WPS suspension a setback for women's soccer
Really? Is this where we are with women's soccer?
If it weren't indeed where the sport was at, I might find it strangely entertaining. It's kinda like watching "Taxicab Confessions" because you don't know what is going to come out of people's/owners'/players' mouths next. Players tweeting profanity at an owner and that owner tweeting nonsense back. Owners quibbling in the boardroom. League sources blaming the demise on lawsuits, diverted resources, sanctioning setbacks.
There is understandably lots of blame to be tossed around after the WPS suspended operations Monday, so let's continue the buzz kill not even 24 hours after the U.S. team celebrated its Olympic qualifying tournament victory that secured a trip to London.
A large portion (read: 99.9 percent) of that blame is being placed on magicJack owner Dan Borislow, whose ownership rights were suspended by the WPS in October. This has led to a legal battle, with Borislow suing WPS. The league said from the beginning it did not have the funds to sustain a long fight in court.
But Borislow is hardly the WPS' only problem. Let's not forget the reality of the situation for Women's Professional Soccer as the league was set to go into the 2012 season:
WPS was down to five teams, all on the East Coast. The "national footprint" for professional women's soccer was now regional. The Los Angeles Sol, Saint Louis Athletica, Northern California's FC Gold Pride and the Chicago Red Stars had all folded since the league's inception in 2009. Borislow bought the Washington Freedom when they were on the brink of folding in 2010 and moved the team to Florida.
In December 2011, the sanctioning body for soccer in the United States, the U.S. Soccer Federation, asked the WPS to provide some type of assurance that "minimum standards" were being met in respect to player salaries, trainers, facilities, operations, etc. The remaining teams had shrinking resources and shrinking sponsors (never a good combination). The uncertainty of the 2012 season being sanctioned was certainly an issue, but that sanctioning requirement is part of the process in any pro league. U.S. Soccer would have done the same, but earlier, to a men's pro soccer league if it had shown such issues.
Add to that the fact that arguably the top three stars -- Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Christie Rampone -- probably weren't going to play for WPS teams this year. Wambach, who played for magicJack last season, publicly and sometimes profusely supported Borislow, who for his part had created such a stir that other owners had publicly declared they would rather suspend operations than partner with him as an owner.
The ultimate irony? Having no league is actually better for the U.S. national team as it prepares for the Olympics. The players control their training, travel and preparation schedule. No more shuttling between clubs and countries. No more challenges about when they would be asked to come into camp. No more questions about medical care and quality of trainers.
But those are short-term gains for a select few. What are the long-term repercussions? Many players will fall through the cracks and pursue careers that don't have soccer in the equation. The national player pool will diminish. The number of meaningful games will decrease.
The thing that saddens me most is the league was coming off such a high from the summer. It was entertaining, competitive and showing signs of a potential fan base post-Women's World Cup. Sure, sustaining a league at a local level is a much different task than supporting quadrennial international tournaments, but I argue there is a loyal women's soccer fan base that could support a pro league. And there are owners out there who could sustain losses for longer stretches and watch it turn a corner. There is a business model that could work.
I believe all this even after having lived through two failed soccer leagues. The ups and downs of women's pro leagues are painful at times, but hey, as we always used to say on the national team, good pain is hard to find.
I refuse to believe that women's pro soccer can't make it in this country. Call me hopelessly optimistic, I don't care. We will figure it out one day. And believe me, when we do, millions of young girls and boys will be grateful we did.