As the WPS season came to a close Saturday with Sky Blue FC completing a miracle run to the inaugural WPS Championship, not to be forgotten is the W-League, which crowned its champion just two weeks earlier.
On Friday, August 7, the Pali Blues defeated the Washington Freedom 2-1 to repeat as W-League Champions. With a record of 26-0-3 over the past two seasons, Pali has not lost a game in franchise history.With the season now well into the record books, Director of W-League Operations Melanie Fitzgerald recently sat down with The Equalizer to share her thoughts on the season that was.
We talked everything from dealing with scheduling problems this year and learning from them in the future, to expansion and the possibility of formally teaming up with Women’s Professional Soccer. Check out her thoughts below:
Equalizer: First off, can you share your opinion of how the season went overall?
Melanie Fitzgerald: I think overall it went really, really well. Based on what we are going through right now with just an economic climate and not knowing exactly the impact that would have on our league this year, I would have to say I am just more than pleased with the way things went. And obviously there are some things that we have to look at and look at how we can improve for next year, but overall I think it went really, really well. I was pleased with the teams. I think that the league is continually growing and developing and that the standards are getting higher. More teams are reaching the standards and not that there’s a number that aren’t, but I think it is just something that is the difference between our league and perhaps even other leagues is just the standard that we hold our franchises to. And, I think that overall I was just very pleased with how the teams did this season.
Equalizer: How did you think the playoffs went and what was the decision making process behind playing the semifinal and final on different weekends?
Fitzgerald: Well I’ll just give you a background of why we ended up reaching that decision. We used to have a final four with an automatic bid into the final four weekend and it was a little bit before my time, but there had been a lot of discussions about competitively where the best thing for the league was – that always the top four teams in the league play but also ensure that we have a quality host for the championship. So, last year we went away from having an automatic bid for the final four and went to a neutral host and had the top four teams come for that event. Competitively, successful. Perhaps financially and operationally it was good; attendance was not what we like to see so we just had to look at other options of how we could make the most competitive thing and that we always have a team that is in the final, hosting the final and also limit the expenses overall, because obviously hosting a final four event can be very expensive on the team if they are not in it and they are not going to have the support of the community behind them. We’d like to think that women’s soccer is at the point like the NFL where you could place the championship anywhere and people would come, but we’re not at that point yet. So, we have to kind of be creative with how we can work on some different models and internally discuss them with the executive committee and the best thing that we looked at was actually the PDL model and how they were doing their playoff structure. They had gone away from the final four model several years ago and it worked really well. They had a lot of success going with it, so that’s the direction that we went for this year. I think that it went well and overall we’d really like to see, obviously, even more fans in attendance at our championship, but I think that as the teams start to learn this model and adapt to it and the communities start understanding, we’ll have more success with it. I think one of the negatives was the date. It affected the dates this year and NCAA, in May, pushed the preseason weekend up a week, which affected a lot of our top college players within our league. So, that was something that we definitely have to look at of how we are going to approach it next year. So, there haven’t been any decisions made exactly of what the playoff model will be next year. I think we just have to take everything into account, but overall I think it was successful.
Equalizer: And when did you know about the college conflicts in regards to the playoffs?
Fitzgerald: It was actually a late decision that [the playoffs] went into August 7th. That was the date for the championship just based on the fact that in order for it to be a week earlier like it was last year we would have had to cut into our regular season and push all of that up a week, which for a lot of our teams, July is their best month for attracting fans and from an overall league perspective it made more sense not to push the season up a week and just play the championship on August 7th. We were notified by NCAA in May – we weren’t directly notified by them, but through our teams that they actually had moved their preseason up a week. So, therefore, the championship had already been set, people were already set and we weren’t going to make any changes at that point. So, teams were aware and, it definitely wasn’t an ideal situation, especially with the Pali Blues losing some of their starters and the Washington Freedom losing some of their starters. But, at the same time, I think we are always going to have challenges that we will have to face in terms of player’s preseasons and this is something that we have to work on on our end and hopefully we can get some support from NCAA too in working with us and recognizing our championship.
Equalizer: So you found out in May but the decision had been made a little bit before?
Equalizer: Geographically, do you see any possible type of realignment or addition of new teams to cut down costs on long road trips such as Boston playing Washington or Pali playing Seattle?
Fitzgerald: It’s really tough to say at this point, just because we’re still in the process of solidifying our divisions for the 2010 season. I’ll know more in October or November. From my standpoint, I don’t see any dramatic changes in respect to travel, but I do see the league expanding, yes.
Equalizer: Would that be Western Expansion, with just seven of the 37 teams being in the Western Conference?
Fitzgerald: We would like to see expansion on the West Coast. That’s something that we’re continuously trying to seek out. Our ultimate vision is for there to be more divisions. There would be a Northwest Division, there would be a California Division and then there would be a division with New Mexico and Colorado. That’s our overall vision, but it’s going to take some time.
Equalizer: There are obviously a lot of former W-League players in Women’s Professional Soccer. WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci even dared to bring up the idea of promotion and relegation in her year-end conference call, but also said that WPS is focused on its own business first and that such an idea would be well into the future. With several WPS teams successfully utilizing W-League feeder teams, is there any type of formal partnership in the works?
Fitzgerald: There’s definitely been discussions of that, but nothing has formally developed at this point. There’s obviously a positive relationship between the two leagues. We’ve been able to do cross-promotions for our two championships and we are working together for the combine. There is also a lot that has been done on the team level with the Freedom and with Pali and the Sol, the Chicago Red Stars and the Chicago Red Eleven and the Quickstrike Lady Blues and Sky Blue FC, so I think that over time that is going to develop. So, it’s definitely something that’s out there. There have been discussions of that happening. They have not been formalized, though.
The second annual W-League Combine will be held from September 24th – 27th at the Ed Radice Sports Complex in Northwest Tampa, FL., an will showcase the W-League’s best players to WPS.
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