By Chris Brookes
We may be into the second season of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), but reminders of Boston Breakers standouts of yesteryear remain proudly on show at Harvard Stadium. Three members of the original Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) Breakers have pride of place in the organization’s ‘Pillars of Excellence’. Banners of ex-Germany star Maren Meinert, all-time leading international soccer appearance maker Kristine Lilly, and two-time Olympic Gold medallist Angela Hucles can be seen prominently at every home game.
Soccer moves on so quickly in numerous respects, but those who made a true impact are never forgotten. Following the U.S. Women’s National Team’s dramatic victory on home soil in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the world’s very first professional women’s league was established in 2000. The WUSA began play in 2001 and ran for three seasons until 2003 before ultimately being succeeded by Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) from 2009 to 2011.
Angela Hucles in a 2009 WPS game vs. Washington
Angela Hucles would represent the re-established Breakers in WPS after three memorable WUSA years, the latter of which saw her named to the All-WUSA second team. For the U.S. Women’s National Team, the midfielder won 109 caps, scoring 13 goals, and winning gold in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Approaching the first WUSA season, Angela was chosen in the 12th round of the inaugural draft as a 22-year-old. The Breakers were coached by Jay Hoffman at the time, and Meinert’s goal gave the team victory in its first-ever league match, against the Carolina Courage. Before WUSA action had officially got underway though, Angela had already written her name into Breakers folklore.
“My first-ever goal with the Breakers apparently stands as the first-ever goal in Breakers history,” Hucles said. “It was actually in a preseason match, and we played college teams in North Carolina leading up to the first season of the WUSA.
“Is it bad that I don't remember the actual details of the goal itself?! I do remember being excited that I scored a goal.”
In 2001, Boston played at Nickerson Field and finished sixth out of the division’s eight teams. The 2000 Olympic Gold-winning hero for Norway, Dagny Mellgren, led the team with 11 goals, ahead of Lilly and Meinert. Angela quickly became a mainstay in the midfield alongside the likes of U.S. international Keri Raygor and Bettina Wiegmann of Germany, playing in all 21 games, starting 19, and scoring twice.
Professional women’s soccer was of course in its infancy, and Angela describes what she came into at the very beginning of the Breakers story.
“The Boston Breakers were perceived as one of the most professional organizations in WUSA, and I believe they lived up to that perception and expectation,” she said. “We had strong leadership from the start and the very top in our first GM, Joe Cummings, and I was impressed at the level of professionalism that was displayed and the expectations of everyone from the staff to the players.”
The second season brought the same final position of sixth, but the Breakers had the highest attendance in the league to enjoy. The Bay Area CyberRays had taken the inaugural WUSA crown, and it was the Carolina Courage who were champions in 2002. The Courage had legendary Norwegian talent Hege Riise in their armoury, and Angela, who scored three and added four assists for Boston in 2002, names Riise as perhaps the best she faced in WUSA.
“She was towards the end of her professional career as a player when WUSA began, but was one of the smartest and craftiest players and so difficult to mark in the midfield because of it,” she said. “She knew how to make a great defensive play, distribute the ball, and find herself in a position to score a goal or create one all in the same play.
“I always had a lot of respect for her as a player and was lucky enough to have her as an assistant coach on the U.S. Women’s National Team when Pia (Sundhage) was the head coach. I enjoyed her perspective and read on the game.”
Current Sweden head coach Pia Sundhage needs little introduction to U.S. Women’s National Team supporters after the Olympic Gold medals in 2008 and 2012 under her stewardship. Some four years before she accepted the U.S. job, however, she was 2003 WUSA Coach of the Year with the Breakers.
It was to be the third and final year of the league, but for Boston it was by some distance the most successful. A first-place finish in the regular season came before a semifinal defeat to eventual winners Washington Freedom, but it was a first appearance in the WUSA playoffs. Angela weighed in with four assists and a goal as she started each of the team’s 17 games.
A professional women’s league was not to return until 2009, and before the WPS got underway, Angela represented the Boston Renegades in 2005 and 2006. Although selected for the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, the University of Virginia Cavaliers’ all-time top scorer (59) upon graduation missed out on playing through injury.
Following gold in Athens in 2004, Angela had an outstanding 2008 Olympic tournament as the U.S. repeated the feat of four years earlier, this time in Beijing. With a group-game goal against New Zealand and the opener in the quarterfinal win over Canada, she scored a double in the 4-2 semifinal success over Japan in front of 50,937.
Current Breakers standout Heather O’Reilly was also a scorer in that game, and it set the stage for Carli Lloyd to secure gold with her extra-time clincher against Brazil. Only Cristiane (Brazil) scored more than Angela in the tournament, and she truly shone on the big stage, enjoying her finest individual moments of a great international career.
The following year saw the introduction of Women’s Professional Soccer and Angela was allocated by the National Team to Boston. With 1999 World Cup-winning U.S. coach Tony DiCicco in charge the Breakers finished just a point from the WPS playoffs in fifth.
Angela Hucles in a WPS promo ahead of the 2009 season
Among Angela’s teammates that year as she started 19 games (with two goals and an assist) were international colleagues Heather Mitts and Kristine Lilly. A two-time World Cup winner and an Olympic Gold medallist on two occasions, Lilly is truly synonymous with women’s soccer, and she was Angela’s roommate in her first U.S. senior camp.
The 352-cap former midfielder also captained Angela in her first game with the Breakers and as ‘Pillars of Excellence’ inductees, they were both given a tribute night by the organization, where their respective banners you see at Harvard Stadium today were first revealed. Tactical guidance and accomplished technical coaching counts for so much in the game, but a locker room that is truly together in pursuit of a common goal is simply priceless.
Angela pays tribute to some of those teammates who helped make her days with the Breakers so enjoyable, with an unsurprising name heading the list!
“This is my chance to give Lil the Legend (Kristine Lilly) a shout out,” Angela said. “Amazing player, captain, and person, and I feel so grateful that she was all of those things to me the first time as a professional athlete.”
“The locker room was always filled with energy,” Angela added. “Some names that come to mind with that energy and are definitely at the top of the list over the years are: Kate (Sobrero) Markgraf, Kristin Slater, Karina LeBlanc, Erin (O'Grady) Gatto, Heather Mitts, and Christine Latham.
“I can say that our Breakers’ teams got along really well and had awesome team chemistry. They all had a great sense of humor and approached life with humor at appropriate times,” Angela said. “All were great teammates, friends, and just people in general, and the humor they added to the team made for a great experience as a professional athlete, especially at some of the times when we as a team needed to make light of a serious situation or have a different perspective.”
In October 2009, Angela chose to retire from playing at just 31 years old. The decision was not related to any injury, and it gave her the opportunity to pursue her real estate interest. After going on to work for a residential company and then a commercial real estate group, she eventually chose to focus upon empowerment through sports.
The U.S. Soccer Federation’s Humanitarian of the Year in 2009, Angela has taken up motivational speaking as well as soccer commentating in the past few years. She has an anthropology degree from the University of Virginia and founded the Empowerment Through Sport Leadership Series in 2012.
ETSL is a conference for girls and adults across all sports and Angela is also Los Angeles regional director for Up2Us Sports. Up2Us teaches children life skills from sports, and Angela has been working with coaches to offer youth development to help tackle ever-relevant issues such as obesity, violence, and academic failure.
Working in the community was something she did in Boston while playing for the Breakers, as well as writing a Boston Metro women’s sports column, and trying to learn guitar! Although she is now based in Los Angeles, there is a special place in her affections for Boston and all the memories it provided the backdrop for.
“I love the city of Boston and still to this day consider it my first home-away-from-home,” she said. “I'd not spent much time there before moving and playing on the Breakers, but still have some family living in the suburbs and many friends, which always makes it nice to go back and visit.
“The main areas I would call home were Cambridge and the South End, which is where I predominantly lived during my years there. Let's be honest, as a young 20-something, I loved hanging out in the city with my teammates during some downtime, but also going to other sporting events and exploring the rich history Boston and the surrounding towns had to offer.”
With a setting she enjoyed so much, the Breakers’ chapters of Angela’s story will always be looked upon fondly by her. It was a team with which she was able to realise a childhood ambition of playing the game she loves as a career, and for that she offers unequivocal thanks.
“It may be easier to say this because it was the only organization that I played for, but the Breakers is the equivalent of my professional career,” she said. “Being drafted into the first pro league ever for women in the United States, and for the Boston Breakers, gave me my full-time professional start as a soccer player, and I will be forever grateful. I also have so much appreciation for the experience of playing with different coaches, some of the best teammates in the world, and playing in the best sports town of all time. I was able to learn and grow so much as a player and also as a person when I look back at that time.”
Angela was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player in the 2008 Peace Queen Cup as the U.S. beat Canada in the final, with her goal securing the trophy in stoppage time in Suwon. With double Olympic glory and over a century of caps for her country, she hung up her boots with her place in U.S. women’s soccer history assured.
The Boston Breakers name lives on in the NWSL, and while the current roster takes the focus, it is important to remember those who made a lasting contribution to the organization in days gone by. Angela will forever be a Breaker, but if she could go back and offer advice to herself as a teenager on her way up in the game, what would she pass on?
“If I could talk to the teenage version of myself, I would say, remember that you love the game, enjoy the moments of failure and success, work hard in games, harder in practice, and hardest on your own,” she said. “Don't compare your success to others, but strive to be the best that you can be. At the end, if you've worked hard and enjoyed the process, you'll be able to look back one day and be proud of yourself.”
Follow Chris Brookes on Twitter @chris_brookes