The third attempt at a women's professional league is nearly here. Maura Gladys examines how it might affect the United States national team and finds both positives and negatives.
November 28, 2012
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Last Wednesday's announcement that the United States Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association, and the Mexican Football Federation will offer significant funding in support of another attempt at a women’s pro soccer in the U.S. made clear: The desire to build a viable league is constant and inevitable.
The announcement was a confirmation that if women’s pro soccer isn’t being played already, it’s just around the corner, and that whenever a league fails, it’s only a matter of time before a plan is in place for another launch. You can interpret that persistence however you like: as dogged optimism and belief in the importance of the game, as continuous poor business and marketing moves, as an incomplete understanding of the gap between the USWNT fan base and grassroots women’s soccer fans, or a muddy combination of all three. But wherever you land, it's becoming clearer that we will not be without women’s domestic soccer—or at the very least, the idea of it—for the near future.
This yet-to-be-named iteration will launch next spring and feature eight teams spread out across Boston, western New York, New Jersey, Washington, Kansas City, Chicago, Portland, and Seattle. U.S. Soccer will fund 24 players, while Canada will fund 16 and Mexico will fund 12-16, emphasizing direct national team growth and progress. With this twist, Sunil Gulati and U.S. Soccer acknowledged that pro soccer will succeed if the national team succeeds, and that the league should be molded around national team goals, rather than expecting the national team’s success to foster fans for the domestic league.
The announcement marked an ideological step forward, with U.S. Soccer taking the lead rather than investors and dreamers. However, the league will also have very real consequences on the U.S. women’s national team, both positive and negative.
Most immediately, it will provide a strong training and competition base for core national team players, allowing them to try out new roles and embrace leadership opportunities not afforded on the national team. Younger players like Kelley O’Hara and Tobin Heath who have undergone position changes on the national team can refine their skills in real game competition without the pressure of being on the national team stage, while others like Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan, and Rachel Buehler can hone their leadership skills as the more veteran USWNTers inch towards retirement. It’s also a good environment for struggling players to work themselves back into starting lineup conversations. Amy Rodriguez thrived in the final two seasons of the WPS and could use any kind of boost to reinvigorate her national team career.
“All of the people we interviewed at the national team position said the best way to take this program forward long-term is to have a league,” Gulati told reporters in a conference call with the media announcing the league. “The best way long-term to develop is in a league format where the challenges are every day.”
The biggest potential pitfall for the league could be the factor that is propelling it: U.S. Soccer’s funding. The economic model, which is unprecedented and extremely unique, could create a divide between players. Not a lot is known about how the 24 players will be selected, but if some of the older players like Shannon Boxx, Lori Lindsey, or Heather Mitts, or younger players like Christine Nairn, Kristie Mewis, or Whitney Engen, don’t receive one of U.S. Soccer’s golden tickets, they could opt for retirement or playing opportunities in Europe, respectively. That scenario might dilute the playing pool and could cause rifts on the national team between players who do and do not benefit from the funding. (That said, having U.S. Soccer pay 24 players is a positive step.)
One of the main priorities for the league is to put the U.S., Mexico, and Canada on track to perform at their peak for the 2015 World Cup. As a result, the already flourishing rivalry between the U.S. and Canada will grow. The only downside? Expect to be reminded of the potential U.S. vs. Canada in Canada '15 clash at every possible juncture.
There are positives and negatives to the new league, but the fact is that it will soon become a reality. The level of play will go a long way towards determining whether it succeeds or not. During the announcement, Gulati was positive about the level of play, although his statements allude to the fact that some of the world’s best talent, including Brazil’s Marta and Japan’s Aya Miyama, may not be involved.
“You’re going to see a lot of top players,” he said. “There’s no doubt there will be top players coming from elsewhere. Whether it’s the same level and same number of players previously, I don’t want to confirm that. It may well be that some players on these rosters aren’t doing this on a full-time basis, at least in the offseason so they might have a part-time job, or they might be at grad school or whatever else it might be.”
Most of the players have been mum about the league, but Abby Wambach did offer up some cautious optimism.
“We can't be too concerned at this point,” the forward told
Jeff Carlisle. “We just have to be positive-minded that this league will be good enough for the national team players to participate in. I think we all saw at the most recent World Cup and the Olympic tournament that the level of women's soccer internationally is getting better and better. We have to keep the national team on top.”
Overall, this league is good for the game. Compelling stories will emerge, and the league ensures that women’s pro soccer in the U.S. will continue, as it always will.
Maura Gladys works in production for KICKTV. She also runs the goalkeeping blog All You Need Is Glove.