On women’s soccer, MLS, USSF and the future

Jeff Kassouf May 25, 2012 10
Lori Lindsey

Without a top level women's professional league, late-bloomers like Lori Lindsey will never get called-up for national team duty. (Photo Copyright: Patricia Giobetti | http://www.printroom.com/pro/psgiobetti)

It’s the million dollar question, but the answer requires a lot more than that.

Last week’s official announcement (if Facebook counts) of the folding of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) set into motion the usual question that circles over the sport like a vulture over road kill: How can women’s soccer survive?

WPS always faced the uphill battle of making a women’s sports league succeed, which includes garnering attention from mainstream media mostly interested in debating the attractiveness of a players.

The major outlets were always good for one thing: Popping their head in a couple of times each year to talk doom and gloom. A team folded and there is a conference call to discuss the state of the league? Suddenly the phone lines are flooded.

Those outlets are not at total fault and the list is not of culprits is not all-inclusive; there are a handful of journalists out there who covered WPS and their respective local teams with the same passion and respect one would expect from the coverage of any professional sports league.

But alas, now that WPS is officially dead, the fair-weather fans and media come out of the woodwork once again to tell everyone how to make women’s soccer succeed in the future, despite not closely following it for the three years it actually existed.

At least there are some common opinions now. 2007 U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Julie Foudy has been around for the ups and downs of the sport since the early days of the U.S. women’s team, so she knows a thing or two about what has happened in the past.

Foudy calls for MLS and U.S. Soccer Federation involvement in her latest espnW piece and she is spot-on in doing so. In a rare feat, even magicJack owner Dan Borislow agrees with the public opinion of federation involvement. Unfortunately, the fans filling the comment section at this MLSsoccer.com article are, in general, very against the idea (or maybe just Foudy).

While discouraging, it is the opinions of MLS ad the USSF that matters most.

There is more pressure than ever on the USSF to step up and get involved in making a women’s league work in this country. The heat is also on MLS to take the women’s initiative, which some of its teams are already doing in individual (even if minimal) cases.

After two failed attempts at creating leagues – both of which have some striking similarities but on different economic scales – it should be clear at this point that there has to be help from U.S. Soccer or MLS in making it work. Yes, as Foudy points out, the MLS option was turned down back in 2000. But she also rightfully points out that MLS was still a fledgling league of its own at that time, which would have quickly made a women’s league dispensable when times got tough and MLS contraction hit. If Tampa Bay and Miami were expendable, a women’s soccer expenses would have been dumped, too.

Some players and fans don’t want to have to rely on a men’s league. Sure, it would be great to prop up a women’s league independently, but what comes next after two failed leagues? A third attempt at this, out on an island with no support?

USL officials have been collectively public about the organization’s intentions to create a W-PRO, as they call it, and fill the professional void perhaps as early as 2013. But just as that starts to sound like a swell idea, the WPSL Elite League has plans to step into that professional (or more accurately, semi-pro) market, too.

To proclaim which league offers a more sound future for professional women’s soccer at this point is ludicrous. It has been less than five months since the landscape changed so dramatically with the suspension of WPS. It has only been a week since WPS officially folded. The WPSL Elite League was thrown together last-minute in February and while the W-League has been around since 1995, W-PRO is still just a concept.

Women’s soccer faces a scenario similar to but less hostile than the USL-NASL split of two years ago, which still has something of a gray cloud over it as men’s lower division soccer finds its feet. Even there the long-term answer is MLS integrating the lower divisions into a full pyramid.

The USL-NASL situation was dire enough that U.S. Soccer stepped in and ran a combined league for the 2010 season. The current outlook for women’s soccer in 2013 is unclear enough that the USSF’s involvement will be needed there as well.

U.S. Soccer need not sit down and choose between the WPSL Elite League and the W-League. Instead, it can oversee both leagues and run them as pseudo-divisions, just as it did with USL-PRO and the NASL in the USSF Second Division.

That way, capitalism still prevails and the best league can take shape without women’s soccer turning into the Wild West, where leagues claim territory as they find it.

Just like there was post-WUSA era in the W-League, there is now a wealth of top-level talent in second division leagues. But that talent has to be both showcased and advanced. Moving forward, there needs to be a way to develop players right up to the top of the pyramid – the U.S. national team.

Doing so requires a league for the younger college players to develop in the long college offseason (like they have in WPSL and W-League), but it also calls for a top-level, professional league.

There is a reason why in 2011, the first World Cup since WPS’ inception, the U.S. women returned to their first World Cup final since 1999. WPS is not the only reason, but it played a significant role in developing the team.

Players like Becky Sauerbrunn, Lori Lindsey and Amy LePeilbet would not be in the U.S. picture right now were it not for WPS. They all played in the W-League, but did not receive regular time with the national team until standout seasons in WPS.

With no league and not even a major tournament for another three years after the Olympics, those types of players could go play abroad (where they may not get noticed) or they may simply fall through the cracks (read: gaping holes) of the system.

U.S. Soccer may not be that interested in a women’s professional league, the women’s national team is its most successful program of all-time and one of the most storied in the world. Certainly, given the effects of not having a high level league, they will consider getting involved even if only for the sake of the national team.

Pia Sundhage drew her roster nearly exclusively from WPS; Ali Krieger was the only non-WPS player on the World Cup roster. Well, now what? The U.S. coaching staff won’t be eager to call-up a player on the basis that she is on a great stretch of play in a second division game against an amateur team feature high school players. That leaves the national team to call-up only internally – players who have come up through the youth system and could be future senior national team players, which would be a huge failure to recognize late bloomers outside of the system.

And it would be yet another huge failure for the advancement of women’s soccer in a country that once led the way in progressing the women’s game.

  • Wambach and Boxx were also WNT afterthoughts until they earned recognition with their performances in the WUSA.

    I think US Soccer really needs to step up and make sure there’s a “farm program” in support of the WNT. The WNT isn’t just their most successful program, it’s the best-known and most recognized of any of the US national teams, men’s or womens’, but it’s been given short shrift in terms of support pretty much throughout its history.

  • Greg

    It seems to me that the failings of the WUSA and WPS have shown that there does not exist the demand to support the women’s game at a fully professional level – whether it’s in conjunction with a men’s league or not. I think it’s time that we put ALL of our efforts – players, fans, media, organizers – into the semi-pro game and build from there (as the rest of the world is doing).

    Stability is the first step, and the W-League and WPSL have been able to achieve it through moderate spending and limited travel demands. Once you have a product you know will be around for longer than 3 years, you can sit down and plan for the short and long -term future. The W-League and WPSL have to work together as we can’t have top American talent spread out over nearly 100 teams, all of which play only a handful of opponents per year.

    The two leagues should go in together, with the guidance of the USSF, on a high-level semi-pro league with the aim to grow into a moderate pro league. This way, they can maintain their separate organizational ideas for their main leagues, but compromise and cooperate on a potential pro league with top talent for the benefit of all of women’s soccer.

    • necron99

      The problem with growing from Semi-Pro in the USA vs other countries in Europe where it is successful is the NCAA. In Europe they do not have a group like the NCAA that is legislating rules for all sports in an effort to provide a minor league system in support of the big money NFL and NBA. All of their efforts to keep college sports amateur relate to those two leagues. With the NCAA rules in place you can’t have a Semi-Pro league that functions at the same level as the European leagues. You can’t have some women being paid small but decent part-time wages along side the most advanced college players. So you either go full unpaid ala W-League and have the majority of college grads that are not in the national team picture retire to get “real” jobs, or you go semi-pro and the best of the college players can’t be the unpaid people filling in the blanks of the low paid pros. It becomes partial rec league, and that doesn’t provide the same quality of play. Without quality play you lose both fan interest and training value for the players.

      The NCAA needs to get out of the way and let players play unpaid on semi-pro teams.

      • Greg

        The NCAA/amateur eligibility issue is a big one, as you point out. It complicates a lot of issues such as competitiveness, expenses, scheduling, player improvement, etc. That’s why I like the idea of a WPSL-Elite or W-Pro, that would operate technically as a fully professional league, but with semi-pro sensibilities; salaries would be fairly small (ie: 5k-30k) during the season, regional play, etc. However, some special considerations have to be taken into account if it were to grow into something more along the scale of WPS (or long term, WUSA). The sheer number of teams in WPSL and W_League works against true growth by spreading talent, money, and viewership/attendance too thin. A smaller league, along the lines of WPSL-Elite can help funnel togerther pro-level ready talent while college players get their game experience in the larger, semi-pro/amateur W-League and regular WPSL. I think the Elite League model is the way to go, but as we can see a mix of pro, semi-pro, and amateur squads does not a compelling league make. Were they to cooperate with the W-League, and bring on the handful of squads believed ready to go fully pro, you could put together a nice 8-10 team league with an East and West division with sensible spending. The current Elite league is sort of a Frankenstein’s monster of soccer. Maybe this season can serve as a dry run which would allow them to gauge expenses and competitiveness, but as it currently stands there is too much about how the current WPSL Elite League is comprised that will work against real growth towards a professional league.

  • Diane

    A hybrid system combining all the best of both leagues would be ideal, with USSF backing (read $$$) and other resources.

    @Greg – I take issue with your statement “..there does not exist the demand to support the women’s game at a fully professional level-..”. A demand surely exists, but not for a lop-sided one coast league with minimal advertising.

    I like the idea of letting USL and WPSL each pursue a truly pro league with a national championship (sanctioned and run by USSF, with all the media bells and whistles) at the end of the season. Both leagues have laid the groundwork for such an undertaking and each would be able to retain what makes them special. With a build up to a national championship I think the teams could extend their seasons and keep competition levels high because top talent wouldn’t play in the regular club teams, but at the pro level.

    USSF needs to grow up as soccer in the US has grown up. Being the world leader in developing new talent should be their post-Olympic goal. There are lots of models to choose from..or here’s a concept: take the brightest minds involved with soccer in America and let them design a model.

    I think my frustration and that of all fans, new & old, is the lack of leadership at the top of US Soccer. I don’t expect them to run a pro league, but I do expect them to get behind a good model and support the hell out of it.

    On a random side note: USSF should be leading the way for games to be streamed live. Show the naysayers that it can be done and be done well. USSF has contacts with resources, what are they waiting for?

    • Greg

      But that’s the thing, Diane, the demand doesn’t exist. There wasn’t enough to sustain LA Sol or FC Gold Pride despite the flashy rosters they put together, the Sol playing in the Home Depot Center, or the fact that they played in LA and SF, among other early advantages. The San Diego organization couldn’t come together. And the Pacific Northwest was nowhere to be found in WPS’s early days. The West Coast was always going to be a difficult proposition, with travel to STL, CHI, NJ, DC, PHI, and BOS extremely stressful on their finances. They spent money, but they couldn’t get a return on it.

      Demand is more than passive agreement that it would be “cool” to have a pro women’s league, it’s buying tickets, watching broadcasts, telling your friends, etc. There just isn’t enough of that to pay for a pro league, even at a modest level, and throwing more ad dollars at it isn’t a silver bullet. Women’s soccer has to create the demand by putting on quality matches, with a modest budget, finding a way to get the word out (social media is cheap and expansive, but without some sort of regular streaming service no one will get attached to the actual product), and managing their money properly. And big sacrifices will have to be made by players/coaches in terms of salary and perks to get this thing going.

  • Diane

    In my haste to add a comment I completely forgot to address MLS. MLS has come into it’s own just recently and while a big advantage to have someone to share costs with, I don’t want to pressure any MLS team to “adopt” a women’s team. If an MLS team feels their brand will benefit from a women’s side, I’m sure they will have one.
    I’m happy that some MLS teams have chosen to partner with a women’s team and I hope it continues where both will benefit, but that’s going to be market driven. If an MLS team were to succumb to fan pressure that wasn’t supported by a financially sound model, I’d be very disappointed in that team.

  • jen

    Well, first they need to fire Sunil and get someone in who care about women soccer. Sunil does not care.

    Secondly, they need monetary support from someone. The model is WNBA. WNBA is still struggling somewhat but they are surviving and doing better. They have very nice arenas to play balls. They also have David Stern. Women soccer need to find a David Stern.

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