When people talk about growing the game in the U.S. there is the common misperception that the only issue we need to address is that of MLS. Fans need to realize that for soccer to grow we must also acknowledge the challenges and potential of the women’s side of the game.
“I like that soccer is growing in this country, it’s a beautiful thing. We’re part of something that’s much bigger than ourselves. And that in itself is inspiring.
“It makes you want to continue to work. It makes all those sacrifices worth it.”
Abby Wambach on the state of the game in the US while speaking at FIFA’s annual awards gala in Zurich recently.
The beauty of soccer is its inclusiveness and simplicity. It provides an even playing field for both sexes -which is no more evident than when they first start playing as juniors – taking to the field and learning the fundamentals of the game together.
Obviously growing up this situation changes, but the pathways for women in soccer should ultimately remain the same – creating opportunities for the best players in the country to perform on a national stage. Right?
The answer should be a no-brainer, but there are many things that are not being realized by the wider soccer fraternity here in the U.S. While the women’s team continues to be one of the most successful US sporting teams ever, the state of the domestic league is one of uncertainty and concern which (in an ironic twist) could be a direct result of being overshadowed by the ongoing achievements of the national team.
It’s a classic duck in water scenario. The duck looks the picture of calmness on the top, assuredly gliding across the water with confidence and poise. But take a look below the surface and that very same duck is frantically moving its legs just to keep afloat.
The U.S. are the current number one ranked women’s team in the world, two time winners of the World Cup, current and three time Olympic gold medalists . Players like Hope Solo are even appearing on top rating TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars.
So why is the domestic side of the game floundering? The WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer), the top-tier pro league that has featured stars such as Marta, Kelly Smith, Abby Wambach and part-time dancer, full-time goalkeeper Solo – starts its fourth season with just five teams.
It’s scary to think that the 2012 season nearly didn’t happen. The U.S. Soccer Federation approved a special waiver at the last minute to let WPS operate this year, on the condition it expands to at least six teams in 2013 and eight in 2014.
WPS was founded in 2007 and began as a seven-team league in 2009, yet higher than expected losses and decreasing attendance has seen five franchises fold over the first three seasons. To this moment, star players such as Solo and Wambach remain free agents and with confidence in the league at an all-time low it is difficult to see how the league will meet the new demands imposed on it by U.S. Soccer in time for season 5.
While we cannot point a finger, or single out a reason as to why the league has declined in such a short space of time, we can look overseas for comparisons and possible answers.
The Australian W-League which was founded in 2008, is in a similar position to WPS. Formed to provide the women’s game with a top tier competition, this 7 team league sees all franchises linked to its equivalent team in the men’s A-League competition. These partnerships together with similar ones established with the relevant state institute (for junior development) and the state’s soccer association provide a stronger structure for women’s clubs and more developmental pathways for its juniors.
Having a women’s team linked with MLS clubs (but not wholly owned by those franchises) can lead to shared marketing, shared resources and with the possibility of WPS teams playing as the curtain raiser to MLS games – we will begin to see more exposure for the WPS and most importantly the local teams.
So where do we draw a line in the sand? At the international level, women’s soccer has never been stronger. The 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany attracted about 850,000 fans to 32 matches, for an average attendance of more than 26,400, and the tournament will expand from 16 national teams to 24 teams when it’s held in Canada in 2015.
With this in mind – shouldn’t we be focusing on helping the WPS and Women’s soccer in the U.S. head to the 2015 World Cup on the foundations of a successful tier-one association? We have no doubt that the WPS (or whatever form it takes in the future) can be an unheralded success and the best women’s professional league in the world.
With 90 days until WPS version 4 kicks off, we are encouraging fans to spread the message about the league, the current teams and professional women’s soccer in general. Women’s soccer shouldn’t be the elephant in the room – it should be front and center of growing the game in the U.S.
Line drawn – game on!