In 2009, Women’s Professional Soccer faced criticism for scheduling the playoffs for mid-August, the same time as the 2009 Women’s European Championship. That scheduling caused many of the league’s marquee international players to miss out on helping their team toward the championship and to be absent from the WPS All-Star Game, which took place August 30, 2009, one week after the WPS Championship.
The playoffs were clearly affected by missing players and with the likes of Sonia Bompastor, Eniola Aluko and Camille Abily missing, things surely played out differently without these internationals.
Bompastor was one of the best players in WPS in 2009 and held together a Washington Freedom midfield that broke down in the opening round game against Sky Blue FC and Aluko was the primary goal scorer for Saint Louis Athletica, scoring 6 of the team’s 19 goals. She was surely missed in Athletica’s 1-0 super-semifinal loss to Sky Blue FC.
And of course the Los Angeles Sol did not go unaffected during that time, losing Abily – who accounted for eight goals in the 2009 regular season – to the French national team. Sky Blue FC parted ways with English defender Anita Asante during the playoffs, but Jen Buczkowski filled in well.
But it is tough to blame WPS in that situation. The European Championship was going to happen one way or the other and would have removed players for a significant amount of the WPS regular season or the playoffs.
While problems with overlapping international dates are not as prominent this year, there are still problems with national team commitments overlapping league play that need to be addressed in the future.
The Canadian Women’s National Team has already called its players into camp on a couple of occasions during the 2010 WPS season, including a trip to China for friendlies that most notably removed FC Gold Pride forward Christine Sinclair and Philadelphia Independence goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc from action.
Even those situations are fairly unavoidable. Teams have the right to call their players into camp and keep them sharp even for friendlies, and that is exactly what Canada did.
However, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany is approximately one year away and qualifying is in full swing.
The AFC Asian Cup has already occurred and guaranteed Australia, North Korea and Japan spots in Germany next year. That tournament pulled the likes of Boston Breakers forward Sarah Walsh (Australia), Washington Freedom midfielder Homare Sawa (Japan) and forward Lisa DeVanna (Australia) away and even caused significant injury to Walsh and DeVanna. Walsh (knee) may return before the end of the season, but DeVanna is out for the year with a broken leg, raising an entirely separate issue – a common talking point in the men’s game – of countries compensating clubs for injuries.
African (CAF) qualifying does not affect any WPS players and CONCACAF qualifying should take place in October, after the WPS playoffs. The USSF will most likely help ensure that qualifying does not overlap the WPS season, but South American (CONMEBOL) qualifying is set to begin in September – the same time as the WPS playoffs. That could mean FC Gold Pride superstar Marta will be absent from the mix, a sure blow to her team and the league.
UEFA Women’s World Cup Qualifying continues with full slates of games June 19 through June 23, which will draw several talented players away from various WPS clubs. This round of qualifying continues through late August and the final Women’s World Cup participants will not be finalized until October. That could also wreak havoc on the WPS playoffs as well.
If stars like Marta, Sonia Bompastor and Kelly Smith have to miss games down the stretch and even in the playoffs for World Cup Qualifying, coaches and fans alike will have reason to be upset. The biggest stars need to be around for the biggest games, and those are the playoffs. FIFA, the six confederations and WPS have to coordinate schedules more and FIFA must be clear about designating international play dates as they do in the men’s game.
In defense of WPS, much of this is due to a lack of organization on the end of the confederations and perhaps even a lack of stamping down authority on FIFA’s end. The specifics of some of these tournaments, including CONCACAF’s, still have not been determined. There is no way for the league to work around dates and games that still do not exist.
The dates that are very obviously already on FIFA’s calendar are about one year away. The Women’s World Cup kicks-off in Germany June 26 and runs through July 17.
Those dates cover four weekends and while WPS may not be in a position to drop off the map for a month, it certainly has to respect the fact that it’s entire core of U.S. Women’s National Team players as well as its internationals (currently around 40 after the shuffling of Saint Louis Athletica) will be in Germany.
So, with WPS being the top level of women’s soccer in the world, the league could be looking at losing upwards of 60 players to the Women’s World Cup. Currently (including players on injured reserve), there are 157 players in the league. Using the approximation that 60 players would be World Cup-bound, about 38 percent of the league’s players would go missing.
As Philadelphia Independence Head Coach Paul Riley said, with that big of an absence it is not even worth having the games.
“It hurts the league,” Riley said of players missing. “I am hoping next year with the World Cup there is some kind of break. To play these games without your five or six players – can you imagine taking off this field Lori Lindsey, Boxx, Marta, Sinclair. You take all these players off the field and it’s not worth coming to the game. So, they have to take a break next year. They have to give these players a chance even after the break – another week or so.”
FC Gold Pride Head Coach Albertin Montoya said the quality is high enough in WPS for other players to step up and there does not need to be an international break for these qualifiers.
“No, it’s difficult to take a break,” Montoya said. “There are so many quality players in this league and U.S. players that I don’t think the level is going to drop off. We have actually lost Camille (Abily) and Solveig (Gulbrandsen) a couple of times this year and also to injury, so I think every team is deep enough where they can have great games.”
But teams are not deep enough by pure numbers to deal with the hit WPS will take next summer, so something has to give. Rosters may need to be temporarily expanded or a break or light schedule needs to be put into place.
One option is even to hold an open cup between WPS, W-League and WPSL teams during the World Cup, which would keep all players sharp and allow for a more level playing field in the open cup with the absence of the world’s elite from WPS rosters.
WPS may not be able to afford disappearing for a month, but the Women’s World Cup cannot be avoided. The issue is something WPS must determine how to deal with in the best way possible.