The Lowdown: Inside the Breakers’ harrowing Friday

Dan Lauletta April 23, 2013 4
Kia McNeill

Boston Breakers defender Kia McNeill was one of the Watertown, Mass. citizens on lockdown Friday in the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombings suspect. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for www.womens.soccerly.com)

Kia McNeill was supposed to wake up last Friday and join her teammates for their trip to Kansas City to play their second NWSL game of the season. Instead she received an unexpected and terrifying wakeup call from her roommate Hollie Walusz, who barged into her room around midnight and shouted, “Kia, did you hear that?”

It had already been a harrowing week for the 26-year-old Boston Breakers center back. Her city had been terrorized by the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Though she watched the marathon from the safety of Mile 18, two of McNeill’s MBA classmates got caught in the explosions and lost limbs. Now she was awake in the middle of the night, listening to what she estimated as 80 to 100 gunshots and seeing a Boston police officer, gun drawn, running down her street, yelling for someone to get on the ground.

“When I saw that I got on the ground because there were bullets flying,” McNeill told The Lowdown this week. “Right after that I heard one explosion go off, more gunshots, another explosion, it lit up the whole sky. This was probably less than 100 yards away from where I live.”

Still on the floor, McNeill made some phone calls. Her mother, in Connecticut, let her know there had been a shootout in Watertown, Mass. The next 20 hours or so gripped the country. All eyes were focused on Watertown, the center of a citywide manhunt as authorities looked to apprehend the remaining suspect in the bombing. The city went into lockdown.

“I don’t think I ever truly knew what fear felt like until Thursday night,” McNeill recalled. “When my roommate and I heard the explosions we immediately knew it was associated to the bombings. I don’t know that everybody put two and two together like that, but that’s what was most frightening to us. This guy had bombs. He could detonate them anywhere. And then obviously we knew the mass destruction he did Monday. And we didn’t know what he was up to then.”

[MORE: Breakers game in Kansas City postponed due to travel, security issues]

Initially McNeill thought of making it until morning and then sneaking out to join the Breakers. But as hour after sleepless hour passed, police tape cordoning off the driveway and SWAT teams on the roof next door it became clear there would be no trip to Kansas City. And McNeill didn’t really care.

“That was the last thing that crossed my mind, was getting to Kansas City. Obviously the situation was a lot more serious than anyone anticipated.”

McNeill is the only Breakers player in Watertown and so those of her teammates scheduled to travel gathered early Friday with the intention of heading to Kansas City as planned.

“It was really scary to be honest,” Breakers captain Cat Whitehill said. “I was really nervous when we all decided to go. I totally understand why Lisa (Cole, Breakers head coach) wanted us all together. There are some girls that are in houses that are still new to them. We’ve only been together for about a month and a half. So she wanted us to be with familiar people.

“But getting in my car, there was no one on the street. It was so quiet. A couple of the other girls live in the Cambridge area which is super close to Watertown. They told them to lockdown but they somehow got out of the city in time. I know that they were nervous too. There was just a lot of uncertainty getting into a car and leaving when we were told to stay. There were a lot of emotions flying at that point.”

Lee Billiard was not scheduled to go to Kansas City, but the Breakers general manager was monitoring events from his apartment, also in Watertown, but not quite as close to the standoff as McNeill.

“There were a lot of players that wanted to be with their friends and family,” Billiard said. “They didn’t want to leave them behind. They didn’t want to leave Kia McNeill behind either. And then they got to the airport and there were a lot of armed guards around which kind of freaked them out a little bit.”

With all that in mind, plus fears the airport would go on lockdown leaving the team stranded there, the decision was made not to go, postponing Saturday night’s match.

“Yeah it’s a sport and we’re all really passionate about it, but this brings into light the bigger picture of things,” Billiard said. “It’s the health and safety of the players both physically and emotionally.”

“There’s a couple of players that spoke up,” Whitehill said. “It was so close to home and we hadn’t really all addressed it as a team. We talked about it a little bit, but I think a lot of us were just trying to kind of suppress it a bit. You could see when we were near the airport people were really starting to express themselves.

“If Kia would have been there I really do believe we probably would have gone to Kansas City. But I know for a fact that we would have been in a very fragile mental state. It started coming out that people weren’t sleeping well and they were uncomfortable being in (Boston). The people who did it were still at large. I’m very grateful that we didn’t end up going.”

The team retreated to an assistant’s house in South Boston and maintained contact with McNeill, who remained locked in her home with Walusz throughout Friday. Around 6 p.m. ET, the lockdown was lifted. But no suspect had been caught.

“We started to go outside and the SWAT team told us, ‘no get back inside,’” she said. They wound up letting residents stay outside for a few minutes during which some talked of bullet holes in their homes. Then an officer told everyone to get back inside. There was a blood trail in a nearby boat.

“Two minutes later we hear gunshots again,” McNeill said. “Little did they know that was the beginning of the end. But it was scary. Again, we had no idea what was going on.”

It was nearly 9 p.m. ET when the Boston Police Department tweeted that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been taken into custody. He had been hiding in a boat barely a half-mile from McNeill’s apartment. Boston exhaled. The Breakers called McNeill on speaker phone to celebrate the end of the ordeal.

McNeill said that when she was first woken up by the gunshots, she called her mother and boyfriend (in Atlanta) because she wanted to talk to the people she was closest to. In the aftermath she did not hesitate to say she has no thoughts of leaving Boston or even Watertown. Whitehill, who was at the finish line to see her old classmate Shalane Flanagan finish fourth before walking to a friend’s house about a mile away, said the most difficult part was walking back to her home near the bombing site amid lots of people and lots of trash, but hardly any words. Mostly strangers asked to pet her dogs as a means of comfort. “You just knew so many lives had changed at that moment,” Whitehill said.

“It’s pretty traumatic that this whole city was on lockdown. That these two guys were that powerful and we were that afraid of them. That’s a pretty big thing to happen to such a large city to lock the whole place down. The magnitude of what it took for that to happen is huge.”

Still the response of the city and its people has only helped solidify it as Whitehill’s home.

“I’ve been here two years and now I feel this amazing connection with this city. I already loved it, but I feel like now I’m connected. I feel like now I’ll forever be a Bostonian which is kind of cool.”

Billiard said the team is working with a travel agency and that much of the costs for the rescheduled trip to Kansas City should be defrayed. Things are moving forward as planned for the next home game, May 4 against the Red Stars. The players say the weekend was a good respite to clear their heads. McNeill sent her teammates an email showing her appreciation for their concern while she was locked down in Watertown. And she got a group hug from everyone when she arrived at the next training session.

The Breakers, like Boston, are moving along. But they won’t soon forget.

“I’m still a little skittish,” McNeill said, “especially at night. But I’m doing okay.”

Note: McNeill has asked that anyone wishing to help support the victims of the marathon bombing to visit onefundboston.org

They did play soccer

There was soccer played last weekend in Washington, D.C., and Portland. The home openers for both teams could be considered wildly successful albeit on different scales.

First the Spirit jammed 4,569 people into the SoccerPlex and were treated to a 1-1 draw against the Flash when Diana Matheson buried a late penalty only two minutes after the Flash went ahead through Samantha Kerr.

A day later, the Thorns raised the bar for women’s club soccer around the world with a crowd of 16,479 at JELD-WEN Field. The supporters group made welcome signs personalized to each player. Two of them, Marian Dougherty (nee Dalmy) and Alex Morgan netted goals in a 2-1 victory over the Reign. Jessica Fishlock scored for the visitors on one of their two total shots.

The Red Stars and Sky Blue FC had scheduled weekends off.

Abby update

The Flash did not provide a formal update on Abby Wambach’s condition Monday. However the club told The Lowdown that Wambach is considered day-to-day and that she is “probable” to be in the lineup Saturday for the home opener against the Breakers. Wambach took a ball to the face late in the Flash’s 1-1 draw in Washington last weekend. She told the Democrat & Chronicle on Monday that she is “confident” about her progress and feels like she will be in the lineup on Saturday. The Rochester, N.Y., native elected to return to her hometown to play for the Flash in NWSL and her presence on the roster could be a boost at the gate.

Where are the goals coming from?

Throughout the season The Lowdown will track where the goals are coming from in terms of the different levels of roster building. Only half the league took the field in Week 2. They combined to score 5 goals. Here’s how the goals break down with Week 2 totals in parenthesis.:

Allocated players – 5 (2)
College Draft – 2
Free Agent – 3 (2)
Supplemental Draft – 1 (1)
Own Goals – 1

Free Kicks

-For fans of irony, here is a little. Brittany Cameron was named NWSL Player of Week 1 (Adrianna Franch won The Equalizer’s vote) while effectively serving as a sub for Jill Loyden who has a broken hand. Loyden was originally a backup to Hope Solo with Saint Louis Athletica in 2009. When Solo was on national team duty, Loyden stepped in and made her pro debut. The result? A shutout and WPS Player of the Week honors.

-It’s not only that Christine Sinclair can both score and make the final pass, but she spent much time winning balls in the midfield on Sunday. Yes she lined up as an attacking midfielder, but she routinely tracks to deeper positions to aid efforts to regain possession.

- I would award the final to Portland immediately and see if they can drum up enough interest to fill JELD-WEN just for the final. That was a nugget I wrote during an Equalizer Round Table when the markets were announced in November. Clearly I underestimated. And yes, the final will be played at the higher seed’s home ground.

-The Breakers have waived Libby Guess, the player who provided the assist on Sydney Leroux’s late, opening day equalizer. Billiard said the move was to create some roster flexibility. Look for Guess to latch on with another NWSL club sooner than later.

-The Reign have played two matches. They have scored twice, but opposing goalkeepers have been credited with only one save. That is clearly not enough offensive production.

  • http://twitter.com/BostonRedSoccer Boston Red

    I could tell, based on some tweets and the decision to not go to KC, that someone was likely stuck in Watertown. I hadn’t heard she was *that* close to the action.

    • NYRick

      Boston Red: glad you’re safe. On 9/11, I was in the city of Hoboken and had a bird’s eye view to all the horror on that fateful morning. Plus, growing up in northern NJ and remembering that night (vigils lined the streets of every neighboring town) and the weeks that followed are ingrained in my memory forever.

      NY and Boston always has a strong sports rivalry, but it is one breed more out of respect than anything else.

  • NYRick

    Glad everyone from the Breakers is safe. Terrible ordeal to be in the city of Boston and so close to all that horror the entire week. If they didn’t catch the younger lowlife on that Friday night, I don’t know how anyone in the Boston area was going to sleep.

  • Gerson22

    Dan does not know what the term “irony” means, but the beginning of this was a really good story.