The Women's Premier Soccer League kicks off Saturday with two new teams from Orange County, and each arrives with very singular plans for success.
The Orange County Waves, led by former L.A. Sol head coach Abner Rogers, are primarily a professional club looking toward a jump to Women's Professional Soccer -- or whatever the top tier of the American women's game evolves into.
The Los Al Vikings are designed to provide opportunities for players out of its parent club, Los Alamitos-based Viking Soccer Club, to play competitive soccer after their youth careers have ended and gain exposure from college recruiters.
That both approaches fit the national semipro/amateur league is part of the charm, and part of the problem, with the women's game in the U.S. The primary issues: dwindling popularity of female soccer as a spectator sport in the post-Mia Hamm era (while an increasing number of talented players pour from clubs across the nation) and debate over how best to present top players, from the U.S. and abroad, in a country that stretches some 3,000 miles from coast to coast.
The future, the smart observers note, is regionalization, and not the kind the WPS, in its third year, has fallen into. The country's (and maybe the world's) top league has lost five of its original teams -- the Sol was the first to go -- and, this year, is an East Coast-only affair.
Rogers, who guided the Sol into the WPS's inaugural championship game in 2009, understands the minefield that must be traversed. The burning question: How can a national women's league be profitable and meaningful?
WAVES TARGET 2012: The Waves, partnered by the Bay Area Breeze up in Dublin, were devised to be the new Sol, with a plan to rejoin WPS in 2012.
That's still the plan, sort of.
"It is, but I don't know what's going on," said Rogers, who also is founder, president and technical director of the Laguna Hills Eclipse, an elite youth soccer club. "From what I hear, the crowds aren't great, attendance is down. I really don't know. We all hope it's going to survive."
That seems unlikely in its current configuration, and when the Waves and Breeze were first unveiled last fall -- as the OC Sol and Bay Area Sol -- Rogers stressed the need for regionalization, as practiced in the WPSL and the rival national semipro/amateur W-League. That would trim debilitating travel costs and enable the growth of local and regional rivalries.
It's the only concept, many believe, that will work.
"If we could end up with a West Coast conference, a Midwest conference, an East Coast conference ... it makes more sense," Rogers said as he prepared to head north for the Waves' opener Saturday against the Breeze. "Anything I can do to make that happen, I'd be happy to."
Those discussions will have to wait. WPS is heading into its seventh weekend, and if the buzz that accompanied its debut -- or surrounded the late, great 2001-03 Women's United Soccer Association -- has waned, figuring out how to recapture it, and reassessing how things should work, will wait until the season ends in late August.
By then, the Waves, who will play home games at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, hope to be WPSL champs.
"I think any competitive player, any competitive coach, has those goals in mind," Rogers said. "One goal is to play soccer the right way. Our goal is to win our conference by doing things the right way, and for us to move on" through the playoffs.
To do so, Rogers and fellow coach Brian Boswell, lured from South Bay-based WPSL powerhouse Ajax America, have brought in four WPS vets, all locals:
Forward Kiki Bosio (Mission Viejo/Santa Margarita Catholic HS and Capistrano Valley HS), who last year played for now-defunct WPS champ FC Gold Pride (and who will play with her older sister, Dani).
Midfielder Brittany Klein (Arcadia/Arcadia HS), who has played for the Chicago Red Stars (now on hiatus) and Washington Freedom (snatched away and moved to South Florida under the name magicJack).
Midfielder Kristina Larsen (Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo HS and UCLA), formerly with Saint Louis Athletica, also defunct, and the Atlanta Beat.
Defender Jenny Anderson-Hammond (Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo HS), who played for New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC, WPS's first champion.
Other top local players are aboard, too, including former UC Irvine forward Tanya Taylor (Buena Park/Sunny Hills HS), who was drafted by the WPS's Boston Breakers in January, and Stanford-bound midfielder Haley Rosen (Rolling Hills/Palos Verdes HS), one of the team's amateurs.
VIKINGS WANT TO COMPETE: The Vikings are bringing in players from overseas -- Spanish teen Patricia Carrion Salinas, Australian forward Smez Valjanovska and midfielder Grace Gill-McGrath -- along with local prospects, but the long-term plan is all about the Viking Soccer Club.
"Youth soccer goes to U-19," explained head coach and club president Robert Kleinberger, whose team will play just across the L.A. County line in Long Beach, at Veterans Stadium and Long Beach City College. "What we wanted to do is create kind of a top-of-the-pyramid structure where our youth can, when they age out of youth and go into college, can always come back and play for us."
It's also meant to be a recruiting tool, to expose players to recruiters, and to serve, Kleinberger said, as a "steppingstone for some [junior college]-level players who want to continue to a D1 university."
It will take a couple of years, he said, before the roster can be filled with players from Viking SC, but there are plans to form a men's team to play next year in a national amateur league, and that roster will come entirely from the youth club.
"Hopefully, knock on wood, we can be competitive," Kleinberger said. "The OC Wave looks like they're going to be a real good team. Ajax has been around a long time, and they're good. And also the San Diego SeaLions. It's going to be a tough go. We're just looking to be competitive."
In addition to Ajax America, which plays at Nansen Field in Rolling Hills Estates, there are two other L.A.-area teams: Los Angeles Premier FC, which plays at La Caņada High School, and Claremont Stars, who call Claremont High School home.