The future is not looking bright for Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) in the United States. The pro league has dropped down to just five teams with October's disqualification of Florida's bungled magicJack franchise (the old Washington Freedom of the WPS, and WUSA, its predecessor league). At the moment, U.S. Soccer, the sport's governing body in the U.S., is dragging its heels in granting the waiver WPS needs to operate a Division 1 league with fewer than eight teams. For various reasons, national team players like the newly famous and semi-famous Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan, and Hope Solo aren't likely to play in a noncertified or Division 2 league, and discussed new teams in Connecticut and even Detroit aren't likely to manifest before the early December deadline U.S. Soccer has placed on the league.
The possible, perhaps even probable, demise of the WPS after three seasons would leave the United States without a pro soccer league and no place for soccer-playing American girls to make their athletic careers. But letting the league go is also a questionable long-term strategy for U.S. Soccer and the growth of the women's game. The U.S. made a thrilling run to the World Cup final this summer in Germany, but buried beneath the excitement was the fact that the penalty-kick showdown against Japan came about largely on a wing and a prayer. U.S. women's soccer has work to do, and the league has proved to be a feeder to the U.S. women's national team, helping to make players like Wambach and Shannon Boxx into valuable national-team mainstays.
"[R]esidency with 40 players, or camps just can't cut it anymore. technically, tactically, etc. against teams playing year round," tweeted Kate Markgraf, who, as Kate Sobrero, was a longtime national team defender. "Start-ups take time to grow, have obstacles to overcome, and then if you hold on tight enough, become something sustainable." U.S. Soccer, though, seems comfortable letting women's soccer lay fallow between international competitions like the World Cup and the Olympics. (Note to political types: This is how, for many years, the Democrats "ran" the Democratic National Committee.)
No one involved in women's soccer wants a pity league. But this league might need a different, more patient commitment than men's pro soccer has required. Major League Soccer, the men's professional league, has found some of its most passionate fans in immigrant and immigrant-rooted populations, and those communities generally don't have the same support for women playing soccer as they do for men playing soccer. Little girls, who make up much of WPS's audience, haven't had the opportunity to cultivate the habit of going to games or rooting for their favorite team. The professionalization of women's soccer might require slow growth, but time isn't in abundance at the moment. That said, there is a 6,700-signature Change.org petition asking for U.S. Soccer to grant the WPS an exemption to play, for now, with just a handful of teams. And there's still a chance that someone will swoop in with plans for more viable teams in the next few days.
Perhaps those lottery-winning Greenwich bankers have an interest in women's footie...