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Analysis

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

Lori Lindsey
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.

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