Even as women’s soccer surges in popularity nationally, the game’s Greater Boston community struggles to make up for the loss of its pro team
The United States women’s national soccer team enjoyed record-setting viewership and unprecedented support during this year’s World Cup, drawing millions of fans worldwide and sparking a renewed interest in the sport internationally. But this resurgence comes one year too late for the Hub, which lost its professional women’s soccer team, the Boston Breakers, in January 2018.
The Breakers were the longest-running professional women’s soccer team in the country before folding last year after a buyer pulled out at the last minute. The team played in four different leagues beginning in 2001, finally landing in the National Women’s Soccer League, America’s longest-running professional league, in 2012. Now, the NWSL has contracted to nine teams, and future expansion plans don’t seem to include Boston.
“Unequivocally, it is unfortunate to have a league really succeeding and growing and doing amazing work across this country without the Boston Breakers,” said Greta Teller, former marketing manager for the team. “I think now more than ever is a great opportunity, a great time to see the Boston Breakers return to Boston.”
The loss of the Breakers impacts not only Boston, of course, but all of New England, which is now without a women’s professional soccer team for the first time since 2006.
In their five seasons with the NWSL, the Breakers didn’t have a strong record, placing last or close to last almost every year. But the players served as local role models and heroes for a generation of young athletes who were able to grow up watching the likes of Rose Lavelle, Kristine Lilly, Sydney Leroux, or Alyssa Naeher play for their home team.
“I think being able to have that accessibility is incredible for boys and girls,” Teller said. “Being able to go and see the world’s best play right there in your backyard is incredibly powerful.”
Players were also involved in the community—giving talks, serving as coaches in youth leagues, and providing representation for a youth soccer population that is increasingly dominated by girls.
“I remember when we would take girls, you know, a couple times we took a group of kids to the Breakers games. And I just remember the looks on the girls’ faces. … I mean … for them to see this amazing athlete on the field that looks like them … you can imagine yourself doing that,” said Caroline Foscato, co-founder and president of South End Soccer.
There are still many opportunities for recreational players in the Boston area, from youth leagues to club teams and adult tournaments. But for young players who are interested in being more than just casual participants, having a pro women’s soccer team is an important resource.
“In order for the sport to grow, young players need to see people and players who look like them, making a career out of the game they love,” said Morgan Andrews, a former Breakers player and current Reign FC player in Washington state. “Having a hometown team for younger players allows them to connect and relate to the players and the league itself.”
There’s no time like the present to bring a team back to Boston. NWSL attendance increased by 53% from 2018 following this year’s World Cup, and the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars both hosted their largest crowds ever. The league recently signed a multiyear sponsorship deal with Budweiser, and ESPN announced that it will be broadcasting 14 league games this season.
“I would say if there’s any moment to bring back a women’s professional team in Boston, this would be a great moment, because there’s definitely an energy around that,” Foscato said.
Some saw the Breakers folding as a sign that the NWSL was unstable. But a shrinking league is not unprecedented; in 2002, six years after the US men’s professional soccer league, Major League Soccer, launched, two of its teams folded, leaving only 10. Now, the MLS boasts 24 teams and is in a stable position to expand to 30 teams in the near future.
At the time of the Breakers’ folding, NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy said the loss was “in the best interest for the long-term viability of the NWSL” and was necessary to create a stronger league. Part of that meant targeted expansion, with plans to add more teams over the next three seasons. But with the loss of the Breakers still fresh, it’s possible the NWSL would forgo reviving a franchise around here in favor of an untested market elsewhere. Yet local soccer coaches and players are confident that Boston deserves a new team.
“I think there’s too large a foundation of youth soccer and girls’ soccer in Massachusetts and New England for this not to be a location for another franchise,” said Caryn Goulet, president of Beyond Tops Soccer and board member of Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association and Middlesex Youth Soccer League.
Even if Boston were to welcome a new professional club, there would be work to do. The Breakers had significantly low attendance in their final seasons at Jordan Field, a Harvard University facility with limited seating. For a new franchise to be successful, owners may have to get creative.
“It’s a little bit of the existence of the team, a little bit of location … a little bit of encouragement from a local level, and parents and coaches and generous families, a little bit of social media and regular promotion, and a little bit of who’s on the team,” Goulet explained.
One of the best hopes for a new Boston professional women’s team would also come in the form of a partnership with New England’s MLS team, the New England Revolution, according to Goulet. Four NWSL teams currently have partnerships with local MLS teams and are able to use the men’s resources and field space to garner larger audiences.
“I have a 99.9% level of confidence that Boston will be home to a new professional women’s franchise again in the near future. It would be best if that could be somehow related to the [New England Revolution] in the ownership,” Goulet added.
Another draw could be finding more world-renowned players and bringing back adored Boston soccer alums such as Rose Lavelle or Alyssa Naeher. Foscato suggested building more of a festival-like mood at games, with half-time performers or beer gardens, and creating an atmosphere similar to that of New England Revolution matches.
In the end, it all comes down to whether or not the NWSL will consider it worth the risk to return to Boston. But players and coaches alike are adamant that the interest, if not the infrastructure, is there.
“I would say there’s a lot of people that are watching the game, loving the game, playing the game … at all ages,” Foscato said. “It would be an amazing opportunity for the city and the citizens and the sport of soccer to have a professional women’s team back.”