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The casual sports fan likely shrugged off the recent news that the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) has decided to suspend operations.
To him, the decision was probably just another reminder of how difficult it is to sustain a professional sports league. The WUSA failed, just as the North American Soccer League, the United States Football League and the American Basketball League had done before it.
But for at least one Harvard soccer player, it meant much more.
Given the opportunity, senior midfielder Katie Westfall had intended to continue her illustrious soccer career in the WUSA next year.
Now she must face the daunting notion that the current season will likely be her last.
Thinking ahead to graduation, Westfall noted that a few of last year’s seniors have already come back and warned the current crop about how much they are going to miss soccer.
“They told us to take advantage of it,” Westfall said. “I think it’s going to be one of those things that we won’t appreciate as much until it’s gone.”
Westfall has been playing soccer since she was eight years old. Growing up with five brothers in Johnsburg, Ill.—an area with few other talented female soccer players—she honed her skills playing on men’s teams and in leagues with women much older than her.
When it came time for her to choose a college, Westfall initially planned to follow a family tradition and attend Notre Dame, but she visited Harvard with a friend and became enamored with it.
“I knew that if I got into here, this is where I wanted to go,” she said.
Westfall quickly made her mark for the Crimson, racking up six goals and six assists as a freshman on her way to the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award. She also was named First-Team All-Ivy, which has become somewhat of a tradition for Westfall—she’s been named First-Team in each of her three seasons at Harvard.
As a sophomore, Westfall was also a Third-Team All-American and First-Team All-Northeast selection. She was named Third-Team All-Northeast last year.
Through six games this year, she has recorded two assists while firing a team-high thirteen shots on goal.
Westfall did not initially consider playing in the WUSA, but she found herself checking the league website and watching the Boston Breakers more often as her career progressed.
“I was attracted to the lifestyle of it,” she said. “I decided it was something I wanted to focus on.”
Westfall hoped to be drafted into the WUSA or, barring that, go to an open tryout. Her plan was to play for three or four years and then pursue a career in sports law, provided that the WUSA did not ultimately prove to be a springboard to the U.S. National Team—an occurrence that she did not expect but optimistically did not want to rule out.
Now, the only way that Westfall can play professional soccer next year is by traveling overseas. She has friends playing in leagues in Germany, France and Ireland, but she has little desire to pursue a similar path.
“There’s no purpose, really,” she said. “The highest level [of competition] would have been in the U.S.”
The WUSA suspended operations on Sept. 15, citing insufficient revenue to play a fourth year. Attendance had declined 17.9% since the league’s inaugural season, falling from an average of 8,116 in 2001 to just 6,667 fans per game this year. To Westfall, the struggle to draw crowds to games reflects women’s soccer’s prolonged battle to establish itself in the United States.
“I couldn’t imagine my mom going to games,” said Westfall. “But fifteen years from now, when our generation becomes parents? Maybe it will sustain a bit better.”
“I think [the failure of the WUSA] is certainly a setback for women’s soccer and for women’s sports in general,” co-captain Katie Hodel, who is also a Crimson editor, wrote in an e-mail. “I know growing up I would’ve loved to have had professional women players as role models and I think the league provided that for a lot of young girls.”
Still, all hope is not lost. The day after the WUSA folded, the Boston Globe quoted Chairman of the WUSA Board of Governors John Hendricks as saying, “There is a glimmer of hope that during the next few months the phones will ring. It might be a communications company, a sports apparel company, a beverage company who might respond, and they might say, `Keep this alive. Is there a way to resurrect it?’”
But for now, seniors like Westfall must prepare themselves for the impending reality of life without soccer.
Westfall, a history concentrator, is planning to take the LSAT in December and start her sports law career a bit earlier than expected. But she intends to keep competition as part of her life, even without soccer.
For the moment, though, Westfall is simply trying to make the most of her last season at Harvard and bring home an Ivy League championship with a team that she considers the best Harvard has fielded in her four years here.
“With every minute that goes by, it’s the last time we do something,” she said. “It’s our last year.”
Even most casual sports fans would agree, that’s a shame.
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