It was worth the struggle
Former Red Stars players are thrilled to see NWSL’s upward trajectory
When former Red Stars defender Michelle Lomnicki heard that the NWSL was expanding to Los Angeles with the Angel City ownership group, founded by some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, including Serena Williams and Natalie Portman, she was stunned.
Lomnicki, a member of the Red Stars during the inaugural NWSL season in 2013, immediately jumped into a group text with some of her former teammates.
“This is so badass,” one former player said. “I can’t believe it,” someone else typed. “Look at this group of female founders,” was another message exchanged among this group of pro soccer’s founding women.
The NWSL, in its eighth season, owes a lot to the athletes who were part of the first women’s pro soccer leagues in the United States.
The truth is, many of them never envisioned the heights that the NWSL is reaching because their careers were in a constant state of flux. Will there be a league next season? Where will the team train? What side job can sustain a pro soccer career?
These were all questions on the minds of players, some of whom weren’t making more than $6,000 in a season, Lomnicki said.
“I loved playing soccer,” said Julianne Sitch, a Red Stars assistant coach and former defender in 2010, 2012 and 2013-14. “But it was hard to train on your own not knowing if the league was going to come back around. I know myself and a lot of players that I played with, we were fighting for that younger generation.”
Jackie Santacaterina-Manny, a defender with the Red Stars from 2010 to 2014, questioned several times if it was worth continuing her pro soccer career.
Santacaterina-Manny recalls one moment during a monthlong trip to Ghana. She was ready to hang up her cleats for good, unsure of whether there would be a season in 2012. But on a chance visit to the Red Stars’ website, she saw a post with her picture that read, “The Red Stars are back!” Shortly afterward, Santacaterina-Manny was on the phone with coach Rory Dames, who convinced her that she had to come back and play another year.
That was the reality for players just a few short years ago. Playing professional soccer meant giving every ounce of their physical and mental being, not knowing what the return would be.
Before the NWSL was established in the fall of 2012, players saw both women’s pro leagues fold in a 10-year span, the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2003 and Women’s Professional Soccer in 2012.
“When 2013 came around, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the NWSL, but also we went into it going, ‘Gosh, I hope this lasts,’ ’’ former U.S. national team player and ex-Red Stars midfielder Leslie Osbourne said.
The NWSL hasn’t just lasted, it’s building on the foundation laid by players such as Lomnicki, Sitch, Santacaterina-Manny and Osbourne and the two leagues that preceded it.
The league announced advancements to its compensation guidelines at the end of last year that included a 19.33% increase to the salary cap, housing for players under contract and the introduction of allocation money. Specific organizations, including the Red Stars, have made substantial improvements to childcare for athletes, and the NWSL Players Association, founded in 2017, is proving to be of vital importance.
There are still improvements to be made. The NWSL’s minimum salary is only $20,000, and despite the league’s multiyear broadcast deal with CBS, the Challenge Cup, which will feature the Red Stars and Houston Dash in the final Sunday, only had two games air on national TV.
Still, nothing shows the promise of this league’s future quite like the expansion of it. The Angel City group will join the league in 2022 after the addition of Racing Louisville
‘‘I know myself and a lot of players that I played with, we were fighting for that younger generation.’’ Julianne Sitch, Red Stars assistant coach and former defender
FC in 2021.
“Now I know we fought for something,” Lomnicki said. “We fought for something that was so important, and it’s still here.” ✶
Julianne Sitch played when the women’s pro game was in a precarious state.
Leslie Osbourne was a Red Stars midfielder.