ASA Chesapeake Charge. The Capitols themselves contributed a host of players, including team captain Anabel Jimenez and leading scorer Ali Andrzejewski along with Diana Barrera, Ashley Weisenburg, Kara Frederick, and a half-dozen others. Capitols coach David Jones retained his role for this match.

On top of all that, the All-Stars lineup was filled out by former Washington Freedom players Nikki Marshall, Allie Long, and Kati Jo Spisak, along with Leann Champ of the Philadelphia Fever and the English national team, Zulia Menjivar of the El Salvador national team, Sonia Basma from the Northern Virginia Majestics, Melissa Penny from the Montgomery County Police Department, and several Maryland Capitols U-23 players. The team was coached for the day by James Galanis, probably best known to women’s soccer fans as Carli Lloyd’s trainer and (briefly) as MagicJack’s coach and as coach of the (now defunct) WPS Atlanta Beat.

The All-Stars' All-Stars: Cat Whitehill, Caitlin Miskel, Joanna Lohman, Nikki Marshall, Lianne Sanderson, Allie Long

It may seem like excessive nostalgia to keep mentioning the Freedom, but 11 players on the night had Freedom heritage of one sort or another. In addition to those mentioned already, Lohman and Miskel played for the WPS team; Jimenez, Andrzejewski, Weigel, and Malagari played for the W-League team. (The 11th is Tyler Lussi, who played for the Freedom Futures.)

An enthusiastic crowd of 2,112 turned out on the evening despite the threat of rain, and it seemed like more: the benchside stands were packed in a way not seen since Freedom matches.

The near-side stands were nearly full. (Ken Harriford)

The fans got a good show as the All-Stars, unsurprisingly, downed the Capitols, 5-1. Given that many of these players had never played or even practiced together before the opening whistle blew, the quality of soccer was surprisingly good. The goals could be attributed more to quality attacking soccer than to defensive breakdowns.

Lianne Sanderson – who else? – opened up the scoring in the 15th minute by chipping Capitols goalkeeper Jacqui Desjardin, but that would prove to be the only scoring of the first half. The biggest highlight for the fans, though, was noted women’s soccer author Christine Brennan – who also did much of the announcing – interviewing Becky Sauerbrunn. At the end, she asked Becky where her gold medal was. Becky pulled it out of her purse and held it up. Fans immediately stormed the walkway at the bottom of the bleachers to get a closer look, and she spent several minutes walking up and down the sidelines showing it off and letting people photograph it. At the time, the game seemed like an afterthought.

Becky Sauerbrunn shows off her Olympic Gold medal to the fans in the stands. (Ken Harriford)

There were a few other scoring chances, the most entertaining one coming in the 40th minute with Cat Whitehill making an uncharacteristic run into the box from her central defender position and taking a shot, but her shot was blocked by an opposing defender, and she clapped her hands in exaggerated frustration. Two minutes later came the most exciting one, as Sanderson took a shot on goal from a sharp angle on the right that got past Desjardin and looked to be trickling in, but a Capitols defender literally knocked it off the line before it made it all the way over.

The half ended with the All-Stars leading, 1-0.

Part of the halftime entertainment was Christine Brennan interviewing Cat Whitehill. (Ken Harriford)

Another part was the PK contest. Here Lori Lindsey demonstrates the proper body English used while Becky Sauerbrunn watches and learns. (Ken Harriford)

The All-Stars broke the game open early in the second half in vintage DC United Women style, scoring three goals in the span of seven minutes. Sanderson got her second in the 53rd minute, firing the ball in from about twelve yards out. She was key in the next goal a minute later as she took another shot that Desjardin made a spectacular save on but couldn’t clear. The ball came back to Sanderson, who was covered, so she slipped the ball to Sonia Basma on her right. Basma, with space, sent it in before Desjardin had fully recovered.

Five minutes later came the most spectacular goal of the evening, as Zulia Menjivar did a Mia Hamm impression, collecting the ball just on the attacking side of midfield, charging in on goal, beating one defender and then another before getting in one-on-one with the goalkeeper and beating her to put the ball into an open net.

The Maryland Capitols, meanwhile, had managed to earn a succession of corner kicks, pretty much all of which were cleared by the All-Stars’ professional-caliber defenders. That changed in the 66th minute as a corner kick ball came to Ali Andrzejewski, who fired the ball through a crowd and into the net to get one back for the home team.

Ali (Andrzejewski) and Allie (Long) battle for the ball while Joanna Lohman looks on. (Ken Harriford)

Four minutes later the All-Stars Tiffany Gales – off the Capitols U-23 roster – scored the final goal from about fifteen yards out to make the score 5-1. After that, the visitors just started playing with their lineup: Cat Whitehill played some d-mid, Nikki Marshall moved up top back to her college role as a striker, while attacking midfielder Caitlin Miskel played some flank defender.

Even when the final whistle blew, the evening was far from over. Becky and Lori had been signing autographs for the entire second half and continued to do so. Meanwhile, the players signed some autographs from the sidelines, then went inside, cleaned up, and sat down so that any fan who’d paid a slight premium could get autographs and photos with them. Beyond that, there was a post-match get-together at a local restaurant. I stopped by there briefly, but by then it was after 11 pm. I was tired and ready to go home, and apparently most of the players felt the same way as only a few of them were in evidence.

Fans line up after the match for autographs

All in all, the event was a great success. The fans clearly had a great time, and the players talked about what an amazing experience it had been with all the talent on the field and the sidelines. Mark Washo hadn’t made a final tally of how much he’d raised for the Michael Washo Art from the Heart Foundation, but given the attendance and the concessions, he was very pleased. He also had some thoughts – as the former general manager of the Washington Freedom – on a women’s professional soccer league:

Just do the math. You know what the sponsorship is. You know what the ticket sales will be. Get your revenue down and then work your expenses out that way. If the players are willing to be flexible and creative on their salaries, which they are. I’ve had everyone sitting in my office, including Abby, saying “I will play for x if that means this thing will survive.” And it absolutely could work. The right markets, the right venues – like this – and that’s it. The problem is, you try to go too big, you think it’s going to be bigger than what it is. It’s not going to be there. You can make it work. And there’s nothing more popular in the US than the women’s national team. How can you not translate that into a professional league? It can be done.

Most of us, of course, would love to see a professional league return. I also think that just about everyone involved with this event would be delighted to see the event become as much a part of the local soccer landscape as the traditional spring Kicks Against Breast Cancer/Headers for Hope tournament.

Three Olympic gold medallists (medal included) and me

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