by John Philip Wyllie
The fledgling women's professional soccer league or WUSA as it is known, brought its inaugural 2001 season to a climatic close on Saturday with a highly entertaining match featuring the Bay Area CyberRays and the Atlanta Beat at Foxboro Stadium outside of Boston. Among those CyberRays receiving congratulations after their come from behind victory, one ultimately decided by penalty kicks, where a pair of stalwart defenders from the Mexican national team, Gina Oceguera and Lisa Nanez.
"Games like this (and the '99 Women's World Cup) are wonderful. We are playing in front of such large crowds," said Nanez who remembers toiling in total obscurity just a few years ago. While Nanez started 12 games for the CyberRays and played in seven others, she was on the bench offering vocal support for the final.
"Whether I'm starting or coming in off the bench, I'm glad just to be on this team," said Nanez displaying her team-first attitude. "I trust what (coach) Ian (Sawyers) is doing with the lineup and I think we have one of the best defenses in the league." While Nanez was correct about the CyberRay defense for most of the season, neither the Bay Area or Atlanta had great defensive days in the final which saw an avalanche of six goals (3-3) in a deadlocked regulation time and six others scored in the penalty kick phase.
Though no defensive gem for either side, the game could not have been more entertaining.
Sawyers, selected as the WUSA Coach of the Year did a masterful job of leading his team out of the league cellar which they occupied on May 27, and guiding them all the way to the to the league's first championship. He also resurrected the career of Nanez's long-time friend, Gina Oceguera.
Oceguera languished on the San Diego Spirit bench for most of the first two months of the season and was ultimately released on July 1. When Sawyers claimed her a short time later, he gave her WUSA career a new lease on life.
When an injury to defender Dianne Alagich pressed Oceguera into service, she finally got the opportunity to show the skills that made her one of Mexico's defensive leaders.
"It's wonderful to now have Gina on our team," Nanez said of Oceguera who started and played the entire game for the CyberRays. In addition to effectively battling against the top trio of attacking players in the league: Charmaine Hooper, Sun Wen and Cindy Parlow, Oceguera nearly scored from the right flank while attacking goalkeeper Briana Scurry one on one.
Both Nanez and Oceguera grew up in the Bay Area. For them to play professional soccer near their home towns with a childhood friend as a teammate is about as good as it gets in professional sports. And now they also have a championship to savor.
Naturally thrilled with winning it Oceguera adds, "learning a new position and playing with great players from around the world like Sissi, Katia and (game MVP) Julie Murray has been awesome. So has learning to be a professional and learning how to better play the game." With a bright future in professional soccer ahead of them Nanez and Oceguera can hardly wait for league play to resume next April.