It was worth the strug­gle

Former Red Stars play­ers are thrilled to see NWSL’s up­ward tra­jec­tory

Chicago Sun-Times - - RED STARS BEAT - BY AN­NIE COSTABILE acosta­bile@sun­times.com @an­niecosta­bile

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.” ✶

RED STARS

Ju­lianne Sitch played when the women’s pro game was in a pre­car­i­ous state.

RED STARS

Les­lie Os­bourne was a Red Stars mid­fielder.

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