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MLS women's model a nice dream, but don't get too excited

With the 2011 Major League Soccer season now underway, it is an appropriate time to take a look at the potential for more cross-promotion between MLS and Women’s Professional Soccer.

There is a lot of buzz about the potential for a Vancouver Whitecaps team in WPS, which could create the first WPS team run by an MLS team.  While talks between Vancouver and WPS have gained traction in the media if nowhere else, few seem to realize that Vancouver’s plans have been in place for some time.  The degree of public interest and the Whitecaps’ ability to spend time speaking with WPS is what has changed recently.

The prospect of Vancouver entering WPS first surfaced in 2009, when Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi said the club would not look to make the jump from the W-League, the top amateur women’s league, to WPS until it handled the considerable task of moving its USL team up to MLS.

“Soccer is a tough enough business to manage one league and with the expectations of MLS and USL, we’ve got a lot going on right now,” Lenarduzzi told The Equalizer in June 2009. “If we are in a place where we have had success with MLS in 2011, then there would be room to look at WPS.”

That move to MLS will officially be completed Saturday when Vancouver hosts Toronto at Empire Field, allowing the Whitecaps to turn at least some attention to WPS.  Those talks increased over the summer, although an uncertain offseason that saw WPS lose FC Gold Pride and the Chicago Red Stars did not help.

What is now possible in Vancouver is the first-ever MLS-run Women’s Professional Soccer franchise.  It is a model that some have been arguing for adamantly over the years, but it is far from reality on a league-wide level.

The fact is, despite MLS and WPS being informal partners, MLS as a whole has no interest in WPS.  And that is not an endictment of MLS, either.  The league has its own problems to worry about as it continues to grow its brand and it does not have the time to take on the burden of a women’s league that most non-WPS faithful view as an absolute mess after four teams disappeared in two years.

So, in short, the cries for a ‘Women’s MLS’ run by the country’s top men’s league are off-base.  That won’t happen at any point in the near future, if ever.  Where opportunities lie are with individual clubs committed to the women’s game.  That is where Vancouver leads the way and could become a valuable asset to WPS.  With a sturdy ownership group in Vancouver, new facilities in place and a winning tradition as Canada’s women’s team (essentially the club destination for the Canadian Women’s National Team).

Should more men’s clubs like Vancouver make more of a commitment to the women’s game, that would add another type of ownership group to the diverse set of WPS owners.  WPS currently features owners simply investing in the women’s game as well as two teams – magicJack and the Western New York Flash – that are also extensions of corporate brands.

Now there is the opportunity for the first true U.S. clubs to emerge – clubs that feature top flight men’s and women’s teams along with youth teams.  But that will not happen across the board.  The Seattle Sounders are the most likely to take that leap other than Vancouver and are critical to the Whitecaps moving to WPS.  Vancouver will not enter WPS as the team out on a figurative island in an East Coast league.

The most logical places to see men’s and women’s teams under the same umbrella are NASL and USL-PRO cities, which have comparable budgets, facilities and attendance expectations.  More partnerships between Division II men’s soccer and WPS make sense logistically, but D-2 men’s soccer is even less suited to handle any partnerships given its unsteady times.

So enjoy the kick-off of Major League Soccer’s 16th season (which started in Seattle on Tuesday when the LA Galaxy topped the Sounders 1-0) and revel in the fact that the Whitecaps are interested in WPS.  Just don’t expect to see a women’s offshoot of MLS any time soon.  WPS is its own venture, for better or worse.

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