With Women’s Professional soccer kicking off its inaugural season in 2009, women’s footie fans experienced their first taste of domestic professional soccer since the Women’s United Soccer Association folded in 2003.
That alone has to be the moment of the year for women’s soccer fans. A successful launch of a professional women’s soccer league in the United States with a realistic business plan is exactly what the game needed. WPS has quickly integrated itself into American soccer conversations and has set-up a solid future through realistic expectations and localized business plans and marketing while still attracting the world’s top talent.
On the dawn of a new decade, I thought it would be nice to take a look back at the good, the bad and the ugly in Women’s Professional Soccerin 2009. As many others were, I was impressed with most of what I saw out of WPS in 2009, so this year-end compilation is pretty heavy on the good side.
Firstly, WPS has done well to make people aware of the league. An average league-wide attendance of approximately 4,500 is modest, but falls in line with what the league budgeted for. Beyond these numbers,there is a general awareness about WPS that cannot be quantified. It is intangible, but American soccer fans know about WPS, and those even slightly informed know that it is arguably the best league in the world. Word of mouth goes a long way.
Some of this has to be attributed to a great off-season filled with big player moves, two expansion teams building a fan base and franchise,and an introduction of what will be the premier women’s soccer facility in the world in Atlanta. Heather Mitts and Amy Rodriguez moved down I-95 to play for the Philadelphia Independence in 2010, while Leslie Osborne crossed the coast to sign with the Boston Breakers. There has also been an incredible influx of talented international players. With such a long off-season (currently about halfway through a seven month stretch), it would be easy for teams to relax and for WPS to drop off the radar. Instead, the off-season has felt busier than the actual season, which is great for the league.
The parity that WPS saw in 2009 was incredible. Even though FC Gold Pride and the Chicago Red Stars struggled, they were still in most games that they played and were not eliminated from the playoffs until late in the season. Chicago beat the Los Angeles Sol in its last home game of the season on August 2, showing how close every team was in2009.
Fox Soccer Channel ratings are a big eye-opener for what a bright future WPS could have. League television ratings rivaled those of Major League Soccer, and the final weeks of the WPS season produced over 100,000 viewers for FSC showcase games. Also, don’t forget that the league’s Twitter account is now close to 200,000 followers.
WPS also worked (and will continue to work) wonders for the United States Women’s National Team and just the average domestic player. The likes of Kacey White, Keeley Dowling, Nikki Krzysik, Ella Masar, Meghan Schnur, Lori Lindsey, Yael Averbuch, Amy LePeilbet and Brittany Klein (just to name a few) really broke onto the scene thanks to WPS.
Some international players really stepped up as well. Camille Abily is probably the best example of an unknown becoming a superstar, but Sonia Bompastor, Anita Asante and Caroline Jönsson also provided incredible stories.
Give some credit to Kristine Lilly, Aya Miyama, Becky Sauerbrunn, Homare Sawa and Caroline Jönsson, the only five players to play every single minute for their respective teams.
The Atlanta Beat’s announcement that the team will be constructing and playing in a women’s soccer specific stadium in 2010 is probably the best off-field news of 2009. It looks like it will truly be a premier destination for soccer in the United States. Can somebody say road trip?
We heard of some great human interest stories this season. Chicago Red Stars defender Natalie Spilger started Green Laces, which is dedicated to making the world a greener place. Then there is the incredible story of Maggie Tomecka, who juggled a medical career while playing for the Boston Breakers. And of course, we all know about the incredible story of Christie Rampone’s 2009 season.
Rounding out this list is the obvious. Through all the drama and allthe adversity; through two coaches and a player/coach that put the organization on her shoulders, is the story of Sky Blue FC. Truly, the ladies from New Jersey were everything and more that WPS could have asked for when it comes to an incredible story. Media far and wide took notice to the miraculous run the team made on its way to a 2009 championship, and Rampone’s pregnancy, announced after the end of the season, only added to the story. It will be tough to top in 2010.
Now comes some of the criticisms, which none of us want to hear but all of us must face as reality. One thing that the league has heard all too much about already is the lack of goals scored. WPS averaged 2.14 goals per game, with just two of the seven teams averaging over one goal per game. That needs to be better in 2010.
Sorry FC Gold Pride fans, but the team’s 10 game winless streak from May 24 to July 26 was tough to watch. Two months without a win? Perhaps more suited for the “ugly” category.
Gear was also a problem. I would hate to get down on Shop WPS, but the selection was limited, at best. Basically, each team had a backpack, a hat, a t-shirt and a primary jersey. To give proper credit, each team had much better in-stadium gear options, but more of this needs to be made available online. It was only recently – months later – that fans could purchase Sky Blue FC championship gear. More gear options will only equal more money for the league and teams.
Touchy subject here, and in no way am I looking to take any jabs at any fellow journalists. I respect everyone in the WPS community. But, the Fox Soccer Channel game of the week was tough to watch and listen to at times. The commentary from Jenn Hildreth and Mark Rogondino was filled with a lot of “duh” commentary that treated listeners like fourth grade students learning the game. If someone is taking the time to tune into FSC and watch a WPS match, they probably know a little something about soccer.
I absolutely love what both the Philadelphia Independence and Atlanta Beat have been doing this off-season. Both are building up extremely competitive teams and making smart business decisions off the field. However, Philadelphia’s choice to play at West Chester University in 2010 is a disappointing one. Obviously the new stadium in Chester will not be ready in time, but playing at a football stadium with artificial turf and a track around it is about the worst thing that I could imagine watching a soccer match on. The charm of Harvard helps Boston get away with it, but the track puts Philly over the edge.
Finally, I’d like to address something that the league has made clear since day one, but many seem to have forgoten. This is Women’s Professional Soccer, also known as WPS. It is not the Women’s Professional Soccer league, the women’s pro soccer league, the WPS, the WPSL or anything else. The WPSL is actually a completely different semi-professional league, and the term “league” does not appear anywhere in Women’s Professional Soccer. WPS has also been pretty clear about its desire to not use “the” when describing the league, but I cannot name how many times I have seen it (literally more often than not the league was misrepresented). As media and fans, let’s get it right.
There is one major black eye that hangs over a particular player fromWPS this season, and regardless of whether you are a fan or not it is indisputable that Abby Wambach’s two leg-breaking incidences were ugly. Malicious? No. Reckless? Yes (the first one, that is). For somebody that missed the 2008 Olympics due to a broken leg, she should know better. First, a reckless tackle in early May ended Daniela’s young season with Saint Louis Athletica. Then, just a month later, Christie Shaner’s season came to an early end in her first game with the Los Angeles Sol after a collision with Wambach. This one was much less reckless and more of a case of pure strength breaking Shaner’s leg. Still, the slow-motion replays on Fox Soccer Channel were incredibly hard to watch; they were the definition of ugly.
The Chicago Red Stars endured a 451 minute scoreless drought and went four straight games in June without scoring.
On the flip side, Chicago laid down a 4-0 beatdown on Boston on April25. That was the biggest margin of victory for any team in 2009, and the Red Stars made Boston look silly.
As much as Sky Blue FC deserves a lot of credit for its championship run, the coaching carousel in New Jersey was ugly to watch. First Ian Sawyers left and then Kelly Lindsey departed the Garden State after she seemed to be a solution. Christie Rampone took over for the final run to the title, and now Pauliina Miettinen is at the helm. Four coaches in less than a year is not exactly a team you would expect to be at the top of the league. I still recall Sawyers being asked after Sky Blue’s home opener what will qualify WPS as a success, and he said “if I am still standing here in three years talking to you guys.” He would not make it three months.
Unrelated to WPS here, but the U.S. Women’s National Team kits need some upgrading. Gold is not a color on the American flag. I get what Nike was going for with the Olympics, but can we please bring back the simple white kits and red alternates (maybe a navy third jersey)? Those new navy v-neck jerseys are hideous. Over the past fewyears we have seen gold and even pink jerseys. This plea goes to U.S. Soccer for both the men’s and women’s teams: Please bring back the red kits.
OTHER NEWS AND NOTES
The friendly in November between the U.S. and Germany on October 29 was a thrilling game between the world’s top two teams, and the sold out Impuls Arena provided an incredible atmosphere.
Some credit needs to be given to Puma for committing itself to WPS. I am a huge proponent of the brand, asit sees the potential in typically overlooked areas of the game such as women’s soccer and the African continent. It’s my choice for all gear and I cannot wait to see what plans Puma has to continue to help WPS grow.
Finally, an interesting statistic to leave you with: Sky Blue FC won the 2009 WPS Championship, averaging 3,651 fans per game. That was last in the league.
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS
The first thing I hope to see is increased attendance. The technical level of play in WPS is higher than most men’s fans think, and the players deserve to play in front of bigger crowds. I want to see the 2010 WPS Championship top the 20,000 mark.
On top of the aforementioned notes on Fox Soccer Channel, I would love to see more webcasts. More of these games need to be viewable.
Finally, I would like to see more regional rivalries develop via traveling support and friendly feuds between fans and front offices. It’s disappointing to hear that the league will most likely implement a balanced schedule instead of emphasizing these regional rivalries, but this will take time to develop.
Also, follow me on Twitter @JeffKassouf
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