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Tales from a team long past: blue in Boston

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RIP Boston Breakers and blue smoke.

SOCCER: MAY 19 NWSL - Portland Thorns FC at Boston Breakers Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Boston Breakers have been gone for a little over two years by now, folding in the face of an ownership group that wanted out. The players have moved on, scattered throughout the league, or retired. The fans have moved on in varying degrees too; some have found new teams to support, while others have taken a break from NWSL, still too hurt to find any relief in the game. With league action on hold, perhaps even canceled, we’re doing the modern equivalent of leafing through photo albums, finally opening picture folders we swore we’d organize one day, but instead uploaded and then left untouched on hard drives until a global crisis forced us to be inside with our own thoughts all the time. We’re all stuck indoors, trying to find ways to occupy ourselves, desperate not to be left in silence. We’re turning to memories for comfort and for morale. Everyone can have a little escapism, as a treat. Although, given the subject of this dive, it may not be an escape so much as a maudlin exercise in nostalgia.

Players warm up before a preseason game against Harvard
Stephanie Yang

Things felt different in 2013 and ‘14, which is when most of these photos were taken. The league was a baby and the Breakers were definitely small potatoes, at least in terms of their operation; they started out that first year in the painfully municipal Dilboy Stadium in Somerville, where the grounds crew would yell at everyone to get off the track and Karina Leblanc once brazenly climbed over their prized shrubbery to get into the stands to sign autographs and take pictures.

Players warm up before a 2013 game against the Portland Thorns
Stephanie Yang

But there was such a strong history behind the name - every game they would unfurl huge banners commemorating veteran players Maren Meinert, Angela Hucles, and Leslie Osborne - and heavyweights like Heather O’Reilly and Sydney Leroux had been allocated. The team had a nice cast of characters from the jump; Canadians Carmelina Moscato and Rhian Wilkinson joined veterans Kia McNeill and Cat Whitehill in defense, and a young Alyssa Naeher was enlisted as a backup for Ashley Phillips, although she quickly became the team’s rock and an incredible fan favorite for her stoic, dignified endurance in net even as the performance on the field in front of her collapsed game after game. Lianne Sanderson was sometimes the fans’ only hope of a goal, all of us anxiously tracking her bright blonde hair weaving through the attacking third. And of course, local kid Kristie Mewis, at the time the only Mewis playing pro soccer while her sister finished up at UCLA.

Heather O’Reilly, Alyssa Naeher, and Kristie Mewis at the 2014 Boston Breakers jersey reveal
Stephanie Yang
Kristie Mewis and Lianne Sanderson warm up before a 2014 game against the Chicago Red Stars
Stephanie Yang

Then they moved to Harvard Stadium, where they’d played in WPS. It was a cavernous ring of tiered concrete seats, where the athletically inclined locals would run stair sprints when not in use. There was also a random mascot uniform from time to time. The mascot was not long-lived.

A mascot sells programs at a 2014 Breakers game against the Houston Dash
Stephanie Yang

Eventually, the team moved to Harvard’s soccer-specific Jordan field, a venue fine for NCAA Ivy League conference games, but strained to the seams by the demands of a fully professional team.

The press box at Jordan Field really was a box. It was essentially the size of a shipping container, with a ladder dropped into the middle of it to access the roof hatch, where the camera people could climb up. The best place to watch games as media was actually outside on either side of the box, where there was a broad concrete wall with enough space for a laptop, notebook, and camera. To my right would be the Breakers player bench; to my left, the Armada section, where you could see banners, flags, and, if the team was particularly firing on all cylinders, roiling blue smoke after goals. There was a sweet spot between spring and full-blast summer, when it was very fine outside, and it was no work at all to stand out there for 90 minutes under a big blue sky.

But probably what I liked most was going to preseason games. These were often open to the public, and the Breakers would play the local universities: Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, UConn.

Head coach Tom Durkin instructs the team at halftime of a preseason game against Boston College
Stephanie Yang
Heather O’Reilly and Katie Schoepfer warm up before a 2013 game against Boston College
Stephanie Yang

March preseason in Boston meant bitter cold and dirty piles of crusted slush heaped up at the ends of fields. More often than not it was raining. Gloves, tights, beanies, and snoods were necessities. Come February, I would always stock up on hand warmers to stuff inside my pockets. One preseason game, two married Armada fans brought a huge thermos of hot chocolate to share and we all huddled in the metal stands. I remember one game where a friend let me sit in her car during halftime, the two of us desperately trying to bring our core body temps up, envious that the players at least got to run to stay warm. Some players, particularly Australians who hailed from much warmer climes, did not appreciate the unique wonders of a Boston winter.

Lianne Sanderson wipes rain from face during a preseason scrimmage against Boston College
Stephanie Yang
Lisa DeVanna prepares for a preseason game
Stephanie Yang

At one preseason game in 2014, the Breakers were playing Northeastern, whose field is surrounded by residential buildings. At 9 PM sharp, the big lights abruptly shut off in the middle of play; no warning, just sudden darkness, save for maybe a couple of pole lights scattered around. Everyone paused in their tracks, wondering if it was a sudden outage - but no, it was the homes around us. The word was the university shut the lights off at 9 PM as a courtesy to their neighbors. We all packed up in the dark and left, game unfinished.

The northeast is also a decent place to keep an eye on youth soccer, particularly thanks to the ACC. I got to see Kristie Mewis and Tierna Davidson when they were still highly-rated college prospects, and as the Breakers were cordial enough for preseason games with their Harvard hosts, a young freshman named Midge Purce, seen below just sneaking into the frame.

Joanna Lohman and Midge Purce face off in a preseason scrimmage between the Boston Breakers and Harvard
Stephanie Yang

I’ve never had a scout’s keen eye, but even if I did, could I have predicted the trajectories of these two players? Lohman, perhaps; she always seemed destined for a long, if journeyman-like career for her value as a dependable, hardworking midfielder. Purce, now at Sky Blue, with a stop at the Portland Thorns along the way - absolutely not. That’s not a judgment of her skill, which was and is prodigious, but an acknowledgment that the league simply took a lot of wild left turns, the players all tumbling along in the turbulent aftermath.

Former Breakers player Kia McNeill and captain Cat Whitehill hug after a preseason scrimmage against Boston College
Stephanie Yang

Here we are in 2020, long enough to see Breakers fans grow up, or get married, or move away. Sometimes we get a whiff of an old scent; someone in the league will mention that they think Boston is still a good market, or expansion rumors will grasp at finding another team to stuff in there. We all have a lot of time to fantasize right now. On that note, any Massachusetts millionaires out there, feel free to slide into our DMs.