Because March is Women's History Month, the Major Arena Soccer League wanted to celebrate one of the pioneers of the women's game - Colette Cunningham. Cunningham made indoor soccer history when she became the first woman to record a point while playing for the Washington Warthogs in the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1995
By Michael Lewis
Mike Evans wanted to make a splash when he was general manager of the Washington Warthogs. The Warthogs were part of the fledgling Continental Indoor Soccer League, which was formed as a summer league to help fill open dates at NBA and NHL arenas.
"He wanted to be like the Branch Rickey of soccer," said one-time Warthogs head coach Jim Gabarra.
Through the auspices of Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson became the first Black player to play Major League Baseball in 1947.
"He was always thinking outside the box," Gabarra said of Evans, who told his coach: 'Well, I'd like you to try to look for a female to play for the team.' "
Of course, that was easier said than done.
The best female players in the United States performed for the U.S. women's national team. None were available, especially with the Concacaf women's championship and 1995 Women's World Cup qualifying set for later that summer.
So, the Warthogs held tryouts and a former North Carolina State star, Colette Cunningham, stood out.
"She had the perseverance to stick it out and we decided to take a chance and sign her," Gabarra said. "It was a huge step for her and a huge step for the game actually. I think it was probably quite a few years ahead of its time."
Not only did Cunningham stick with team, but she also became a regular and made history as the first female to record a point in a professional indoor game.
"It worked out well," Gabarra said. "She fit in with the team. I've worked in the women's game for 20 years and I approached them all and treated them all just as soccer players.”
Cunningham, 23, at the time, brought an impressive soccer background to the Warthogs.
She began the sport at the age of five, following in the footsteps of older sister Julie Shackford, the head women's coach at William & Mary College, after directing the Princeton University and Carnegie Mellon squads.
Cunningham played on a youth soccer team, the Braddock Road Shooting Stars, with U.S. women's national team legend Mia Hamm on her high school team, along with Kelley (Harlow) Pulisic, a former George Mason University player who is the mother of U.S. men's national team standout Christian Pulisic.
That must have been some team.
"Mia was very fast," Cunningham said. "She's amazing. She always had this speed that was unlike any other female at that time. It was like a jet speed. She was she was she was definitely more mature athletically.
"Mia started on the national team at 15. So she was already in that mindset, just above what a normal high school athlete. While we were like going to parties and stuff like that, Mia was playing soccer and training. She was always very humble. It was never about her. It was about the team. Those were things that I learned from her that young age."
In 1992, Cunningham also got an opportunity to play with the USWNT, although the forward realized that she was a longshot to stick. Head coach Anson Dorrance called her because he needed some depth for several warm-up matches and friendlies.
"He goes, 'I'm going be honest. Something happened to one of the players. I called the backup. I called her backup after that. The three people above you couldn't come so I'm asking you.' " Cunningham said. "I wasn't going to turn it down. But it wasn't his top choice."
The team went on tour for a month and Cunningham kept on finding the net, many times playing alongside Michelle Akers.
Dorrance talked to his players before and after each game.
"He kept saying, 'I can't believe you're still scoring goals. Listen, I think you're good, but I don't know, you're not you've got to be able to be consistent. I don't know that you can do that in these next four games.' " she said.
Cunningham kept on scoring goals.
"Finally, before our last game, he's basically like, 'If you score today, you'll have a spot on the team.' I scored, so that was pretty cool," she said.
Officially, Cunningham played two international matches - 70 minutes as a starter and a substitute. She knew she was on the bubble.
"I was never a fixated player on the team," she said. "So, you're constantly in and out of camps. You could be in one and not the other then one and not the other."
She enjoyed a standout college career. As a freshman at Marymount University, she set several NCAA Division III standards that still stand today after collecting 39 goals and 20 assists in 18 games. Transferring to North Carolina State, Cunningham tallied 42 goals, 22 assists in the much more difficult Atlantic Coast Conference.
A couple of years later came the Warthogs opportunity.
Cunningham said that Gabarra said she had "a lot of talent. I want to bring you out."
"He said, 'It's no guarantee. Obviously, you've got to make the team but if you if you're willing to come I think you have the skills and but you've got to prove yourself,' " she added. "Of course, I was like, hell yeah. I was always really good at indoor. When you're growing up in the winter season, you were playing indoor, and I always loved indoor. I was super excited to be playing against men."
Men are bigger, more physical and faster than most women's players.
Cunningham, who is 5-4, had been prepared for the challenge by her father John.
"I was always like a daddy's girl," she said. "My dad was an FBI agent. He always had me around him and his friends. Their kids were boys, and I didn't think of it."
She had become accustomed to some rough and tumble.
"I never hesitated," she said. "I never thought I'm not going to be able to do this. Never once. I just thought, okay, I'm going to score some more goals. It's just a different arena with different people."
Cunningham used her superior technical skills to her advantage.
"One of the things I was really good at was just not holding onto the ball," she said. "In indoors, it's all about getting the ball as fast as you can off your foot to another player because it moves so fast. It's not like outdoor. So that was a benefit to me. Without holding onto the ball that long, you're not going to get taken out, so to speak, although it's possible. But I never thought about that. I just thought, 'Okay, I'm going to go and score some more goals. It's going to be with guys, no biggie.' “
There still were some unique challenges.
Though she made the team, but Cunningham couldn't dress with her teammates. For home games, she dressed in the Washington Capitals (NBA) locker room. When the rest of the squad had dressed, Cunningham joined players.
It was a transition for some of the players.
"There were a couple players that were a little skeptical that had been in the league for a while," Cunningham said. "When I look back, I'm sure I was slower than them and not as physical as them. However, I always held my own. Over time I earned their respect. There probably were the younger guys that were very accepting from the get-go. There was never any issue. Everybody was very welcoming.
"I was one of the guys."
Added Gabarra: “Credit to the rest of the team and the club for welcoming her and let her be just another player on the team."
Cunningham called her first game "surreal."
"Indoor soccer back in the day ... it used to be packed. Everybody used to bring their kids," she said. “There was a lot of people. They had obviously drummed up that a girl's going to be there. It was something I'll never forget because of the roar of the crowd, everybody just clapping and the excitement."
On July 16, 1994, Cunningham caused some more excitement, assisting on Goran Hunjak's goal against the San Jose Grizzlies in San Jose, Calif. as the first woman to record an indoor point. Hunjak, who tallied 47 goals and 53 assists that season, was one of the great legends of the indoor game. He finished with 511 goals, 440 assists and 951 points in a 17-year career in several indoor leagues.
"He was awesome," she said. "I dribbled down the side. He was in the middle coming across from the left and I just I saw him coming up and I just threw it to the center, and he just nailed it in."
Cunningham celebrated with her teammates as though her achievement was ordinary.
"I wasn't a very celebratory goal-scorer like some people go nuts and stuff," she said. “I was always excited. I would just get back to the line because I wanted to start over, because I wanted to score. I was very happy, high fives and all that."
She never found the net in a CISL game.
After that season, Cunningham pursued a career in Italy's Serie A women’s league. She performed for Lazio, took a year off when she gave birth to her first child, Kevin, played two more years with the club and another two with Sporting Sorrento (Naples). She led both teams in scoring.
She returned home in 1998 to take care of her father, who was dying of cancer. After John passed away, Cunningham decided it was time for her second act. In college, she was a criminal justice major and joined the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office in Loudoun County, Va.
Playing with men on the Warthogs helped prepare Cunningham for being in law enforcement. She was a first lieutenant and a station commander.
"I worked for a department that doesn't hasn't have a lot of women," Cunningham said. "Being a woman in a male-dominated career, and after playing for the Warthogs and being around men for so long I feel special. I was honored that I was given that opportunity. I definitely think it's been beneficial to my career. I was basically thrown into them fulltime. I really got an understanding of them."
Cunningham, 50, who has three sons and a stepson, recently retired and started a business with her husband, Aaron Taylor, Ridgeside K9 (www.ridgesidek9.com), a dog-training company that has 12 locations in seven states.
A 2019 inductee into the D.C.-Virginia Soccer Hall of Fame, Cunningham was a pioneer, but not many women have followed her footsteps. Shannon Presley participated in four games alongside her husband Matt with the Houston Hotshots (CISL) in 1994. USWNT great Kristine Lilly played a few matches with the Warthogs in 1995.
Cunningham said that she would love to see women have a professional league of their own in indoor soccer, understanding that it would take a lot of money. The National Women's Soccer League, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has experienced growing pains on and off the field.
"The guys have all these opportunities," she said. "You can play indoor; you can play in this league or that league. When I was growing up, either you played on the national team, or you were done [after college]. There was nowhere to go. Having another arena for the women to play in, I think would be huge because there are a lot of players who have great ball skills, maybe aren't as fast so wouldn't be national team material. It's just another place they play.
"I think people would love it. The kids would love it. But obviously money and all that would come into play. It would be amazing ... getting more opportunities for women."
Colette Cunningham opened the door in 1994. Who will go through it in the future?
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, was published this week. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.