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My Challenge to D.C. United Fans

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Nine years ago, with the glow of the 1999 World Cup still shining on women's soccer, 36,528 fans attended an RFK Stadium doubleheader -- the WUSA's Washington Freedom against the Boston Breakers, then MLS's D.C. United against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Much of the crowd didn't stick around for four hours of soccer, but the overlap was considerable.

The Freedom staff felt compelled to count the crowd by halftime of its own game, coming up with 21,682. By game's end, the number had swelled with United fans catching the end of the Freedom game, creating a festive atmosphere with the United faithful's drums and chants adding some rhythm and volume to the crowd.

On Saturday, the Washington Freedom will play another doubleheader with D.C. United. Last year, the crowds were a lot less festive. This year, the Freedom will play second rather than first.

On Twitter this week, I challenged D.C. United fans to answer the question of whether true soccer fans would stay put for the second game. The typical response: We're D.C. United supporters, not Washington Freedom supporters.

What changed?

First, the overly ambitious WUSA didn't last, though the Freedom managed to stick around in exhibitions and the amateur W-League until another pro league, Women's Professional Soccer, launched last year.

The Freedom returned to the pro ranks playing most of their league games in the economical but distant Maryland SoccerPlex rather than aging RFK. They teamed up with United for three doubleheaders last year, but most of the fans in United's biggest supporters groups, Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, stuck with their pregame tailgates.

Nothing wrong with the tailgates, which have to be ranked among Washington's best social gatherings. The gatherings are actually social, not just an opportunity for young lobbyists-in-training to network. But this year, the order is reversed, so no one will miss pregame festivities by sticking around for the women's game.

Should D.C. United fans feel obliged to support the local women's team when there's no reason -- no extra money, no extra transportation, nothing else to do -- not to do so?

Peter Wilt, a pioneering executive in MLS and WPS, doesn't think fans lose soccer cred if they like one and not the other.

"I really try hard not to define 'true fans'," Wilt says. "Like NBA or college BB, WPS isn't for everybody. I like the passing and ability to see formation."

Soccer fans can be pickier these days. Fifteen years ago, fans took any chance to see a ball being kicked, whether it was the U.S. women's team, a local semi-pro team or an indoor team. They also caught whatever soccer they could find on TV -- rare broadcasts from Europe or Mexican soccer on the budding Spanish networks. (Little wonder Andres Cantor's "gooooooooaaalll" call became so famous in those days.)

Today, fans have two all-soccer networks beaming a constant stream from Europe and Latin America. Much more is available online.

And over that time, women's soccer hit a valley from which it's still emerging.

After the 1999 World Cup, the players had the power and popular support to challenge inequities in salary. In his book "The Girls of Summer," The New York Times' Jere Longman relayed a comment from Bob Contiguglia that the then-U.S. Soccer president didn't "see the WNBA players asking for the same salaries as the NBA players." Snorted Longman in response: "In the case of soccer, however, the women are the NBA."

When Mia Hamm was making ads with Michael Jordan and the U.S. women were drawing big crowds, that may have seemed to be the case. The reality is that America's attention span proved brief. The hastily organized 2003 World Cup, moved to the USA while China dealt with the SARS scare, drew reasonably large crowds, as did exhibitions before and after the Hamm generation went out with gold in the 2004 Olympics. Five-figure crowds have been scarce since.

WPS set more reasonable goals. Commissioner Tonya Antonucci speaks less about grandiose dreams and more about the business realities of carving out a small but comfortable niche. And the league came into 2010 poised to beat the sophomore slump that faces most start-ups, with increases in season-ticket sales and large growth in sponsorship.

Best of all for soccer fans, the game is better in WPS than it was in the WUSA.

The game is better worldwide -- the USA's 2008 Olympic victory was an underrated accomplishment given the growth of the competition. Even on limited budgets, WPS has lured away most foreign stars even as European leagues are better able to offer comfortable lifestyles. The world's best player, skillful Brazilian Marta, is here for the second year.

The U.S. stars are just as charismatic as they were in 1999. Cat Whitehill, Kate Markgraf and the ageless Kristine Lilly are among the well-spoken role models families love to see, and they all stick around to sign autographs after games. For a different demographic, though she's also friendly to tweens and teens who want to follow in her footsteps in soccer, Heather Mitts was ESPN Page 2's Hottest Athlete of the Year in 2004.

Brandi Chastain, who graced many a magazine cover after her shirtless celebration of the winning kick in 1999, played last season in WPS. She's also an MLS season-ticket holder.

"I think if you are passionate about the game, it shouldn't matter if it is men's or women, they are D.C. teams," Chastain says. "I would ask MLS fans to stay because they may be pleasantly surprised, and what could it hurt? They already bought the ticket."

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