Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Boston Breakers Women's Soccer Team to Play at Harvard Stadium Next Year

The new Women's Pro Soccer league will open play in April 2009 with eight teams, including the latest incarnation of the Boston Breakers. The WPS is the professional women's soccer league follow-up to the WUSA league that folded in 2003 after three seasons of play.

The Breakers recently announced that they will be playing their games at Harvard Stadium in North Allston -- not Nickerson Field at Boston University where they played during the league's previous incarnation.

While the WUSA and its teams were a single business entity, the new league has been developed under the franchise model where each team is independently owned. The Breakers team has five owners -- Michael Stoller (Managing Partner), Gary Loveman, Bill Helman, and Lyman Bullard, all of Massachusetts, and Louis Hernandez of Connecticut.

Now cover your ears... Boston-area tween girls might start screaming because of the possibility that Kristine Lilly -- a star on the last Breakers team and a long-time player for the U. S. Women's National Team -- could return to play for the new Breakers.

"I am very excited about the league coming back," wrote Lilly in response to an email query. "I plan on returning to play in the league after I have my baby" later this summer. The team would be thrilled to have her on its roster, too, said Joe Cummings, General Manager and President of the Breakers (who was also General Manager of the team during the WUSA years).


Move From Nickerson Field to Harvard Stadium

The main reason the Breakers organization decided to move from BU's Nickerson Field to Harvard Stadium was to accommodate somewhat larger crowds, according to Cummings.

Cummings said that some of Nickerson Field's seating was old and crowded, limiting practical attendance to less than 7000. There were a few games during the WUSA years where the attendance stretched that capacity, so the move to a larger stadium was considered necessary. Harvard Stadium can accommodate more than 30,000.

The WPS league's business plan is targeting attendance of 4000 per game across the entire league, but Cummings thinks that the Breakers may see crowds averaging closer to 6000 per game in Boston based on their WUSA history -- with an occasional game reaching 10,000-12,000. (This contradicts the Cambridge Chronicle's story, which reported that the Breakers are hoping for attendance of 10,000-12,000 per game based on their WUSA experience.)

The WUSA's average attendance started strong due to the interest from the 1999 Women's World Cup Final, but then dropped its average from 8000 in 2001 to 6700 in 2003. (Note that these average figures can be inflated significantly over the median by a small number of games that are double-headers with Major League Soccer or national/international teams.)

Harvard Stadium was built in 1903 and is registered as a National Historic Landmark. "I think it has a lot of history," wrote Lilly, noting that she thinks it can still be made into an "intimate atmosphere" for the typically smaller soccer crowds.

The stadium was overhauled in 2006 to replace the natural turf with an artificial surface and to add lights to allow nighttime play. The "FieldTurf" surface is similar to the current surface at Nickerson Field that was installed around 2001.

Wouldn't the soccer team and players prefer to play on grass? "Yes, we would," Cummings said, but noted that the March 1 start of their training season makes grass play difficult in New England. Professional soccer players generally overwhelmingly prefer natural grass to artificial turf; 12 of 14 teams in Major League Soccer play on grass.

The team does not yet have an arrangement for a site to hold their practices, but they are currently in discussions with Harvard over the possibility of using a combination of Harvard Stadium -- which is usable year-round because it is covered with an all-weather bubble during the winter months -- and surrounding grass playing fields. Practice times are usually 10 am - noon, which does not conflict with student varsity or intramural sports.


Night Games, Parking, and Transportation

The Breakers will be playing ten or eleven home games per year at Harvard Stadium, of which seven or eight are expected to be night games. The Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse play their seven home games at Harvard Stadium, all of which are night games.

Harvard scheduled its first night football game at the stadium in September 2007 against Brown, which caused an uproar both among the neighborhood (whom Harvard had promised to notify well in advance of the event, but did not do so) and on campus (because the date conflicted with a Jewish religious holiday). Harvard postponed that game by a day to avoid the religious conflict. Harvard's behavior led some in the neighborhood to feel "insulted".

Part of the Breakers' agreement with Harvard provides for on-site parking using Harvard's existing lots, which will be at an expected cost of $10. Cummings said that the overall WUSA experience was for an average of one car per 3.5 attendees -- which would imply the requirement of 1700 cars for an average attendance of 6000 -- but that on-site parking at BU never exceeded 1000 cars. Harvard currently has approximatley three thousand parking spaces in North Allston, according to their institutional master plan notification form filed in January 2007, although some of that parking is used at night and on weekends by residents of the graduate student and Harvard Business School housing in North Allston.

Mass transit is a one-mile half-mile walk to Harvard Stadium from the Harvard Square station on the Red Line -- a clear step down from Nickerson Field which sits along the Green Line's B Branch. A number of bus routes (66, 86, and 70) serve the Harvard Stadium area.


Boston as a Baseball Basketball Football Hockey Soccer Town?

When people think of Boston as a sports town, professional soccer is not usually the sport that first comes to mind.

Harvard Stadium hosted a number of early-round soccer games in the 1984 Olympics, World Cup and Women's World Cup Final games, as well as qualifiers, have been played regularly at Foxborough -- also the location of the home stadium for the New England Revolution since their first game in 1996. And the Breakers led the WUSA in attendance in 2002.

"Over the past six years [we've] seen a real shift to soccer" in Boston, said Cummings. He noted that Boston's strong trends in an immigrant population make it more of an international city that will support professional soccer.

"Playing for the Breakers in the WUSA was amazing," wrote Lilly. "I enjoyed myself and our organization was great. We had great crowds and the support from the community was good. I think we can get more of the community involved with the new league and give young girls their dream back."


Possible Return of Kristine Lilly to the Breakers?

Later in 2008 the WPS expects to run its veteran player allocation and draft in order to populate the rosters of the eight teams.

One favorite to return to the Breakers' lineup would be midfielder Kristine Lilly -- former captain and 20-year veteran of the women's national team, record-holder for the most international minutes played, and boasting an astonishing 340 caps (games played). She wants to return to soccer in 2009 -- after she has a baby later this summer -- and the Breakers are definitely interested in the possibility of acquiring her, according to Cummings.

Another player who might return from the WUSA Breakers days is goalie Karina LeBlanc, who was born in Atlanta but plays for Canada's national team.

Two former Breakers players who are unlikely to return, however, are forwards Maren Meinert and Dagny Mellgren. Meinert was named the WUSA's Most Valuable Player in 2003, but has retired from playing in order to coach in Germany. Norwegian Mellgren scored the goal that won the gold medal for Norway at the 2000 Olympics, but retired in 2005.

Former Breakers coach Pia Sundhage is currently coaching the U. S. Women's National Team while they prepare for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. Former WNT coach Tony DiCicco will instead be coaching the Breakers when they return to play.

Given soccer's popularity amongst the country's youth, it is not surprising that the Breakers already have MySpace (music: Dropkick Murphys, of course) and Facebook pages, and the WPS has a YouTube page.

The Breakers have a partnership with the Boston Renegades, an amateur soccer team part of the W-League of the USL, to put on youth camps and clinics. The Renegades play their games at Framingham's Bowditch Stadium. The W-League's regular season started May 10 and continues through July 20.


Image of a soccer ball by jbelluch and of Harvard Stadium by daviddumas provided through a Creative Commons license. Image of Kristine Lilly from http://www.kristinelilly13.com/.

1 comment:

JonT said...

I make out the distance from Harvard Square to Harvard Stadium to be more like half a mile, or a 10-minute walk.